Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday declined to vigorously defend a diplomat in President Donald Trump's crosshairs in the impeachment inquiry but said he was "proud" of the State Department.
Pompeo, who has managed for nearly three years to preserve a warm relationship with the mercurial president, is walking a tightrope as diplomats are called to appear before Congress.
Questioned by reporters, Pompeo declined to address Trump's tweet disparaging Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, just as she was addressing lawmakers Friday.
"I'll defer to the White House about particular statements and the like," Pompeo said.
But Pompeo defended his own record, after heated criticism from former diplomats that he has not stood up for the State Department.
"I always defend State Department employees. It's the greatest diplomatic corps in the history of the world. Very proud of the team," he said.
Pompeo also suggested that he understood the reasons for Yovanovitch's abrupt removal in May.
"There's some ideas out there that somehow this change was designed to enable some nefarious purpose," Pompeo said.
Trump during Friday's hearing tweeted that "everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad," causing widespread consternation in the room with the former ambassador calling the president's intervention "very intimidating."
Trump's bond with Pompeo, who faithfully and vocally defends his foreign policy, has long been seen as unbreakable.
But NBC News, quoting anonymous officials, reported Monday that the president has been fuming that Pompeo is responsible for hiring officials who have testified and for not preventing them from speaking to Congress.
Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry over allegations he withheld US military aid so he could press Ukraine to dig up dirt on domestic rival Joe Biden.
According to the White House, Trump told Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, by telephone that "that woman" -- Yovanovitch -- was "bad news" and that she was "going to go through some things."
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