Pompeo meets Pope Francis as impeachment roils US

This handout picture taken and released on October 3, 2019 by Vatican Media shows Pope Francis (R) shaking hands with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before their meeting at the Vatican. (VATICAN MEDIA / AFP)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met privately with Pope Francis and visited his ancestral home in southern Italy on Thursday as the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump roiled Washington.

On a day when a former special envoy for Ukraine was due to be interviewed in the impeachment probe, Pompeo appeared to be seeking some respite from the growing storm back home with his low-key schedule.

But Pompeo has become increasingly drawn into the drama, and on Wednesday he confirmed for the first time that he listened in on the July phone call between Trump and Ukraine's president that is at the center of the impeachment drive by House Democrats.

There was no indication that Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, sought any type of spiritual solace from Pope Francis during their meeting, which took place on the third day of his visit to Italy, the first stop of a four-nation tour of Europe.

In a brief statement, the State Department said Pompeo's meeting with the pope focused on promoting religious freedom, particularly protecting vulnerable Christian communities in the Middle East, democracy and human rights. The Vatican confirmed the meeting took place but offered no details.

Afterward, Pompeo made the two-hour drive from Rome to Pacentro, in Italy's Abruzzo region. Pompeo's paternal grandfather came from the small town of roughly 1,000 residents, where locals say his last living relative died some 30 years ago.

Pompeo's celebration of his Italian heritage came just hours before the former special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, was to appear for a closed-door interview with House investigators.

Volker, who put Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in contact with a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, resigned last week a day after his name appeared in the whistleblower complaint that sparked the impeachment inquiry.

Giuliani has said he was pressing Ukrainian officials to investigate the son of one of Trump's political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, for corruption over his dealings with a Ukrainian energy company. Giuliani has shown text messages with Volker that he says prove the State Department was aware of and endorsed his push.

But current and former US officials tell a different story. They say Volker was seeking to disentangle Giuliani's efforts from the administration's broader Ukraine policy, which is to promote counter-corruption efforts and help the country defend itself from Russian-backed separatists in its east.

Pompeo on Wednesday mentioned Volker's role when he acknowledged participating in the Trump-Zekenskiy phone call during which Trump sought "a favour" from his Ukrainian counterpart.

Pompeo would not say if he thought there was anything improper about the conversation but said it took place in the context of longstanding US policy toward Ukraine.

"It's what our team, including Ambassador Volker, what we're focused on," he said.

"Taking down the threat that Russia poses there in Ukraine. It was about helping the Ukrainians to get graft out and corruption outside of their government."

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