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Lawmakers Hold Confirmation Hearing For Stephen Biegun To Be State Department's No. 2


President Trump calls the impeachment inquiry, quote, "phony and a hoax," but he says he would love to have Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testify anyway. Well, here's what Pompeo said about that today.


MIKE POMPEO: When the time is right, all good things happen.

CHANG: Pompeo was also keeping close to his vest a decision on whether to run for an open U.S. Senate seat in Kansas. He still has time to jump into that race, but he'll need a deputy secretary of state to be confirmed and positioned to fill in if he leaves the department. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports lawmakers are working on that.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: While the impeachment hearings were happening on one part of Capitol Hill last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was hearing from Stephen Biegun, the man tapped to be the next deputy secretary of state. Ranking Democrat Senator Bob Menendez laid out why that hearing was so important.


BOB MENENDEZ: Given the expectation that Secretary Pompeo will leave the department early next year to run for Senate - and that if confirmed, you will be the acting secretary of state for quite some time - your nomination takes on even greater significance.

KELEMEN: Biegun is well-known in foreign policy circles in Washington. He's worked on Capitol Hill in the National Security Council and has long experience in Russia, where he once ran democracy programs for the International Republican Institute. It was in Moscow when he first met Marie Yovanovitch, the ambassador who was ousted from Ukraine this year.


STEPHEN BIEGUN: I know her. We're not close. I haven't seen her in many, many years. But we worked together when she was in Moscow as a young political officer.

KELEMEN: Biegun stopped short of criticizing either the secretary of state or the president for recalling Yovanovitch from Ukraine, a matter that's under investigation in the impeachment inquiry. But he did say this.


BIEGUN: My esteem has done nothing except grow for her. It is clear to me that an outside party based in Ukraine slandered her.

KELEMEN: A former ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, wrote to the secretary of state at the time of that disinformation campaign. He never heard back from Pompeo, but he was pleased to hear what Biegun had to say.

STEVEN PIFER: It seems to me that there may have been ways that the department could have spoken out to defend its people that would not have been seen as a direct challenge to the president, and that's where I wonder if Steve might have some ideas on that that could help the department be more supportive of its officers.

KELEMEN: Biegun is currently the lead negotiator on North Korea, and he would keep that job if confirmed as deputy secretary of state. The deputy also plays a key role in personnel matters. Pifer thinks Biegun will do a good job with that.

PIFER: Although he hasn't spent a lot of time in the State Department, he's worked with the State Department from the National Security Council from Capitol Hill. I just think he's going to be the right person who can come in and has both policy sense but I think is also going to bring in a good feel for what the department needs at this particularly difficult time.

KELEMEN: Morale has taken a hit at the State Department, where the inspector general has reported on cases of political retribution against career staff. Biegun says he won't inject politics into his work.


BIEGUN: There will not be disciplinary action by the State Department against any of our employees who are testifying under subpoena in front of the House Inquiry Commission. The State Department has gone further. We have provided resources to underwrite the legal costs that those people may acquire in the course of this inquiry.

KELEMEN: And he says the department has made it possible for employees to come back to Washington to testify.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.