Trump's Russia ambassador pick says he knew of Giuliani 'campaign' against ex-Ukraine envoy

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told lawmakers Wednesday that he was aware of a “campaign” against the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine by President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice says it will recommend Trump veto FISA bill Fauci: Nominating conventions may be able to go on as planned Poll: Biden leads Trump by 11 points nationally MORE’s personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiSunday shows preview: States begin to reopen even as some areas in US see case counts increase Moussaoui says he now renounces terrorism, bin Laden Democrats launch probe into Trump's firing of State Department watchdog, Pompeo MORE over the summer, corroborating parts of the ex-ambassador’s private testimony in the impeachment inquiry.

“My knowledge in the spring and summer of this year about any involvement of Mr. Giuliani was in connection with a campaign against our ambassador to Ukraine,” Sullivan said under questioning from Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation Hillicon Valley: Trump threatens Michigan, Nevada over mail-in voting | Officials call for broadband expansion during pandemic | Democrats call for investigation into Uber-Grubhub deal Senate chairman schedules vote on Trump nominee under investigation MORE (D-N.J.) during his confirmation hearing to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Russia.

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Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted as U.S ambassador to Ukraine in late April, told House lawmakers in closed-door testimony earlier this month that Sullivan informed her she was recalled from her position in Ukraine because Trump had lost confidence in her.

Yovanovitch also said that she was told by Sullivan that there had been a "concerted campaign" against her since Summer 2018 but that she had done nothing wrong, according to her written opening statement.

Pressed Wednesday on the details surrounding Yovanovitch’s dismissal, Sullivan repeated that it was because the president had lost confidence in her. He added that he asked why that was the case, and was not given a specific reason.

“My experience has been that when the president loses confidence in an ambassador, no matter what the reason, that the president’s confidence in his ambassador in a capital is the coin of the realm, the most important thing for that ambassador,” Sullivan told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sullivan also said that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoGrassley: White House 'failed to address' if there was a 'good reason' for IG firings Overnight Defense: Pentagon watchdog sidelined by Trump resigns | Plan would reportedly bring troops in Afghanistan back by Election Day | Third service member dies from COVID-19 Ex-Pompeo staffers asked to sign letter against 'smear campaign' MORE sought to push back on the campaign against Yovanovitch but eventually decided they needed to recall her because of Trump’s loss of confidence. 

“The secretary in turn had pushed back and sought justification from those who were criticizing Ambassador Yovanovitch,” Sullivan testified. 

“After several months had elapsed, the Secretary finally told me that there had come a point when the President had lost confidence in the Ambassador and we needed to make a change to our mission in Ukraine.” 

Sullivan also told lawmakers that he became aware of a packet of information about Yovanovitch that was supplied to the State Department counsel. He said it was told he came from “someone at the White House” but that he didn’t know who was responsible for producing the packet.

“It didn’t provide, to me, a basis for us taking action against our ambassador,” Sullivan said of the packet. But he said “to be cautious” he asked the Justice Department or the State Department inspector general to look at the materials.

The State Department inspector general furnished the documents, which sought to bolster unproven allegations against former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenProsecutor investigating whether Tara Reade gave false testimony as expert witness Poll: Biden leads Trump by 11 points nationally George Floyd's sister says Minneapolis officers should be charged with murder MORE,  to Congress earlier this month. Democrats have described them as “propaganda” and “disinformation.” Giuliani told NBC News earlier this month that he gave the information to Pompeo and that he was told State would look into them.

Sullivan told lawmakers Wednesday that Pompeo had not read the packet. A source with knowledge told The Hill in early October that Pompeo “never promised Rudy Giuliani that he would investigate the contents of the envelope or anything related to Ukraine.”

Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, was recalled from her post in Ukraine in May, around the same time Giuliani acknowledged he was pursuing information in Ukraine that could be damaging to President Trump’s political rivals.

Her dismissal came under fresh scrutiny following the release of a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump asked him to “look into” Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings with Ukraine. 

On the call, Trump describes Yovanovitch as “bad news” and was “going to go through some things.” Zelensky told Trump that he agreed Yovanovitch was a “bad ambassador,” according to the White House memo.

Sullivan said Wednesday he did not know what Trump meant when he called Yovanovitch “bad news.”

Trump told reporters on the day of Yovanovitch’s testimony that he didn’t know her, sidestepping a question about whether he put pressure to have her removed as ambassador to Ukraine.

“She may be very much a wonderful woman.  If you remember the phone call I had with the President — the new President — he didn’t speak favorably.  But I just don’t know her. She may be a wonderful woman,” Trump said, referencing his phone call with Zelensky at the center of the House impeachment inquiry.

Trump has repeatedly defended his call with Zelensky as “perfect,” disputing allegations raised by an intelligence community whistleblower that he was soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election by asking Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Trump has insisted his efforts were about fighting “corruption” and had nothing to do with politics. 

Sullivan defended Trump during the hearing on Wednesday, saying the president was interested in fighting corruption in Ukraine. He also told that it would go against American values to solicit foreign interference in investigating a political opponent. 

“Soliciting investigations into a domestic political opponent, I don’t think that would be in accord with our values,” Sullivan said. 

Ukraine policy was brought up multiple times in the course of Sullivan’s confirmation hearing, particularly in the context of Russian intervention in Crimea. He was also asked multiple times about matters related to the House impeachment inquiry into Trump’s contacts with Ukraine. 

Several witnesses have testified in connection with the House impeachment inquiry, describing an unusual second channel directing foreign policy toward Ukraine that included Giuliani, former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt VolkerKurt VolkerGOP senators request details on Hunter Biden's travel for probe Yovanovitch retires from State Department: reports Live coverage: Senators enter second day of questions in impeachment trial MORE, Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Ernest Moniz Trump issues executive order to protect power grid from attack Why we need to transition, quickly, from fossil fuels to clean energy MORE and U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.

The State Department has also sought to block witnesses from testifying voluntarily, causing House committees to issue subpoenas to compel their appearance. Sullivan said Wednesday that the department did so at the direction of the White House and on advice from White House and State Department counsels. 

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Sullivan said Wednesday it wouldn’t be unusual to have officials outside the State Department working on foreign policy, noting Perry’s participation would be relevant given his work on energy issues with Ukraine.

However, Sullivan said that it would be problematic to have more than one channel working on foreign policy, saying it creates difficulty for the secretary of State in maintaining control over it.

“I think we normally assume everyone is pursuing the same policies when we have different channels of communications to a country,” said Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenThis week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting Open Skies withdrawal throws nuclear treaty into question GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill MORE (D-N.H.) 

“That’s a problem when there are multiple parties involved and it’s a challenge I think for any secretary of State to maintain control over U.S. foreign policy in any government, even within the U.S. government,” Sullivan said, citing disagreements between cabinet secretaries over policy decisions during the Bush era.

“It’s a challenge for the secretary of state to maintain control over that policy in any administration,” Sullivan said.