State Dept. official describes frantic effort to save recalled Ukraine ambassador

State Dept. official describes frantic effort to save recalled Ukraine ambassador
© Getty

A top State Department official told impeachment investigators in newly released testimony about a frantic but unsuccessful effort among senior diplomats to save the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine from a politically motivated smear campaign launched by allies of President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE.

Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of European and Eurasian Affairs, testified privately last month that a “media storm” of negative but “highly inaccurate” stories targeting Marie YovanovitchMarie YovanovitchGrand jury adds additional counts against Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and and Igor Fruman Strzok: Trump behaving like an authoritarian Powell backs Biden at convention as Democrats rip Trump on security MORE led to her recall from Kyiv in May, even as veteran State officials sought “a formal statement from the department” in her defense.

"There would be no statement," Reeker told investigators, according to a transcript of his testimony released Tuesday by Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry into Trump. "We would continue to use the press guidance that we had that had been cleared."

ADVERTISEMENT

While his Oct. 26 testimony contained few new details surrounding the campaign to oust Yovanovitch, it supported the narrative delivered by a number of other veteran diplomats testifying in the impeachment investigation who have painted a graphic picture of efforts by Trump’s allies — led by his personal lawyer Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiThe Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting CIA found Putin 'probably directing' campaign against Biden: report Democrats fear Russia interference could spoil bid to retake Senate MORE — to go after Yovanovitch, a career diplomat described by Reeker as “one of the foreign service great leaders.”

“There was a lot of unhappiness – without anything explicit, because we were speaking on open lines – there was unhappiness from the White House that Ambassador Yovanovitch was still there, and the belief that she needed to come back,” Reeker testified, relaying a conversation with State Department counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl in April.

Reeker testified that the public effort to target Yovanovitch began weeks earlier with a column from John Solomon, a conservative opinion writer formerly with The Hill, who had interviewed Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s top prosecutor at the time. Lutsenko told Solomon that Yovanovitch had given him a list of figures he was not to prosecute, even as U.S. policy sought to rein in corruption in a country well known for it.

Both Yovanovitch and the State Department have denied the allegation, and Lutsenko has since walked it back.

Reeker dismissed it as an outright fabrication.

“He ultimately recanted that,” Reeker said of Lutsenko. “There was never anything to suggest this.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Nonetheless, the charge caught fire in the conservative press, attracting the attention of Trump’s allies and stirring more stories in the right-wing media. Reeker said Yovanovitch's ouster later in May was a blow to the department’s anti-corruption efforts on the whole.

“Ambassador Yovanovitch was subjected to just really outrageous press coverage and innuendo and threats coming from high levels, retweeting irresponsible journalism, which affected her personally, her safety, affected our mission, reflected on the United States, and it was pretty outrageous,” he said.

The details of Reeker’s testimony arrive as Democrats are shifting gears in their impeachment inquiry into Trump’s handling of foreign policy in Kyiv. After more than a month of closed-door depositions and two weeks of public hearings, the process will shift next week to the House Judiciary Committee, which is charged with the crucial decision of whether the investigation has turned up evidence meriting Trump’s removal from office. 

A government whistleblower has charged that Trump abused his power over the summer in withholding U.S. military aid to Kyiv for the purpose of pressuring Ukrainian leaders to open a pair of investigations that might have helped him politically: one into whether Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections and another into former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Joe Biden should enact critical government reforms if he wins MORE, whose son previously sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

Reeker testified that it was the “understanding” of the State Department that the hold on military aid had originated with Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyOn The Money: House panel pulls Powell into partisan battles | New York considers hiking taxes on the rich | Treasury: Trump's payroll tax deferral won't hurt Social Security Blockchain trade group names Mick Mulvaney to board Mick Mulvaney to start hedge fund MORE, Trump’s acting chief of staff, and that Giuliani was fueling the narrative that Kyiv was undeserving of the funds by “feeding the president a lot of very negative views about Ukraine.” 

“What we sensed was a very negative stream coming from Mr. Giuliani to the president,” he said.

The Ukraine meddling theory has been widely debunked, not least by a host of U.S. intelligence agencies that found Russia to be the culprit. Yet Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoWatchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump Trump's push for win with Sudan amps up pressure on Congress  Putin nominated for Nobel Peace Prize MORE said Tuesday that there are legitimate reasons to pursue Trump’s suspicions that Kyiv — not Moscow — was behind the interference. 

“Anytime there is information that indicates that any country has messed with American elections, we not only have a right but a duty to make sure we chase that down,” Pompeo said during a press conference. 

On Tuesday, Democrats leading the impeachment investigation also released the transcript of an interview with Mark Sandy, a senior official at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), who had testified behind closed doors on Nov. 16.

In his testimony, Sandy appeared to further link the president to claims that he directly ordered nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to be withheld as leverage to get Kyiv to open the two politically motivated investigations.

The official said the hold began to grip individuals in OMB, enough to motivate two staff members to resign in part because of their frustration with the aid being withheld. One such person was an OMB lawyer, Sandy said.

“This person expressed to me concerns about actions vis-à-vis the Impoundment Control Act,” Sandy testified, adding that the lawyer said she had resigned in part because of the terms of the hold on Ukraine security assistance.

But like other witnesses who testified, Sandy said he was not given a reason for the aid hold.

The career civil servant said he was informed of the Ukraine hold in a July 12 email from Robert Blair, his supervisor, who served as a senior adviser to Mulvaney. Sandy said he was told that the president “is directing a hold on military support funding for Ukraine.”

Sandy testified that OMB began the process of implementing the hold on July 25, which fueled much concern and frustration in the office.

The move came a month after Mike Duffey, another one of Sandy's superiors, informed him in a June email that Trump had expressed “an interest in getting more information from the Department of Defense” regarding the security assistance program. 

Sandy described the circumstances as unusual and said he brought his concerns to Duffey to tell him that if the funds were held too long, they could expire on Sept. 30, which would possibly “be a violation of the Impoundment Control Act.” 

The funds were released Sept. 11.