Ex-Rep. Livingston pressed for Ukraine ambassador's firing, says witness

A foreign service officer assigned to the White House says former GOP Rep. Robert Livingston (La.), now a powerful lobbyist, repeatedly urged that then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch be fired, according to a copy of the officer's opening statement obtained by The Hill.

The officer, Catherine Croft, is testifying Wednesday behind closed doors to lawmakers on three panels running the House impeachment inquiry. 

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In her testimony, Croft says that Livingston, who nearly became the Speaker in 1998 after then-Speaker Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (R-Ga.) stepped down, repeatedly pressed her to fire Yovanovitch when she worked for the National Security Council.

"During my time at the NSC, I received multiple calls from lobbyist Robert Livingston, who told me that Ambassador Yovanovitch should be fired," her opening statement says. 

“He characterized Ambassador Yovanovitch as an ‘Obama holdover’ and associated with George Soros,” Croft's statement says. “It was not clear to me at the time — or now — at whose direction or at whose expense Mr. Livingston was seeking the removal of Ambassador Yovanovitch.”

Croft's statement says she informed two officials of the calls: Fiona Hill, the senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council at the time, and State Department Ukraine expert George Kent. 

The New York Times first reported the content of Croft's opening statement.

Stepping out of the deposition room Wednesday morning, Rep. Debbie Wasserman SchultzDeborah (Debbie) Wasserman SchultzVA initiates process to remove headstones with Nazi symbols Overnight Defense: Trump extends deployment of National Guard troops to aid with coronavirus response | Pentagon considers reducing quarantine to 10 days | Lawmakers push for removal of Nazi headstones from VA cemeteries VA secretary stops short of agreeing to remove Nazi headstones MORE (D-Fla.), a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said it was the first time she has heard a reference to Livingston in the impeachment investigation, despite the fact that both Hill and Kent had previously testified.

"The introduction of Bob Livingston definitely generates more questions. And I would like to hear more about that," she said.

Wassermann Schultz stopped short of saying she would like Livingston to testify as part of the probe, deferring the decision to committee leaders. 

Yovanovitch has already testified in the impeachment inquiry about an effort to remove her from the ambassadorship. She eventually was recalled to Washington, D.C. by President TrumpDonald John TrumpFormer employees critique EPA under Trump in new report Fired State Department watchdog says Pompeo aide attempted to 'bully' him over investigations Virginia senator calls for Barr to resign over order to clear protests MORE

Yovanovitch testified earlier this month that Trump pressured the State Department to remove her from her post, calling it a “concerted campaign” against her.

In her testimony, Yovanovitch denied that she had been disloyal to the administration. 

The congressional panels are examining whether Trump withheld aid to Ukraine as part of an effort to convince its government to conduct political investigations that would benefit his political campaign. 

On Tuesday, another White House aide, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, testified of his concern that Trump was pressing Ukraine to conduct an investigation into former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFox News polls: Trump trails Biden in Ohio, Arizona and Wisconsin Kelly holds double-digit lead over McSally in Arizona: poll Obama calls for police reforms, doesn't address Trump MORE during a July 25 phone call to Ukraine's president. Vindman was among those on that call. 

Croft said she did not hear the July 25 call, but had heard before it took place that White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick Mulvaney12 things to know today about coronavirus Mulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus The Memo: Trump agenda rolls on amid pandemic MORE had placed an informal hold on security assistance to Ukraine at the direction of the president. She also said that she understood Trump believed Ukraine was a corrupt country.

She said she understood that the purpose of the call had been to set up a one-on-one meeting between Trump and Ukraine President Zelensky that might "help undo President Trump's long-held view of Ukraine as a corrupt country."

Since July, Croft said her sole focus has been on helping to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine between that country and Russia. She described Zelensky as a leader who had taken political risk to bring Russia back to the table, and that his best hope for success lay in support from the United States and European countries.

Croft also said in her statement that she did not have any contact with Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiRudy Giuliani calls on Cuomo to remove Bill de Blasio Sunday shows preview: States begin to reopen even as some areas in US see case counts increase Moussaoui says he now renounces terrorism, bin Laden MORE, the personal attorney for Trump who some witnesses have said was conducting a shadow campaign in Ukraine that had worried other members of the administration. 

The House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena to compel Croft to testify Wednesday in light of an attempt by the White House and State Department to direct the officer not to appear for her deposition, according to an official working on the impeachment inquiry. 

The official said Croft is now complying with the subpoena and answering questions from both Democratic and Republican members and staff.

Croft is one of two witnesses that is testifying on Wednesday. 

Christopher Anderson, a former assistant to 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, will also testify. He plans to tell investigators that former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonHave the courage to recognize Taiwan McConnell says Obama administration 'did leave behind' pandemic plan Trump company lawyer warned Michael Cohen not to write 'tell-all' book: report MORE painted Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani as a possible obstacle on Ukraine policy, according to a copy of his opening statement reported by CNN. 

Livingston resigned from Congress when he was near the Speakership after details of an extramarital affair spilled into the public, just as Republicans were set to impeach President Clinton for actions related to his affair with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky. 

He later formed the Livingston Group, which according to the Times has represented Ukrainian clients in the past.

Mike Lillis contributed to this report, which was updated at 12:05 p.m.