Top diplomat says Giuliani's 'campaign of lies' took down veteran ambassador

A senior diplomat offered a grim picture of Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiSunday shows preview: As coronavirus spreads in the U.S., officials from each sector of public life weigh in Biden campaign blasts Twitter for refusing to sanction retaliatory 'hoax' Trump ad Google to spend .5 million in fight against coronavirus misinformation MORE’s contacts with Ukraine, testifying before Congress that the president’s personal lawyer carried out a “campaign of lies” in order to oust the top U.S. diplomat to Kiev, according to new documents made public Thursday.

George Kent, a senior State Department official, told House impeachment investigators last month in closed-door testimony that Giuliani had cozied up to corrupt foreign officials and disreputable media figures to smear former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, supporting testimony from multiple other witnesses who said the campaign ultimately led to her removal in May.

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Giuliani has argued that Yovanovitch was removed for being disloyal to President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor NBA to contribute 1 million surgical masks to NY essential workers Private equity firm with ties to Kushner asks Trump administration to relax rules on loan program: report MORE. Yet Kent painted a much different scene, one where a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor had “vowed revenge” on the most veteran U.S. diplomat in Europe — one engaged in anti-corruption efforts in Kiev — and Giuliani sided with the foreign operator.

"Mr. Giuliani, at that point, had been carrying on a campaign for several months full of lies and incorrect information about Ambassador Yovanovitch, so this was a continuation of his campaign of lies," Kent testified on Oct. 15, according to the transcript released Thursday.

“I believe that Mr. Giuliani, as a U.S. citizen, has First Amendment rights to say whatever he wants, but he's a private citizen,” Kent continued. “His assertions and allegations against former Ambassador Yovanovitch were without basis [and] untrue — period."

Giuliani did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kent’s transcript is the sixth to be released by the Democrats this week, as they wind down the closed-door stage of their six-week-old impeachment investigation and transition to a public-hearing phase, beginning next week. Kent is one of the three officials who is expected to testify next week in televised hearings.

The inquiry was sparked by a whistleblower’s allegation that Trump had threatened national security by withholding U.S. military aid to Ukraine to press the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open investigations into the 2016 elections and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSome Sanders top allies have urged him to withdraw from 2020 race: report Sunday shows preview: As coronavirus spreads in the U.S., officials from each sector of public life weigh in Trump defends firing of intel watchdog, calling him a 'disgrace' MORE.

The impeachment probe has featured depositions from a host of top administration officials — both current and former — with insights into Trump’s handling of foreign policy in Kiev. Many of them have expressed the same quid pro quo concerns voiced by the whistleblower.

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Kent, however, has said it was his “personal opinion” that Trump did not withhold the nearly $400 million in aid in order to secure a pledge from Zelensky to open the investigations. But he did feel that Trump’s allies — including Giuliani — had floated another quid pro quo by dangling a White House meeting, sought by Zelensky, to secure the investigations Trump wanted.

“It strikes me that the association was a meeting with the White House, at the White House, not related to the security assistance,” Kent testified, adding that “other people may have different opinions.”

Kent offered additional ammunition for Trump and his Republican defenders, saying he had “raised my concerns” after hearing that Biden’s son Hunter had been employed by Burisma, a Ukrainian energy giant, while Biden was still vice president. Burisma was facing its own corruption allegations, and those dynamics, Kent testified, “could create the perception of a conflict of interest.”

Kent said his concerns fell on deaf ears with those in the vice president’s office, who told him Biden’s eldest son, Beau, had terminal cancer at the time and “there was no further bandwidth to deal with family related issues.”

“That was the end of that conversation,” he testified.

Much of Kent’s marathon deposition, though, was focused on the effort to remove Yovanovitch, a career diplomat who had served under numerous presidents of both parties.

Kent described three key figures who were involved in the shadowy campaign against Yovanovitch: Giuliani, former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, and opinion columnist John Solomon, formerly with The Hill. Earlier this year, Solomon had written critically of Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential contender, while promoting unfounded theories that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that had hacked the U.S. elections of 2016.

One story in particular made waves. Solomon in March had interviewed Lutsenko, who claimed that Yovanovitch had provided him with a list of figures he should not prosecute — allegations she denied and he later retracted, according to a Ukraine media outlet. The State Department also denied Lutsenko’s accusation.

“It was, if not entirely made up in full cloth, it was primarily non-truths and non-sequiturs,” Kent testified.

Still, the interview sparked an uproar from media figures, like Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityHannity blasts criticism of Fox News: 'I have taken this seriously' California governor responds to Nunes on canceling school: 'We'll continue to listen to the experts' 74 journalism professors accuse Fox News of spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE, and pro-Trump blogs, which quickly attacked Yovanovitch as an “Obama holdover” who had it in for the president. Kent called it a “media storm” — one from which Yovanovitch would not recover.

“What then happened was a media campaign against her, and then subsequent to that was a request for her to come back [to Washington],” Kent said. 

Yovanovitch also testified in the impeachment investigation, telling lawmakers last month that a top State Department official told her she would receive no reason for her recall in May. Rather, she was told, generally, that the president had lost confidence in her abilities, while being assured she had done nothing wrong.

Trump’s GOP allies say the release of the transcripts and new witness interviews only support their case that the president did nothing wrong in his dealings with Ukraine.

“As we hear more testimony ... it's actually getting easier to defend the president from a standpoint there is no linkage between aid,” said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Guidance on masks is coming Meadows sets up coronavirus hotline for members of Congress The Hill's 12:30 Report: McConnell, Pelosi at odds over next relief bill MORE (R-N.C.).

Democrats see things differently, arguing that each new witness provides further evidence that Trump abused his office for political gain.

“We have not heard a single witness yet come in and provide testimony that would suggest this was anything other than defense-dollars-for-dirt," said Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellKey House chairman cautions against remote voting, suggests other options amid coronavirus outbreak House Democrats plead with key committee chairman to allow remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Congress tiptoes toward remote voting MORE (D-Calif.).

Kent also testified that other administration officials viewed Giuliani, a former New York mayor, as having influence over Trump, as it related to Ukraine policy. And they sought to engage him for those purposes.

One such figure was U.S. 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, who was described by U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland as one of the “three amigos” who dealt with Ukraine policy for the Trump administration. He and Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryRick Perry asks for elastic donations for his mom, 91, who is sewing face masks The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes unexpected step to stem coronavirus Top National Security Council aide moved to Energy Department role MORE were also part of the trio.

Volker, Kent says, told him he planned to engage with Giuliani on Ukraine foreign policy. But Kent worried Giuliani had an unsavory “track record” — one that included attacking Yovanovitch; seeking a visa for second “corrupt” prosecutor; and pressing Zelensky to investigate Biden and the 2016 presidential campaign.  

“Kurt's reaction, or response to me at that time was: ‘Well, if there's nothing there, what does it matter? And if there is something there, it should be investigated,’” Kent relayed to lawmakers. “My response to him was: Asking another country to investigate a prosecution for political reasons undermines our advocacy of the rule of law.”

Kent also portrayed Sondland as central in pressuring Zelensky to open two politically motivated investigations Trump had sought. That role included a conversation in which Sondland told two other officials that Trump told him directly he "wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to [a] microphone and say investigations, Biden, and Clinton."

Asked what Trump wanted in return, Kent was terse: “That was not clear to me,” he said.