As the impeachment inquiry conducted by House Democrats continued this morning, more incriminating testimony from a Trump administration official about the Ukraine scandal emerged from an entirely different hearing.
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Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was in a Senate confirmation hearing today to seek confirmation of his nomination by Donald Trump to become the next U.S. ambassador to Russia when he gave the assembled senators an account of the campaign by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, to discredit and remove the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.
“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 in response to questioning from Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ).
Sullivan’s admission of Giuliani’s role in a concerted effort to oust Yovanovitch — who was opposed to the efforts to tie the release of military aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into Trump’s political rival former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter — corroborates the testimony that the former ambassador reportedly gave to House committee members in her closed-door statements in the impeachment hearings earlier this month.
Yovanovitch was ousted in April of this year after Sullivan told her that she was being recalled from her post in Ukraine due to a loss of confidence in her performance by Donald Trump. In the former ambassador’s opening statement to the impeachment hearings, she told Congress while under oath that Sullivan had told her that a “concerted campaign” had been weighed against her, but that she had not actually done anything improper to deserve the removal.
When Sullivan was questioned today about the circumstances of Yovanovitch’s departure from her Ukraine ambassadorship, he again cited Trump’s lack of confidence in her and said that when he inquired as to the reason for that opinion, he was never given any specific reasons for the president’s decision.
“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 Capitol is the coin of the realm, the most important thing for that ambassador,” Sullivan told the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee considering his suitability for the new role as the top U.S. diplomat in Russia.
Whether Trump’s confidence in Sullivan will change now that he’s openly admitted to knowing about the behind-the-scenes effort to discredit Yovanovitch — and implicated Giuliani in the scheme — remains to be seen.
Sullivan told the Senators about an information packet concerning the former ambassador sent by the White House to the State Department counsel but said that although he knew that it came from “someone at the White House,” he didn’t know exactly who was responsible for compiling it.
“It didn’t provide, to me, a basis for us taking action against our ambassador,” Sullivan said about the information packet.
However, “to be cautious,” he requested that the Justice Department or the State Department inspector general examine the materials.
Those documents were provided to House investigators by the State Department inspector general earlier this month and proved to be filled with spurious allegations against former Vice President Biden. Democrats who have seen the materials have dismissed them as “propaganda” and “disinformation.”
Guiliani has publicly stated on NBC News that he personally provided the documents to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who told him that the State Department would investigate the allegations. Sullivan, however, told Senators today that Pompeo has never bothered reading the materials in the packet.
Anonymous State Department sources have told the media that the Secretary of State “never promised Rudy Giuliani that he would investigate the contents of the envelope or anything related to Ukraine.”
The ultimately successful Giuliani-led effort to oust Yovanovitch demonstrates the dangers of having two parallel channels simultaneously attempting to control foreign policy decisions as the president’s lawyer joined with former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in pursuing their own Ukraine agenda that undermined official State Department policies.
According to an account of Sullivan’s testimony on The Hill:
“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.”
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) questioned the chaotic nature of the Trump administration’s policy towards Ukraine, saying:
“I think we normally assume everyone is pursuing the same policies when we have different channels of communications to a country.”
Sullivan’s response was hardly reassuring.
“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. “It’s a challenge for the secretary of state to maintain control over that policy in any administration,” he continued, while recalling differences between cabinet secretaries over policy decisions in the Bush administration.
Sullivan’s additional confirmation of the shady shenanigans being conducted by Trump’s personal attorney for the president’s personal political gain can only add fuel to the already raging fire boiling under the impeachment kettle in the House of Representatives.
How Sullivan’s admission of knowledge of the dirty dealings will affect the confirmation of a senior State Department official to a high profile ambassadorship in Moscow remains to be seen.
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Original reporting by Morgan Chalfant and Brett Samuels at The Hill.