Trump's demands of Ukraine came down to three words
WASHINGTON — A senior State Department official described in perhaps the starkest terms to date President Donald Trump's shadow efforts to force Ukraine's leadership to open investigations that would benefit him politically, according to a transcript of his impeachment testimony released Thursday.
Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent, who oversaw Ukraine policy, told lawmakers that Trump demanded that the country's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, open investigations into the 2016 U.S. election, Trump's former rival Hillary Clinton and former vice president Joe Biden in exchange for an Oval Office meeting.
Trump "wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to a microphone and say investigations, Biden and Clinton," Kent told House impeachment investigators.
Kent's assessment came from a summary of a conversation that Trump had with Gordon Sondland, a Trump megadonor turned diplomat, who from his perch as U.S. ambassador to the European Union in Brussels had seized control of Ukraine policy.
The senior diplomat, in testimony delivered last month, also criticized Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, whom he described as waging a "campaign of lies" aimed at the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and designed to advance his and the president's personal agenda.
Democrats expect Kent to testify publicly on Wednesday with William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, as the impeachment inquiry moves into a new phase.
Trump, meanwhile, offered a glimpse into the defense he would like Republicans to mount on his behalf, insisting that Biden, a potential 2020 general-election challenger, and his son Hunter be called to testify as part of the impeachment proceedings. The younger Biden served on the board of Burisma, a controversial and obscure Ukrainian gas company that Trump pressed Zelensky to investigate in a July 25 call.
In a tweet, Trump quoted Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., asking, "What did Hunter Biden do for the money?"
"A very good question," Trump added in his own words. "He and Sleepy Joe must testify."
Kent's testimony was released on the same day that Jennifer Williams, a Foreign Service officer and top aide to Vice President Mike Pence, offered insight behind closed doors into Pence's knowledge of the shadow campaign to extract political favors from the Ukrainians.
Williams is expected to be the last witness in the non-public phase of the inquiry.
The transcript of Kent's hours-long deposition suggests that the career diplomat's public testimony will lay bare his disappointment and anger with the president's approach to Ukraine and the conduct of his own State Department in responding to Congress as lawmakers moved to investigate the administration's dealings with Ukraine.
Kent began his closed-door testimony by describing "snake pits" in both Washington and Kyiv that were populated by corrupt Ukrainian politicians, self-interested businessmen and ambitious U.S. officials scrambling to win the president's favor.
Throughout March, Giuliani trafficked in "slander" designed to get the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, fired from her posting in Kyiv and clear a roadblock to the agenda Giuliani and his clients were pursuing there, Kent said. Yovanovitch is also expected to be among the Democrats' roster of public witnesses next week.
At various points Kent also described himself as battling officials inside the State Department to ensure that congressional subpoenas were honored and a full accounting of Giuliani's activities reached lawmakers.
In his testimony, Kent described Ukraine as a struggling democracy beset by Russian-backed forces, crooked prosecutors and rapacious oligarchs.
"If you took the roster of the richest Ukrainians, they didn't build value, they largely stole it," he said. "Most of the billionaires in the country became billionaires because they acquired state assets for largely under valued prices and engaged in predatory competition."
That harsh assessment also extended to Burisma, the gas company that offered Hunter Biden a lucrative position on its board despite his lack of experience in Ukraine or the energy industry.
"You knew Burisma was a troubled, corrupt company, right?" asked Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, in a preview of the strategy Republicans are likely to deploy in their defense of Trump next week.
Kent agreed that it had "a reputation for not being the ... cleanest member of the business community."
And he noted that he had raised concerns with the vice president's office in 2015 about Hunter Biden's $50,000-a-month position with the company, but was ignored.
Kent, though, was equally critical of Giuliani's willingness to work with corrupt Ukrainians when it served his political agenda.
He detailed how local officials literally thought there were "bags of cash" at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv that U.S. officials would hand over, and noted that former prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko was upset that the Americans wouldn't "show him the money." Lutsenko, who Trump lauded as a "good guy" in his July 25 call with the Ukrainian president, became one of Giuliani's key allies in his successful effort to bring down the American ambassador.
At the time Trump was singling out Lutsenko for praise, the Ukrainian prosecutor was "essentially colluding" with corrupt officials in Kyiv to undermine a probe into a fake-passport ring, Kent said.
"We were very angry and upset because this threatened our security, and potentially also threatened (the Ukrainians') ability to retain their visa free status in the European Union," he told the impeachment inquiry.
Kent called the passport investigation a "breaking point" for the United States, which decided to end "capacity building assistance" to Lutsenko's office as a result.
Meanwhile, Kent detailed the frustration of senior State Department officials in Washington who sought to counteract Giuliani's "non-truths and non-sequiturs" with a high-level endorsement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or other top officials in Washington. The statement was never issued, "even though this was clearly a crisis for Ambassador Yovanovitch and a crisis that was threatening the relationship" between the United States and Ukraine.
Shortly after the ambassador was sent home, control over Ukraine policy shifted to Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine. Sondland, rather than working through traditional State Department channels, had his own "network of influence" that ran through Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff.
Kent also described Volker as too willing to cut corners in an effort to please Trump and Giuliani, and to help the Ukrainian president secure an Oval Office meeting.
In early July, after Volker said he would be reaching out to Giuliani, Kent expressed concern because Giuliani was "tweeting that the new president needs to investigate Biden and the 2016 campaign."
Volker, according to Kent, responded: "Well, if there's nothing there, what does it matter?"
Kent was dismayed by this reaction, and replied that such thinking went against America's professed values and "undermines our advocacy of the rule of law."
About one week before Trump spoke by phone with Zelensky, the White House put a hold on $391 million in military aid earmarked for Ukraine. The move took officials throughout the U.S. government by surprise.
"There was a lack of clarity," Kent said. "The participants ... did not receive an explanation for why this particular action was taken."
Kent's testimony also sheds light on the concern surrounding Trump's conduct on his call with the Ukrainian president. Although Pompeo listened in from the State Department, Kent was not invited to monitor the conversation.
The first sign that something had gone wrong came in a conversation that he had with Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who serves as the top Ukraine expert in the White House. Kent described a "hesitancy" in Vindman's voice that he took as a sign that the Army officer was "uncomfortable."
Vindman said "he could not share the majority of what was discussed because of (its) very sensitive nature."
Concerns about the call spread through the White House and State Department, and quickly made their way to a CIA officer who used them as the basis for an unprecedented whistleblower complaint that sparked the historic impeachment probe.
By mid-August, Kent grew worried that the Trump administration was withholding a White House visit, and possibly the military aid, to force the Zelensky administration to dig up dirt on the Bidens. He detailed his concerns that such "politically motivated prosecutions were injurious to the rule of law, both in Ukraine and the U.S." in an internal memo and informed a supervisor, he said.
Kent's testimony also offered a glimpse into the frustration of those who have had to weigh testifying before the impeachment inquiry — following their professional oaths and even their consciences — against the instructions not to do so from leaders at agencies to which they have entrusted their careers.
"This is where I find myself today," Kent said, "faced with enormous professional and personal cost and expense of dealing with a conflict between the executive and legislative branches not of my making."
At one point he confronted an unidentified State Department lawyer over a decision to hold back documents that chronicle Giuliani's efforts to secure a visa for former Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin, who was blocked from visiting the United States.
"The conversation rapidly, I would say, either escalated or degenerated into a tense exchange," Kent said. "He objected to my raising of the additional information. ... I do not remember his exact words, but he made clear that he did not think it was appropriate for me to make the suggestion."
The two men then continued sparring over a State Department statement that accused congressional Democrats of bullying diplomats into testifying.
Kent said he challenged that characterization: "I said, well, you say that the career Foreign Service officers are being intimidated. ... There are only two career Foreign Service officers who object to this process. I'm one of them." The other, he said, was Yovanovitch, who had been dismissed from her post.
Asked about the lawyer's response, Kent said, "He spent the next 5 minutes glaring at me."
The Washington Post's Rachael Bade, Karoun Demirjian, Greg Miller and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.
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