November 18, 2019, 19:46

State Dept official who warned of ‘smear’ campaign testifies in impeachment probe

State Dept official who warned of ‘smear’ campaign testifies in impeachment probe

A fourth U.S. official on Tuesday complied with a request for a deposition by the three House committees that are leading an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

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George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state whose portfolio includes Ukraine, arrived for a sworn interview with the House Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs committees. An official working on the impeachment inquiry said Kent was subpoenaed for his testimony Tuesday morning “in light of an attempt by the State Department, in coordination with the White House, to direct” him “not to appear for his scheduled deposition, and efforts by the State Department to also limit any testimony that does occur.”

Last week, the State Department barred the U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. She was subpoenaed and complied and Sondland is now scheduled to testify on Thursday.

The House investigation centers on whether the president and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani were conducting a shadow foreign policy to get Ukraine to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s business dealings in the country, as well as into the unfounded theory that Ukrainian officials interfered in the 2016 election to support Hillary Clinton.

Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

Deputy undersecretary of State George Kent arrives for a deposition in front of the House of Representatives committees on Oct. 15, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Complying with a House subpoena, Yovanovitch, who served under Republican and Democrat administrations and was named ambassador to Bulgaria by George W. Bush, defied the department’s orders Friday and testified for nine hours on Friday.

Two former U.S. officials have also now testified — special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker, who resigned over his role in facilitating Giuliani’s efforts, and Fiona Hill, Trump’s top Russia adviser on the National Security Council until she departed the administration in July, days before Trump’s controversial call with Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in which he asked Zelenskiy for a “favor” and investigations. At the time, the administration was withholding a formal meeting between the two presidents and nearly $400 million in security assistance, although Ukraine was not yet aware of the latter.

Like Yovanovitch, Kent is a career Foreign Service officer. As the Deputy Assistant Secretary, he has overseen policy for and communications with U.S. missions in several eastern European countries: Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. He’s previously served as the deputy chief of mission in Kyiv, Ukraine, and the senior anti-corruption coordinator for Europe — roles that have made him battle-hardened in the fights against corruption and disinformation.

Committee staff and lawmakers are sure to press him on the State Department’s role in freezing that aid, $142 million of which came from the department, and the back channel work by Volker and Sondland to have Ukraine announce an investigation into the Biden’s and the 2016 election in exchange for a presidential meeting and later the release of that aid.

But Kent will also be a key witness in Trump’s firing of Yovanovitch over unfounded conspiracy theories that she badmouthed him and shielded Biden and other Democrats from investigation in Ukraine. In emails that were turned over by the State Department inspector general to Congress, Kent is the one warning senior leadership of efforts to take down Yovanovitch by accusing her of corruption and obstruction — allegations that are spread in conservative media.

In one email to acting Assistant Secretary for Europe Philip Reeker and State Department counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl, Kent makes clear there is a “fake news driven smear” against Yovanovitch, including links to The Hill newspaper, Fox News’s “Life, Liberty, and Levin,” and a podcast by Trump supporter and conservative commentator Dan Bongino.

Kent dissects that effort, in particular a “fake list of alleged ‘do not prosecute’ names posted on the dubious site Medium… from an ‘author’ that apparently does not exist,” he writes in an email dated March 28.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters, FILE

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch arrives to testify in the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into President Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Oct. 11, 2019.

This is one of the chief allegations against Yovanovitch by Giuliani and others, that she protected Biden and other Democrats by giving Ukraine’s prosecutor-general a list of people he could not prosecute. At the time, the State Department has called the allegation an “outright fabrication” that “does not correspond to reality.”

In the emails, obtained by ABC News, Kent notes that the names are not spelled in the standard style of an American diplomat, questioning if they’re done by someone in the Balkans or Czechia.

“This is a classic disinfo play,” he adds.

It also seems this was a consistent effort to dispel the disinformation campaign: The subject line of his email is “[Ukraine] fake news smear: Thursday Updates,” which gets sent up to Brechbuhl, a top Pompeo adviser who has been scheduled for a deposition on Thursday.

Despite the effort to debunk these allegations, Yovanovitch was recalled from her post in Kyiv in May, two months early, after a year-long effort to have her ousted, but just months after she was told she would be asked to stay for an additional year, according to her testimony Friday.


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