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Career U.S. diplomat testifies at House impeachment inquiry on Trump's Ukraine dealings

Reuters logo Reuters 10/15/2019 By Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed
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Video by the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump on Tuesday questioned George Kent, a U.S. career diplomat who has spent much of his career fighting corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The investigation is focused on a July 25 phone call in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to look into unsubstantiated allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden, a top contender for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and Biden's son, Hunter Biden.

The younger Biden, 49, denied doing anything improper in past work for a Ukrainian energy company but expressed regret in an interview with ABC News aired on Tuesday over how it has been used to attack his father. Joe Biden has rejected Trump's allegations of corruption.

Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for U.S. policy toward six former Soviet republics including Ukraine, arrived on Capitol Hill wearing a red bow tie and ignored shouted questions from reporters.

Kent appeared after receiving a congressional subpoena after the State Department directed him not to testify, an official involved in the impeachment inquiry said.

On Monday, Trump's former Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, gave three House committees details of a high-level meeting between U.S. and Ukrainian officials that included her then-boss, former national security adviser John Bolton, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, according to a person familiar with the testimony.

Hill recounted that Sondland raised the issue of investigations and that she and Bolton became alarmed that he was referring to the investigation into the Bidens, the person said. The pair left the meeting and Bolton advised her to consult with John Eisenberg, the top National Security Council lawyer.

BOLTON TROUBLED

Bolton was similarly troubled by activities toward Ukraine being coordinated by the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, along with other administration officials, the New York Times reported.

"Giuliani's a hand grenade who's going to blow everybody up," Hill quoted Bolton as saying, according to the newspaper.

A Bolton spokeswoman said he would have no comment on the testimony.

Democrats have accused Trump of pressuring a vulnerable U.S. ally to dig up dirt on Biden after withholding $391 million in U.S. security aid intended to help combat Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine. Zelenskiy agreed to investigate. Trump eventually allowed the aid.

Trump has denied wrongdoing and defended his request to Zelenskiy during the phone call, the contents of which was revealed by a whistleblower. Democrats opened the inquiry on Sept. 24 into whether there were grounds to impeach Trump for abusing his power.

Sondland is due to testify later in the week, in response to a congressional subpoena.

Giuliani, a former New York City mayor, faces a Tuesday deadline to produce documents related to the Ukraine matter subpoenaed by the House Intelligence Committee. He has not said whether he will comply.

Slideshow by photo services

Democratic Representative Jackie Speier, a member of the Intelligence and Oversight committees, told MSNBC that House Democrats would likely move to hold Giuliani in contempt if he does not comply.

Speier also said she expected the Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs panels conducting the Ukraine phase of the inquiry had about five or six more witnesses to talk to before likely turning over all the gathered testimonies to the House Judiciary Committee.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats would then gauge next steps in their investigations, which could lead to formal articles of impeachment against Trump being submitted to the full House of Representatives.

If any such articles were to be passed by the Democratic-controlled House, the Republican-controlled Senate would then hold a trial to determine whether the president should be removed from office.

'DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN'

On Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, defied a State Department order to refuse to cooperate with the House probe, giving scathing testimony in which she accused the Trump administration of recalling her from Kiev based on false claims.

According to State Department emails contained in a package of material shared with congressional staff last month and later seen by Reuters, Kent told colleagues that Yovanovitch had become the target of a "classic disinformation operation."

Yovanovitch in her Friday appearance denied Giuliani's allegations that she provided a "do not prosecute list" to Ukrainian officials to protect Biden and others.

"One key sign of it being fake is that most of the names are misspelled in English — we would never spell most that way," Kent said in the email to colleagues.

Kent suggested the department push back by "circling in red all the misspellings and grammar mistakes and reposting it," as the U.S. Embassy in Moscow has done to counter propaganda.

Kent, who majored in Russian language and literature at Harvard, has held several jobs requiring him to grapple with corruption in Ukraine, which ranks 120th of 180 nations in a Transparency International corruption perceptions index.

Kent previously served as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev from 2015 to 2018 and as the senior anti-corruption coordinator in the State Department's European Bureau from 2014 to 2015.

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