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Diplomat testified about Giuliani's "campaign of slander"

CBS News logo CBS News 11/8/2019 Stefan Becket
a man wearing a suit and tie: US-POLITICS-IMPEACHMENT-TRUMP © ERIC BARADAT US-POLITICS-IMPEACHMENT-TRUMP

Washington — A top State Department official told the House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry that Rudy Giuliani waged a "campaign of slander" against a former ambassador to Ukraine, one that was "without basis, untrue, period."

George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, testified behind closed doors on Capitol Hill on October 15. The committees released a transcript of his testimony on Thursday. Kent is also set to testify on the first day of open hearings in the impeachment probe on Wednesday, along with William Taylor, the chargé d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Kiev.

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In his opening statement, Kent told lawmakers he was concerned "that the U.S. Government chose to move an ambassador based, as best she [can] tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives, at an especially challenging time in our bilateral [relations] with a newly elected Ukrainian President," according to the transcript. 

In emails included in a packet of documents given to Congress by the State Department's inspector general in early October, Kent expressed concerns about the campaign to discredit Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador. In March, he called the emerging effort a "fake news driven smear out of Ukraine" and a "classic disinformation operation."

Yovanovitch was recalled from her post three months early after numerous Trump allies, most notably Giuliani, and "corrupt Ukrainians" waged a campaign for her removal.

Read the full text of Kent's testimony here

The campaign against Yovanovitch

Kent said Yuriy Lutsenko, then the prosecutor general in Ukraine, led the charge to get Yovanovitch recalled from her post as ambassador, working in tandem with Giuliani.

"Based on what I know, Yuriy Lutsenko, as prosecutor general, vowed revenge, and provided information to Rudy Giuliani in hopes that he would spread it and lead to her removal," Kent said. "I believe that was the rationale for Yuriy Lutsenko doing what he did."

He said other officials were "engaged in an effort to undermine her standing by claiming that she was disloyal" as far back as 2018. He said Lutsenko traveled to New York to meet with Giuliani and "throw mud," Kent recalled another Ukrainian official as saying.

By March 2019, Kent said Giuliani's "campaign of slander" against Yovanovitch was "almost unmissable," as the former New York mayor used TV appearances and his Twitter account to attack the ambassador. He said Giuliani's accusations were "without basis, untrue, period."

Kent said the situation "was clearly a crisis" that was "threatening to consume" the U.S. relationship with Ukraine, particularly after Donald Trump Jr. tweeted an attack on Yovanovitch.

He confirmed other testimony that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., encouraged Yovanovitch to express support for President Trump in a bid to save her job. 

"Eventually, Gordon Sondland, our ambassador to the E.U., also joined some of the back and forth that Ambassador Yovanovitch should issue a statement, or do a video or tweet declaring full support for the foreign policy of President Trump, essentially asking her to defend herself as opposed to having the State Department defend her," Kent testified.

"Unusual channels"

Kent testified that three officials declared they were in charge of Ukraine policy after a White House meeting in May: Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, a career foreign service officer.

"They felt they had the mandate to take the lead on coordinating efforts to engage the new Ukrainian leadership" following the election of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Kent said. 

By June, Kent said U.S. "engagement with Ukraine shifted into, shall we say, unusual channels," given the involvement of the secretary of energy and ambassador to the E.U. He said Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Kiev, was the "primary voice for our full interests" in the country.

Kent's testimony echoed Taylor's, who told the committees in his own testimony about an "irregular channel" of policy-making featuring Perry, Sondland and Volker.

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