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Diplomat says top leadership of the State Department rejected his entreaties to publicly support ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine

Philip Reeker is the State Department’s acting assistant secretary in charge of the bureau of European and Eurasian affairs. (Kostas Tsironis/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Philip Reeker, the diplomat in charge of U.S. policy for Europe, told House impeachment investigators Saturday that he appealed to top State Department leaders to publicly support the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who was the target of a conspiracy-fueled smear campaign, a person familiar with his testimony said.

Reeker expressed his concerns over the falsehoods about Marie Yovanovitch to David Hale, the third-highest-ranking official in the State Department, and T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, the closest adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose friendship began when they attended the U.S. Military Academy together, the person said. He never discussed Yovanovitch with Pompeo, and he eventually heard from staffers for Hale that there would be no public statement in her defense, the person said.

It remains unclear how much information they conveyed to Pompeo and what role Pompeo played in recalling Yovanovitch shortly after she was told she was doing such a good job that her posting was being extended.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) responded to the Oct. 25 court ruling that gave the House Judiciary Committee access to redacted material in the Mueller report. (Video: Rhonda Colvin/The Washington Post)

Reeker “was trying to get the State Department to issue a strong statement in support of Ambassador Yovanovitch,” the person said. “Ultimately it did not get released. His understanding is [that decision] came from on top.”

The person spoke on the condition of anonymity so that they could discuss Reeker’s testimony, which was delivered in a closed-door hearing to House committees investigating President Trump’s actions involving Ukraine.

Reeker’s testimony primarily focused on his efforts to defend Yovanovitch from falsehoods being spread questioning her integrity, which had begun appearing in conservative media.

His deposition lasted for more than eight hours, in part because of his “meticulous” answers and recollection of detail. Reeker brought with him a three-inch binder filled with printouts of his emails and texts from the period in question, which he kept referring to, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said.

Meadows said that the testimony was “a good day for the president,” saying that Reeker was “another high-ranking state department official that didn’t provide any support for that allegation” that there had been a quid pro quo, and no proof Trump committed an impeachable offense.

As always, however, Democrats and Republicans differed over the significance of the testimony. Kurt Volker, the former special envoy for Ukraine, provided the panel with text messages in which acting ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. raised concerns that $391 million of congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine was being withheld to compel that country’s president to commit to conducting investigations that could be politically advantageous to Trump.

Although Reeker was aware of the hold on U.S. security aid to Ukraine, he did not know the reasons behind it, according to the person familiar with his testimony. He was not involved in any conversations about efforts to pressure the Ukrainian president and did not attend interagency meetings held to discuss the hold on military assistance, the person said.

But following Reeker’s testimony, Democrats hinted that his deposition had also helped round out their case.

Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) told reporters it was “almost startling how much in alignment all the witnesses to date have been in terms of their affirmation of a fact pattern” that Democrats believe forms the basis for impeaching Trump.

The committees continue to add witnesses to their roster of depositions, adding State Department Ukraine specialists Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson for closed-door sessions on Wednesday.

“We’re trying to work expeditiously, but we’re also trying to be methodical in our work,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters leaving the Capitol after Reeker’s testimony. “We’re making rapid progress.”

Though Reeker’s testimony did little to shed light on the aid freeze, his account offered a striking picture of the degree to which professional diplomats were frozen out of policymaking in some regions of the world and subordinated to decisions apparently made for political reasons.

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Reeker was named acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs in mid-March. From his first day, he was confronted with rumors and conspiracy theories about Yovanovitch, which were spreading through conservative U.S. media. State Department officials considered them baseless and a “classic disinformation campaign.”

Reeker also testified that Ukrainian policy was being driven by Volker, the special envoy for the country who reported directly to Pompeo, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a close Trump ally.

“In that universe, he wasn’t taking the lead,” the person said of Reeker.

Reeker also testified that he was aware of the involvement of Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, in spreading baseless accusations about Yovanovitch, but he did not track Giuliani’s actions in Ukraine beyond that.

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Like other diplomats who have testified, Reeker is a career Foreign Service officer with a reputation for being apolitical, hard-working and professional. Colleagues say he is the type of leader whom junior Foreign Service officers turn to for career guidance.

“He’s a workhorse, not a showboat,” said Daniel Fried, a former diplomat who resigned at the onset of the Trump administration. “He comes from the Masha Yovanovitch school of professionalism. He’s a capable, nice, relaxed guy, not at all stiff. And he’s utterly nonpartisan.”

Reeker joined the State Department in 1992. He signed up for the Foreign Service exam “on a lark” when he saw a flier for the test while attending the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University after graduating from Yale University.

He has done tours in Hungary and Macedonia, and he was the U.S. consul general in Milan. He won wide praise for his public diplomacy, serving as the deputy to spokesman Richard Boucher under secretaries of state Madeleine Albright, in the Clinton administration, and Colin Powell, under President George W. Bush. His work has been recognized with the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy and with several State Department awards.

Boucher said Reeker was unflappable, even when Reeker was the sole person in town who could speak for the department when a crisis broke out somewhere in the world.

“He made the transition from a Democratic administration to a Republican one without any difficulty,” he said. “That’s because he’s fundamentally nonpartisan.”

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Boucher said it was in keeping with his independence that Reeker would jump to alert the top officials on the seventh floor of the Truman Building that lies were being spread about Yovanovitch .

“Masha is someone we all know, and we all think she is one of the best managers of people and policy we have in the State Department,” he said, using Yovanovitch’s nickname. “To hear her talked about in any other terms, the right thing to do is to stand up and say it’s wrong.”

The State Department ethos, particularly among officials tasked with explaining policy in public, is to stand up and speak the truth inside the building, instead of taking it public where it can become politicized. Reeker epitomized that ethos, according to friends and colleagues.

But as a career diplomat whose position was preceded by the adjective “acting,” Reeker may not have as much clout as the political appointee who preceded him.

“He’s done a good job,” Fried said. “But in this administration, if you’re not political, you don’t have a lot of juice. Now, all of the Ukraine team is under the knife.”

The investigative committee is due to resume Monday. But the plans have been thrown into question by a lawsuit filed Friday by Charles Kupperman. The former national security aide has asked a federal judge to resolve contradictory orders from the White House and Congress about whether he has to testify.

In a letter to Kupperman’s lawyers the chairs of the three committees leading the impeachment investigation called the lawsuit “an obvious and desperate tactic by the President to delay and obstruct the lawful constitutional functions of Congress and conceal evidence about his conduct from the impeachment inquiry.” They said Kupperman remains legally obligated to comply with a subpoena and appear for a deposition on Monday.