Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan appeared headed toward Senate approval Wednesday as U.S. ambassador to Russia, even as Democratic lawmakers questioned his professed lack of curiosity or pushback against policies on Ukraine he indicated he opposed.

At a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sullivan deftly offered benign responses to questions on what he knew about President Trump’s conversations with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin. In his current job, Sullivan said, he was in charge of shepherding U.S.-Russia dialogues on counterterrorism and strategic security.

Sullivan generally agreed with bipartisan assessments of the threat posed by Russia, ranging from cybersecurity to Middle East expansion. He underlined the importance of arms control, criticizing Russian cheating and pledging to pursue fair agreements.

During a confirmation hearing for U.S. ambassador to Russia, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan answered a key question in the impeachment inquiry. (The Washington Post)

A veteran of numerous high-level government jobs — including at the Justice and Defense departments — over three administrations, Sullivan served as a senior adviser to several Republican presidential campaigns. Confirmed in his current post in early 2017, he has avoided much of the rancor directed at the leadership of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from Democrats and some Republicans, and from inside the department.

His appearance Wednesday was preceded by a letter of praise signed by dozens of former officials, diplomats and military leaders, including former Trump defense secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

Senate Democrats indicated in advance of the hearing that they relished the opportunity to question the highest-level State Department official to come before them since the House began its impeachment inquiry of Trump’s alleged attempt to condition U.S. aid to Ukraine on its pursuit of compromising information on his political opponents.

Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan, the administration's nominee to be the next ambassador to Russia, confirmed a smear campaign against Yovanovitch. (The Washington Post)

Eight current State Department officials and one who recently resigned have testified so far before the closed-door investigation, despite Pompeo’s declaration early this month that they would not cooperate.

Democrats were particularly eager to ask Sullivan about why he recalled the former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and did not stand up more forcefully for the foreign service in general. Yovanovitch was recalled last summer, after she was the target of a smear campaign by Trump allies because she did not subscribe to conspiracy theories about Ukrainian efforts to undermine Trump in the 2016 election.

Sullivan agreed with Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), and with Yovanovitch’s own testimony, that she had “served capably and admirably” in the Ukraine job.

But Pompeo, he said, told him that “the president had lost confidence with her,” and he was designated to deliver the news to her. Pompeo, he indicated, declined to specify any further reason in response to Sullivan’s appeal.

Menendez asked whether Sullivan knew Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani was “seeking to smear” Yovanovitch.

“I believe he was, yes,” Sullivan said. But he said he did not push for a State Department statement supporting her.

His own uncle, William H. Sullivan, the last U.S. ambassador to Iran, had been removed when then-President Jimmy Carter lost confidence in him over policy differences, Sullivan said.

Going to the heart of the impeachment inquiry, he was asked whether it was “ever appropriate for the president to use his office to solicit investigations into his domestic political opponents.”

Sullivan said: “I don’t think that would be in accord with our values.”

In response to questions about Giuliani’s activities, he said there were numerous precedents for presidents to enlist the help of confidantes and experts outside of government to deal with thorny foreign policy questions. Referring to Trump’s push for Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) asked whether he had “ever heard of any other president asking a foreign government to investigate an American citizen.”

“I can’t think of one off the top of my head,” Sullivan said. “I don’t consider myself competent to answer . . . I’m not aware of it, which is not to say it hasn’t happened.”

Sullivan said he was unfamiliar with the details of the controversy over policy toward Ukraine over the summer, including Trump’s withholding of aid, and with Trump’s July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky until a whistleblower complaint became public last month.

Sullivan said he did not instruct the two diplomats most directly involved in discussing U.S. policy toward Ukraine with the Kyiv government — special envoy Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union — to push Ukraine to investigate Biden and the 2016 campaign, although both have testified as to their actions.

Asked where their instructions came from, Sullivan said, “I don’t know.”

Once he knew of their activities, had he made “any attempt to find out?” asked Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

“Since I learned of it in September, I have not,” Sullivan said.