President Trump’s nominee to become the next ambassador to Russia suggested Wednesday that Trump’s and Rudolph W. Giuliani’s efforts with regard to Ukraine have crossed a line.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan didn’t directly rebuke the two of them, but under questioning about various aspects of the Ukraine scandal, he implied that what Trump and his personal lawyer have been up to is at the very least problematic.

At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked Sullivan broadly whether it was okay to ask foreign governments to investigate domestic political opponents.

“Soliciting investigations into a domestic political opponent — I don’t think that would be in accord with our values,” Sullivan said. He added later: "The concept of investigating a political rival … that would be inconsistent with our values.”

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Whatever you believe about whether Trump or those close to him broke any laws with regard to Ukraine — or even whether there was a quid pro quo — there is no question that Trump was soliciting a foreign investigation into a domestic political opponent.

Here’s what Trump said to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in their July 25 call, according to the rough transcript provided by the White House: “The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”

Sullivan sought to draw a line between his sentiment and what transpired in Ukraine, suggesting it might be okay if such an investigation was merely a part of a broader anti-corruption push. But there is no evidence it was. Evidence has shown repeatedly that Trump and his team pushed specifically for two investigations that carry obvious political benefits but not others. There is no evidence of them pushing for other investigations.

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Sullivan also declined to defend two diplomats involved in managing the effort, European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland and former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. Asked whether their efforts were proper, Sullivan again equivocated.

“What they were doing back then: Was it proper? I’d have to think about that," Sullivan said, again returning to whether this was part of a broader anti-corruption push.

Sullivan was also pressed on the effort to remove now-former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. Yovanovitch said in her deposition this month that Sullivan told her there was such an effort and that she had done nothing wrong, even as she was being removed.

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“He added that there had been a concerted campaign against me, and that the department had been under pressure from the president to remove me since the Summer of 2018,” she testified. “He also said that I had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause.”

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Menendez asked Sullivan whether he was, in fact, aware of a “smear” campaign against Yovanovitch.

“I was,” Sullivan said.

Menendez then asked whether he believed Giuliani had participated in the smearing.

“I believed he was, yes,” Sullivan said.

Later, under questioning by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Sullivan expanded: “I was aware that Mr. Giuliani was involved in Ukraine issues. My knowledge in particular in the April, May, June time frame focused on his campaign against our ambassador to Ukraine.”

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Sullivan emphasized repeatedly that regardless of the effort to undermine Yovanovitch, her removal was appropriate as long as the president had lost confidence in her. “The president’s confidence in his ambassador is the coin of the realm,” he said.

But the fact remains that he confirmed there was a “campaign” run by Giuliani to “smear” Yovanovitch.

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Through a series of coincidences, Sullivan finds himself testifying in public, in contrast to witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry such as Yovanovitch. That’s because this was a confirmation hearing, not one explicitly focused on the Ukraine scandal.

And he found himself in a similar position to other top Trump administration officials, who in these hearings often have to subtly distance themselves from the actions of Trump and those around him. Sullivan wasn’t scorching any earth here, but he didn’t try to put too much of a gloss on what happened, either.

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