Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney organized a meeting this spring in which officials were determined to take Ukraine policy out of the traditional channels, putting Energy Secretary Rick Perry, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and special U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker in charge instead, a top State Department official told lawmakers Tuesday.
George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, told House investigators he was instructed to “lay low,” focus on the five other countries in his portfolio and defer to Volker, Sondland and Perry — who called themselves the “three amigos” — on matters related to Ukraine, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) told reporters Tuesday. Kent took that as a sign, Connolly added, that having been critical of the plan he was being pushed aside “because what he was saying was not welcome” at high levels of the government.
Mulvaney’s meeting, which Kent told lawmakers took place on May 23, according to Connolly, was just days after the administration recalled Marie Yovanovitch from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Yovanovitch spoke to House investigators last week about the campaign against her, which she and other former diplomats have said was organized by President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.
The revelations from Kent’s testimony suggest the decision to wrest Ukraine policy away from career diplomats and put it in the hands of officials seen as more sympathetic to the president was taken several weeks before Trump spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In their July 25 call, Trump appeared to pressure the Ukrainian leader to launch probes into the 2016 U.S. election and the son of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden.
Administration officials informed the Ukrainians of their decision to shift authority for Ukraine policy in June, according to two people familiar with Kent’s testimony.
“For some Americans from the embassy, that was news to them,” he added.
Perry, who was on Capitol Hill on Tuesday for an unrelated briefing, told reporters he “was involved in that [Ukraine policy] more than anybody. And I never saw or heard anything that was untoward, not by the president, not by anybody.”
Kent spoke for several hours Tuesday in a closed-door meeting with the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees, which together are conducting an impeachment probe into whether Trump abused his office to pressure a foreign government into doing work that could affect the election.
The longtime Foreign Service official had been summoned for a deposition in the investigation, with Democrats expected to question him about a campaign by Giuliani to pressure Ukraine into investigating the president’s political rival.
Giuliani has maintained that his activities related to Ukraine were aboveboard and that he’s done nothing wrong.
Kent arrived on Capitol Hill after the House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena for his testimony, according to a congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to converse frankly. The White House, in a letter to top Democrats last week, said it would not cooperate with the impeachment investigation, forcing Democrats to rely on subpoenas to compel witnesses to appear.
The deposition took place behind closed doors, and after it, leading Republicans blasted Connolly for speaking publicly about private proceedings they had been expressly told, they said, not to discuss.
“He was barely there, and he walks out and starts telling the public of what substantively happened behind closed doors,” Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said of Connolly. “This is a disgusting strategy that has been on display.”
Giuliani has accused Yovanovitch and Kent, formerly the No. 2 ranking diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, of trying to protect the Bidens from an investigation by Ukrainian prosecutors. Yovanovitch, who was recalled from Kiev in May, adamantly pushed back on those accusations during testimony before House investigators Friday.
Internal documents turned over to Congress by the State Department inspector general in early October showed that Kent suspected beginning in March that Yovanovitch had become the target of a “classic disinformation operation” — and that he raised concerns to his superiors in the hope they would defend their own.
Connolly said Kent testified that Giuliani relied on now-former Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko for information damaging to Yovanovitch, which was also shared with John Solomon, a former columnist for the Hill newspaper. Lutsenko wanted to get Yovanovitch out of the way, Connolly recalled Kent as saying, and persuaded Giuliani with disinformation that she would also be a problem. Giuliani then persuaded Trump, Connolly said of Kent’s testimony.
“As he said, the consequence was to undermine 28 years of our efforts to promote the rule of law by actually doing something corrupt ourselves,” Connolly said — noting that Kent himself expressed the stakes as such.
In an interview Tuesday, Solomon denied he participated in a disinformation campaign. Giuliani and the Hill had alleged earlier this year that Yovanovitch provided a “do not prosecute list” to Ukrainian officials to protect the Bidens and other allies. But Kent, according to the documents, told his colleagues that the list was phony, pointing to incorrect name spellings that longtime officials like Yovanovitch and himself would never have gotten wrong, he said.
“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, who is fluent in Russian and Ukrainian, said in one email to colleagues.
Kent, according to the documents, suggested the department could counter the attack on Yovanovitch by “circling in red all the misspellings and grammar mistakes and reposting ” the list as the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had done in similar counterpropaganda campaigns.
“If we wanted to push back hard[er], we could consider a similar approach,” he said. Solomon said the list was never written down but communicated to Lutsenko orally. He also provided a letter he obtained that Kent appears to have sent the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office in April 2016, objecting to investigation into the Anti-Corruption Action Center, which was being supported by the United States, as an intimidation campaign. The Washington Post could not independently verify the veracity of the document.
According to the inspector general’s documents, Kent took his concerns to Philip Reeker, a U.S. diplomat in Europe, and later forwarded them to the No. 3 official at the department, David Hale, and State Department counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, a close confidant of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Brechbuhl also has been summoned for testimony before House Democrats.
In an attempt to make sense of what he called the “fake list,” Kent suggested it could be an effort by Lutsenko, who was ousted this summer for corruption, to try to pin the blame for his failures on the United States.
“This list appears to be an effort by Lutsenko to inoculate himself for why he did not pursue corrupt associates and political allies — to claim that the U.S. told him not to,” Kent said. “Complete poppycock.”
Kent joined the State Department in 1992 and has a portfolio that includes Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. From 2015 to 2018, he served as deputy chief of mission in Kiev, and he was previously senior anti-corruption coordinator in the State Department’s Europe Bureau.
Kent is one of more than a half-dozen current and former State officials who have been summoned by Democrats as part of their probe into Trump’s bid to pressure Ukraine into digging up dirt on the Biden family — and sideline State officials who did not take well to that task. Democrats have also requested documents from the White House, Vice President Pence, the Pentagon, and the Office of Management and Budget, issuing several subpoenas that will come due this week.
John Hudson and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.