Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Russia confirmed the assertion from a former diplomat in Ukraine that she was removed after concerted pressure by the president and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
John Sullivan, who’s currently deputy secretary of state, testified Wednesday that he told U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch that she was being recalled. That followed a campaign by Giuliani who singled her out for what he deemed an anti-Trump agenda.
Asked why he instructed Yovanovitch to come home from Ukraine, Sullivan told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing that it was because he was informed the president had lost confidence in her. “When the president loses confidence in the ambassador, right or wrong, the ambassador needs to come home,” he said.
But Sullivan also said that he learned that Giuliani had pushed for Yovanovitch’s removal and that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had initially resisted the president’s call to oust her.
Democrats on the Senate panel used Sullivan’s confirmation hearing to pursue allegations at the heart of the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry — that Trump held up U.S. military aid and a promised White House meeting to extract a pledge from Ukraine’s new president to investigate Democrat Joe Biden and his son Hunter as well as a conspiracy theory that Ukraine and Democrats, not Russia favoring Trump, interfered in the 2016 election.
“Ukrainians died because of this delay and died at the hands of Russian forces,” Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the committee’s top Democrat, said at the hearing. He said his support for Sullivan depends on whether he thinks success “is fulfilling President Trump’s pro-Kremlin vision.”
Yovanovitch told House impeachment investigators earlier in October that Sullivan informed her 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.
“He also said that I had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause,” she testified, according to her opening statement, which was made public.
Under questioning from Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Sullivan said “I’m not aware” of any other instance when a U.S. president has asked a foreign power to investigate a U.S. citizen like the Bidens.
Sullivan acknowledged that “investigating a political rival as opposed to encouraging political reform” would be “inconsistent with our values.”
Sullivan made no reference to the impeachment inquiry in his opening remarks but pledged that if he’s confirmed as ambassador he’d balance opportunities to work with Russia against vigilance toward its “malign actions.”
“I will be relentless in opposing Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. elections, to violate the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia, and to engage in the malign behavior that has reduced our relationship to such a low level of trust,” he said in the statement.
Sullivan also distanced the State Department leadership from Giuliani’s claim that his work on Ukraine was done at the department’s request, suggesting it was part of a parallel process that Sullivan and Pompeo weren’t engaged on.
In a Sept. 26 interview on Fox News, Giuliani criticized a whistle-blower’s allegations that he was operating on his own, saying, “I went to meet Mr. Zelenskiy’s aide at the request of the State Department. Fifteen memos make that clear.”Instead, Sullivan said Giuliani was likely referring to communications about Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy with Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations.
Sullivan, asked if he helped direct Giuliani’s efforts on Ukraine issues, replied, “I did not, and I’m not aware that the secretary did either.”
Sullivan was mentioned by name in Yovanovitch’s opening statement to the impeachment inquiry earlier this month. Yovanovitch said Sullivan broke the news that she was being recalled from her post early even though her original term wasn’t up for a couple of months and had been extended through 2020 shortly before.
The impeachment connection, and Sullivan’s current position as Pompeo’s top deputy, resulted in a contentious hearing where Sullivan’s qualifications for the job were overshadowed.
The committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, has refused to hold any hearings linked to Ukraine or allegations of impeachable offenses by the president. It will also be the first Russia-related hearing in the committee in more than two years.
Risch said at Wednesday’s hearing that “it’s almost impossible” to discuss Ukraine “without talking about the corruption in the country.” He suggested a president shouldn’t have to “look the other way” if a political opponent is involved in the corruption, as Trump asserts Biden’s son was by serving on the board of a gas company in Ukraine.
In the Democratic-controlled House, the impeachment inquiry continues to take witness testimony behind closed doors as the full chamber prepares for a Thursday vote on an impeachment resolution.
The role of ambassador in Moscow is a largely thankless one in an administration whose policy toward Russia has been highly contradictory. Trump has repeatedly pledged to improve ties — and in a summit in Helsinki, Finland last year appeared to back Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vow that he didn’t interfere with the 2016 election despite the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that he did.
Twelve Russian intelligence agents were indicted as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and the U.S. slapped numerous sanctions and visa restrictions on Russia over its role in the election interference, as well as a nerve-agent attack on a former spy in the U.K.
Sullivan has led committees on counterterrorism and strategic security. Yet even an initiative to ease what both the U.S. and Russia call “minor irritants” has failed to produce any gains.
Sullivan briefly held the role of acting secretary of state from the time Trump fired Rex Tillerson in March 2018 until the Senate confirmed Pompeo a month later. His nomination for Russia ambassador has the backing of numerous high-ranking national security officials including former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
“We believe he is the right person at the right time for what is always a very critical post, but perhaps never more critical as now,” the group wrote in the letter, which was obtained by Bloomberg News.
Sullivan would replace Jon Huntsman, a former governor of Utah and ambassador to China, who left Moscow earlier in October. He will have support from at least one Democrat on the Committee, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, who was among those introducing him at the hearing.
“He has served our nation well in public service,” Cardin said. “John Sullivan to me is a straight shooter.”
(Updates to add Sullivan response to Giuliani-Ukraine questions from 13th paragraph)
–With assistance from Billy House.
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