Despite Trump's order, US diplomat speaks to impeachment panel

Wearing a bow tie, career diplomat George Kent ignored questions from reporters as he arrived on Capitol Hill to speak with lawmakers behind closed doors on Oct 15.
Wearing a bow tie, career diplomat George Kent ignored questions from reporters as he arrived on Capitol Hill to speak with lawmakers behind closed doors on Oct 15.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A senior United States diplomat testified before lawmakers in an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump on Tuesday (Oct 15), another undercut of White House efforts to stonewall the Democratic-led investigation.

Wearing a bow tie, career diplomat George Kent ignored questions from reporters as he arrived on Capitol Hill to speak with lawmakers behind closed doors.

Democrats in the US House of Representatives are examining whether there are grounds to impeach Mr Trump for asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 25 phone call to look into unsubstantiated allegations about political rival Joe Biden.

The former vice-president is a leading contender in the Democratic nominating contest to run against Republican Mr Trump in the November 2020 US presidential election.

Mr Kent, who has spent much of his career fighting corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere, is the second career diplomat to testify as part of the probe after being subpoenaed. The White House and State Department ordered them not to appear.

It was unclear what Mr Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for US policy towards six former Soviet republics including Ukraine, was telling lawmakers.

According to the New York Times, Mr Kent raised concerns with colleagues as far back as March about Mr Rudy Giuliani, Mr Trump's personal lawyer, pressuring Ukraine to pursue investigations into the President's political rivals.

Lawmakers have already heard unsettling accounts from other US officials.

Ms Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, last Friday accused the Trump administration of recalling her in May based on false claims.

 
 
 
 

Ms Fiona Hill, Mr Trump's former Russia adviser, told lawmakers on Monday that she and her then-boss, former national security adviser John Bolton, were alarmed this summer by efforts to force Ukraine to investigate Mr Biden and other rivals and advised her to notify a National Security Council lawyer, according to a source familiar with her testimony.

Ms Hill told lawmakers that Mr Bolton characterised Mr Giuliani as "a hand grenade who is going to blow everybody up", according to two sources familiar with her testimony. A Bolton spokesman said he would have no comment on the testimony.

Mr Giuliani, a former New York City mayor, faces a Tuesday deadline to produce documents related to the Ukraine matter subpoenaed by the House Intelligence Committee.

His lawyer in the matter, Mr Jon Sale, said he had responded to the subpoena but declined to provide any details.

Mr Giuliani, who had previously said he would not comply, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Democratic Representative Jackie Speier, a member of the Intelligence and Oversight committees, told MSNBC that House Democrats would likely move to hold Mr Giuliani in contempt if he does not cooperate.

Mr Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union who was involved in the Ukraine discussions, is due to testify later in the week in response to a congressional subpoena.

HUNTER BIDEN DENIES WRONGDOING

The investigation is focused on the July call in which Mr Trump pressed Mr Zelensky to have Ukraine officials investigate Mr Biden and his businessman son, Hunter Biden, who had been on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

Mr Hunter Biden, 49, denied doing anything improper in past work for the company but acknowledged that he had benefited professionally from his father's political career in an interview with ABC News that aired on Tuesday.

Mr Joe Biden has rejected Mr Trump's allegations of corruption.

Democrats have accused Mr Trump of pressuring a vulnerable US ally to dig up dirt on Mr Biden after withholding US$391 million (S$535 million) in US security aid intended to help combat Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine. Mr Zelensky agreed to investigate. Mr Trump eventually allowed the aid.

Mr Trump has denied wrongdoing and defended his request to Mr Zelensky during the phone call, the contents of which was revealed by a whistle-blower.

The House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs panels conducting the Ukraine phase of the inquiry are expected to turn over their material to the House Judiciary Committee once their work is complete.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats might then submit formal articles of impeachment against Mr Trump to the full House. The Senate, controlled by Mr Trump's Republican party, would then hold a trial to determine whether the President should be removed from office.

According to State Department e-mails seen by Reuters, diplomat Mr Kent told colleagues that Ms Yovanovitch had become the target of a "classic disinformation operation".

Ms Yovanovitch last Friday denied Mr Giuliani's allegations that she provided a "do not prosecute list" to Ukrainian officials to protect Mr Biden and others.

"One key sign of it being fake is that most of the names are misspelled in English - we would never spell most that way," Mr Kent said in the e-mail to colleagues.

Mr Kent, who majored in Russian language and literature at Harvard, has held several jobs requiring him to grapple with corruption in Ukraine, which ranks 120th of 180 nations in a Transparency International corruption perceptions index.