George Kent, Ukraine-Russia expert, said he raised red flags about Giuliani and Ukraine, Democrat says
WASHINGTON – George Kent, an expert on Ukraine and Russia who now serves as a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, told lawmakers that he raised red flags about Rudy Giuliani's efforts to pressure Ukraine more than six months ago, according to a Democratic lawmaker.
Kent made the remarks about Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, during more than 10 hours of closed-door testimony, part of the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
“He was clearly bothered by the role Mr. Giuliani was playing and the disinformation he was spreading and the fact that he had the president’s ear, which was negatively affecting our relationship with the new government in Ukraine," Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., told reporters after emerging from the session.
Kent arrived Tuesday morning under a congressional subpoena because the State Department attempted to block his appearance, according to an official working on the impeachment inquiry. He quickly made his way behind two oak doors to a private hearing room, ignoring questions shouted by reporters.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said witnesses such as Kent have shown "enormous courage" in testifying, despite the White House's efforts to block cooperation.
"We are running into a complete effort by the administration to stonewall," Schiff said at a news conference Tuesday evening. He noted that the State Department and other agencies have blown by subpoena deadlines to turn over documents.
"The evidence of obstruction of Congress continues to mount," he added.
House Democrats are investigating allegations, made by an unidentified whistleblower, that Trump used the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election. In a July 25 call, Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic rival in the 2020 presidential race.
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Kent's appearance could be important to lawmakers because he played a key role at the State Department as Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, ramped up his pressure on the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Kent drew Giuliani’s ire earlier this year. In an interview with a Ukrainian news website in May, Giuliani alleged, without evidence, that Kent was working with George Soros, the liberal billionaire philanthropist, to find “dirty information” on Trump campaign officials.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J. and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said Kent’s testimony on Tuesday broke new ground and helped back up information the impeachment panel learned the previous day from Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia adviser.
“Every witness has provided further back up for the initial story that was provided by the whistleblower,” he said. He said he could not divulge additional details.
Hill reportedly told the panel that former National Security Adviser John Bolton wanted no part in the White House’s efforts in Ukraine, comparing it to a “drug deal,” according to the New York Times and NBC.
GOP lawmakers said so far, witnesses have not supported Democrats' claims that Trump froze U.S. military aid to Ukraine and refused to meet with Zelensky until or unless the Ukrainians opened a Biden probe.
“The more we’re in this, the more I’m convinced that a pledge and a promise to do something, conditioned upon an investigation so that aid could be delivered, that just didn’t happen,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a staunch Trump ally.
Republicans have also attacked the impeachment inquiry as unfair and opaque.
As he arrived for Tuesday's hearing, Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, denounced Democrats for holding the impeachment proceedings behind closed doors – in “the most secretive room in the Capitol.”
He was referring to the secure room in the basement of the Capitol Visitor Center, normally reserved for classified briefings, where witnesses have been grilled by lawmakers and staffers leading the impeachment probe.
“If Congress is going to proceed on this measure – which is probably the most important thing that Congress can do is remove a president from office – then it should do so with the spirit of fairness and the spirit of due process,” McCaul said.
Democrats, however, have argued the process was better done in private, to prevent witnesses from hearing each other's testimony. Three committees, the House Foreign Affairs, Oversight and Intelligence committees, are leading the probe.
Before taking his current post, Kent served as the deputy chief of mission in Kiev, and he also spent years working on anti-corruption efforts across Europe. He joined the foreign service nearly 30 years ago, and speaks Ukrainian, Russian and Thai, among other languages.
Tuesday's closed-door session came as Congress returned from a two-week recess; during that break, the impeachment investigation continued to advance quickly, with hearings scheduled and subpoenas issued nearly every other day.
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Along with Kent's appearance, Tuesday also marked the deadline for Vice President Mike Pence, Giuliani, the Pentagon and the Office of Management and Budget to turn over documents pertaining to both Trump's July 25 call with Ukraine's president and the delay of military aid for Ukraine meant to fend off Russian aggression.
House Democrats subpoenaed those documents, except in Pence's case, although it's possible they will issue one to force his cooperation as well. The White House has issued a blanket refusal to cooperate with the inquiry.
In a letter to Congress, an attorney for Giuliani said the former New York mayor will not comply with the document subpoena. The attorney called the inquiry "unconstitutional, baseless and illegitimate," and said the documents are protected by attorney-client privilege and executive privilege, despite the fact that Giuliani doesn't work for the government.
At least three other witnesses are also scheduled to appear before the panel this week, according to a schedule released Monday by an official working on the impeachment inquiry:
• P. Michael McKinley, former senior adviser to the secretary of State, is scheduled to appear in a closed session on Wednesday.
McKinley resigned from his post just last week after a career that spanned decades and included posts as U.S. ambassador to Brazil and Afghanistan. The timing of his departure raised questions and the Washington Post reported that his resignation came amid low morale within the State Department and worries that Pompeo was not supporting those wrapped up in the controversy over Ukraine, allegations Pompeo denied in an interview with The Tennessean.
"I protect every single State Department employee," Pompeo said. "It’s one of the reasons that we asked the House of Representatives to stop their abusive prosecutions where they won’t let State Department lawyers sit with our employees. That’s not fair."
• Gordon Sondland, Trump's ambassador to the European Union, is expected to return to Capitol Hill to testify on Thursday. The State Department blocked him from testifying last week. Sondland, a wealthy former hotel magnate from Oregon, has emerged as a central player in the Ukraine affair.
Text messages released earlier this month show that he and Kurt Volker, Trump's former special envoy to Ukraine, orchestrated a months-long effort to push Ukraine's newly elected president, Zelensky, to make a public promise that he would order probes into Biden and Ukraine's alleged role in 2016 election meddling.
• Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper is expected to appear Friday before lawmakers in a closed-door session.
Cooper is a career Defense official, who joined the department in 2001, is responsible for policy regarding a number of countries, including Russia and Ukraine, topics that lawmakers will be eager to ask about. Cooper could have knowledge about the delay of military aid for Ukraine.
On Thursday, T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, the State Department counselor, was scheduled for a deposition with the three committees but it's unclear if he is still planned to appear that day.
Brechbuhl is a longtime friend of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; both graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served together in Germany. Brechbuhl and Pompeo were also business partners at Thayer Aerospace, a Kansas defense company. Brechbuhl was among those listening to the call July 25, according to a whistleblower’s complaint about the call.
Contributing: Bart Jansen