World / Crime & Legal

State Department worried about defending Trump-ousted ambassador, sources say

AP

The State Department’s third-ranking official is expected to tell House impeachment investigators on Wednesday that political considerations were behind the agency’s refusal to deliver a robust defense of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

People familiar with the matter say the highest-ranking career diplomat in the foreign service, David Hale, plans to say that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior officials determined that publicly defending ousted Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch would hurt the effort to free up U.S. military assistance to Ukraine.

Hale, who arrived Wednesday morning to testify behind closed doors, will also say that the State Department worried about the reaction from President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who was one of the strongest advocates for removing the ambassador, according to the people. Several State Department officials have told lawmakers they opposed the dismissal of Yovanovitch in May, a personnel change that came at Trump’s direction.

Hale’s testimony came as the committees leading the impeachment investigation began to wrap up their closed-door interviews in their investigation of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. The panels this week also are releasing transcripts from previous interviews, in which lawmakers scrutinized Trump’s appeals to new Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskiy to investigate political rival Joe Biden and the actions of Democrats during the 2016 U.S. election.

Impeachment investigators had scheduled interviews with 13 witnesses this week, but Hale was the first to show up. A series of White House witnesses have declined to testify, even under subpoena, after Trump directed them to stay away.

Yovanovitch has already appeared before investigators in the impeachment inquiry into Trump. According to a transcript of her interview released this week, she detailed efforts by Giuliani and other Trump allies to push her out of Ukraine, testifying that a senior Ukrainian official told her that “I really needed to watch my back.”

She also testified that she asked Hale to get Pompeo to issue a statement defending her, but that statement never came. She said Hale asked her to send him a “classified email” with her “understanding of what was going on,” which she said she did.

Hale is expected to shed more light on why the department did not step up to defend its top envoy in Kyiv. According to the people familiar with the matter, he will say he tried to distance himself and the department by removing himself from email chains about Yovanovitch.

Hale, for example, never responded to an email sent by former top Pompeo adviser Michael McKinley urging Pompeo to speak out in defense of Yovanovitch after the White House released a rough transcript of Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy, the officials said.

One official said Hale had “tried to take himself out of the loop on Ukraine.” But another official said Hale would defend Pompeo’s actions as “politically smart” for the department and its employees in the long run.

The people familiar with the matter were not authorized to discuss Hale’s appearance publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity

Hale, a fluent Arabic speaker who joined the foreign service in 1984, has served as ambassador to Lebanon, Pakistan and Jordan and in posts in Tunisia, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. He is the highest-ranking State Department official to testify to impeachment investigators.

Other department officials have testified that they had concerns about Yovanovitch’s ouster and Giuliani’s role in it. Democrats are looking for connections between her dismissal, the hold-up in military assistance for Ukraine and Trump’s push for the country to open investigations.

Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, said in an addendum to his testimony released Tuesday that military assistance to the East European ally was being withheld until Ukraine’s new president agreed to release a statement about fighting corruption as Trump wanted.

Also scheduled to testify Wednesday was State Department Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, an adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and close friend of the secretary. But Brechbuhl did not appear, instead departing with Pompeo on a trip to Germany early Wednesday morning.

Two other witnesses who were scheduled for Wednesday — Russ Vought, the acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, and Rick Perry, the Energy secretary — also are not expected to show up. Both have strongly criticized the probe.

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