Kurt Volker: A quiet diplomat, suddenly caught in Trump's impeachment chaos

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent
Kurt Volker, former special envoy to Ukraine, departs a closed-door deposition conducted by the House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 3. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — In July 2008, President George W. Bush nominated a capable midcareer diplomat to serve as the U.S. representative to NATO. In a welcome sign of bipartisanship, the diplomat was introduced to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee by Robert P. Casey Jr., a Democratic senator from Pennsylvania.

Casey said the nominee “represents the very best of the U.S. Foreign Service,” calling him a “seasoned diplomat who advances the interests of his country without regard for politics or partisanship.”

The hearing began with the nominated diplomat noting that his wife had gone to Occidental College with the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“We overlapped,” agreed the chairman, then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

The diplomat, Kurt Volker, was back on Capitol Hill last week, 11 years after he became the NATO ambassador, and just days after resigning his most recent post as special envoy to Ukraine. That had been his first government position since the NATO ambassadorship, and it has been a quite different experience, to put it mildly.

Volker did not return to Capitol Hall last Thursday to receive plaudits from legislators for his work on the nation’s behalf. Instead, he was there to provide closed-door testimony to the House Intelligence Committee on what he knows about President Trump’s efforts to have the government of Ukraine investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Democrats see Volker as a critical link in the impeachment inquiry that began with a whistleblower’s complaint over a July 25 phone call between Trump and the recently elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Trump wanted Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine, where he had served on the board of an energy company, which some on the political right have spun into an intricate and unfounded conspiracy theory, one that Trump himself has promoted. Volker said in his House testimony that Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, wanted the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens, and that he warned Giuliani against pushing for such an investigation.

Until last week, most Americans had never heard Volker’s name. That changed when Giuliani tweeted screen-captured images of texts Volker had sent him, resulting in the emergence of the low-key diplomat as a key figure in the impeachment probe now being led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff. Volker resigned his unpaid post on Sept. 27, and on Monday also left the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University, where he had served as executive director since 2012.

Volker spent some nine hours on Capitol Hill on Thursday, offering what some believe could be damning testimony. His testimony has not been made public, but text messages he exchanged with another American diplomat suggest that his main interest was in maintaining productive U.S. relations with Ukraine and supporting the Eastern European nation in its efforts to contain Russian aggression.

Rudy Giuliani (Photo: Jeff Neira/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

“Volker did the best he could under a lot of pressure. He was mostly accurate,” Giuliani told Yahoo News in a text message. He reiterated that as far as the Trump administration’s efforts in Ukraine were concerned, “no one did anything wrong,” but that “deranged” media outlets were bound to nevertheless concoct an anti-Trump narrative.

Volker is one of several diplomats and government officials caught up in the Ukraine inquiry. Others include Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who appears to have played a key role in Trump’s effort to push the Ukrainian investigation. The new director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, handled the original whistleblower complaint that sounded alarms about the Ukraine call; Democrats have charged that he did not sound those alarms soon enough.

Marie Yovanovitch had been U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, only to be recalled by Trump for pushing back against what she saw as blatantly political moves by the administration. She is not implicated in the impeachment inquiry as a potential malefactor, but she is now ensnared in it all the same and is expected to testify on Capitol Hill in the near future.

They and others are discovering that nothing is beyond partisan politics in the age of Trump. Whether guilty of any wrongdoing or not, men and women who had spent decades working in anonymity have suddenly become cable news mainstays, their names bandied about by both the president’s most loyal supporters and his most vociferous detractors.

“Donald Trump has so fundamentally corrupted U.S. foreign policy that you have career diplomats put in a position where they’re basically acting on behalf of the president’s reelection campaign,” former Obama national security adviser Ben Rhodes said on MSNBC last week.

It has been an astonishing trajectory for Volker, who never sought the limelight that is now shining so harshly on his career. “There are a lot of angles to Kurt,” Giuliani told Yahoo News in an extensive phone conversation. He maintained what he had previously written in a text message: that Volker had more or less told the truth about the Ukraine affair, which Giuliani depicted — as he has since the matter came to public attention — as a matter of investigating corruption, not punishing a political opponent.

In addition, Giuliani thought that Sondland, the EU ambassador, would corroborate his version of events. Giuliani said Sondland was “not as frightened as Kurt.” Unlike Volker, Sondland is a not a seasoned diplomat but instead a wealthy businessman and Trump donor.

President Trump with Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, second from right, in 2018. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Amid all the questions about his involvement in the Ukraine affair, Volker got married this weekend. (He is divorced from his first wife, Karen, who works for an antiviolence organization. They have two children.) His new wife is Ia Meurmishvili, a journalist from the nation of Georgia, which like Ukraine has been a victim of Russian aggression.

Volker did not respond to multiple requests for comment over the weekend.

Geopolitical affairs have been Volker’s occupation since he graduated with a master’s degree in international relations from George Washington University in 1987. He joined the Central Intelligence Agency as an analyst but left that position after only a year to join Sen. John McCain’s staff. He rose through the foreign policy ranks in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, making his way easily between Europe and the United States.

In his time as an official at NATO and on the National Security Council, as well as in a subsequent post as a top Europe expert in the State Department, Volker remained clear-eyed about the threat posed by Russia, even as other officials believed the danger had passed. He doubted that Obama’s much-touted “reset” with Vladimir Putin would bear fruit, according to one person who knows Volker well and has worked with him for many years.

That attitude of suspicion has only hardened in recent years, even as Trump has continued to make overtures to Putin. In a 2017 interview with Politico, he made no effort to downplay Russia’s aggression in the Donbass and Crimean regions of Ukraine. “This is a Russian invasion, a Russian occupation of territory,” he said.

Volker was appointed the U.S. ambassador to NATO near the end of Bush’s second term. In a sign of how much respect he had earned from official Washington, he stayed in the post even as Obama came into office, promising better relations with allies who had felt spurned by the hawks who endorsed the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Like many public servants, Volker eventually sought opportunities in the private sector. This, inevitably, brought him into contact with the swampy elements Trump decried during his presidential campaign.

He worked as an adviser for McLarty Associates, a worldwide consulting firm founded by former Bill Clinton chief of staff Thomas “Mac” McLarty. The McLarty Associates website includes a cheeky nod to its influence. “Our Featured Clients,” says one banner, above the logos of corporations like Chevron and General Electric. Beneath that headline, in fainter lettering, is a parenthetical notation: “The ones we can mention.”

Volker also worked for BGR Group, another influential consulting firm in Washington. BGR has lobbied for defense contractor Raytheon, which makes Javelin antitank missiles, which Ukraine has sought (successfully) for its ongoing defense against an invasion by Russia. Some have suggested that represented a conflict of interest for Volker, since he had been pushing for the strengthening of Ukrainian border positions as a government official. Raytheon is a funder of Volker’s longtime employer, the McCain Institute, from which he resigned on Monday.

A Ukrainian serviceman in an armored personnel carrier during a 2018 military parade in Kiev. (Photo: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

Trump’s election threatened to upend the fragile post-Cold War order that Volker had been struggling to preserve. But at least in public, the diplomat did not appear to be alarmed. “It will likely be a lot more normal than people assume,” Volker told USA Today two weeks after the 2016 election, as Obama was rushing to reassure allies that international agreements would not be shredded by Trump. The person familiar with Volker’s thinking said that Volker believed he could do good by working within the Trump administration instead of merely criticizing it from without.

Volker was appointed special envoy to Ukraine in July 2017 by Rex Tillerson, who was Trump’s first secretary of state. That same day, Trump and Putin spoke for an hour at the G-20 summit. Trump contravened protocol for such “bilats” — short for “bilaterals,” as meetings between two heads of state are known — by not having any other official present. It is not known what the two said, though Trump’s admiration for the authoritarian Russian leader continued. Claims to Ukraine are central to both Russia’s identity and geopolitics, and it is likely that Putin raised the matter with Trump.

In other words, Volker had come to work for a president who shared virtually none of his deeply held views.

Daniel Fried, the former U.S. ambassador to Poland, estimates that he worked for about seven years with Volker at both the State Department and the National Security Council. He says Trump put Volker in an untenable position by having him carry out orders that had no benefit to the United States and were solely intended to boost Trump’s political prospects.

Speaking last week on Yahoo’s “Skullduggery” podcast, top Obama diplomat Tony Blinken called Volker, whom he has known for years, “highly competent and experienced.” At the same time, he surmised that diplomats like Volker, who come to work for Trump without any pretense of sharing his political goals, “run the risk of then facilitating the very thing they’re trying to mitigate.”

Fried also believes Volker was only “trying to limit the damage” of improper overtures by Giuliani, who wanted the Ukrainians to launch an aggressive investigation of the Bidens. But the damage appears to be spreading, with Volker caught right in the middle, which is exactly where he never expected to be.

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