Top State official details chaos after Yovanovitch ouster to impeachment investigators

By Andrew Desiderio

A top State Department official told House impeachment investigators on Saturday about his role in supervising the chaotic fallout from President Donald Trump’s ouster of his ambassador to Ukraine earlier this year, including his stymied efforts to issue a statement in support of the besieged diplomat, according to a person familiar with the official’s testimony.

Philip T. Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, assumed his role in March, just weeks before Trump forced out Marie Yovanovitch, his top diplomat in Kyiv. Reeker had to deal with the aftermath of the president’s decision, which disturbed senior American diplomats who viewed the move as politically motivated.

“More or less his first day on the job, the [Marie] Yovanovitch situation blows up,” said the person familiar with Reeker’s closed-door testimony, who was granted anonymity to candidly describe what Reeker told investigators during his more than eight hours behind closed doors.

Reeker testified that he wanted to release a “proactive statement” in support of Yovanovitch, the person said, adding that Reeker heard that David Hale, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, said no such statement would be issued.

“And so he has a decent amount of knowledge about that, at least as it was happening in March and into April, because he was involved in the State Department’s response — having to make sure that there was somebody in Ukraine, how to deal with the allegations, whether and how they were going to support her,” the person added.

Reeker, a veteran foreign service officer and a former ambassador himself, became the latest State Department official to defy the Trump administration, which has sought to block or limit testimony to what the White House calls an “illegitimate” impeachment inquiry. He appeared Saturday under subpoena after the State Department sought to block his testimony, according to an official working on the impeachment inquiry.

Investigators are trying to piece together efforts by Trump and his associates and diplomats to pressure Ukraine’s leaders to open up investigations into the president’s political rivals, including Joe Biden. A central part of the inquiry is whether Trump withheld military aid to the besieged country and refused a White House meeting with its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, until Ukraine publicly declared its intent to investigate Biden and a debunked conspiracy theory about a Democratic email server.

Lawmakers have deposed several current and former State Department officials in order to learn more about the extent to which American diplomats were involved in or had knowledge of the events in question. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, has said he was in contact with State Department officials — some of whom testified that they were troubled by Giuliani’s involvement and Trump’s efforts to pressure them to work with Giuliani.

Reeker did not plan to give an opening statement when he testified behind closed doors on Saturday. Beyond the Yovanovitch ouster, “he doesn’t really have that much knowledge or involvement in the rest of the story,” the person said.

Reeker spends about half of his time in Europe, meeting with ambassadors and other diplomats. He is tasked with ensuring that all U.S. diplomatic posts throughout the continent are fully staffed, so he found himself in the middle of the firestorm when Yovanovitch was recalled to Washington in May.

Other current and former State Department officials who have testified before House impeachment investigators defended Yovanovitch and spoke out internally against her ouster.

One of those officials, Michael McKinley, a former top adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, testified that he resigned earlier this month in part because the department was unwilling to protect Yovanovitch from false and politically-motivated attacks.

McKinley, who stepped down a week before testifying, attributed his resignation in part to “the failure, in my view, of the State Department to offer support to foreign service employees caught up in the impeachment inquiry on Ukraine,” according to a source familiar with his testimony. He said he “could no longer look the other way as colleagues are denied the professional support and respect they deserve from us all.”

The State Department’s inspector general briefed congressional aides earlier this month about an apparent attempt to smear Yovanovitch. The watchdog, Steve Linick, told staffers that a packet of documents containing misinformation about Yovanovitch was sent to Pompeo’s office earlier this year from an unknown source.

Democrats said the documents represented further evidence that Giuliani and others were trying to tear down Yovanovitch.

Trump himself criticized Yovanovitch during a July 25 phone call with Zelensky, calling her “bad news.” That conversation is at the center of the impeachment inquiry because, according to a readout of the call, Trump pressured Zelensky to launch investigations targeting Biden and his son, Hunter.

Yovanovitch, who has remained a State Department employee ever since she was recalled on May 20, told impeachment investigators earlier this month that she was the victim of a “concerted campaign” to overthrow her based on “unfounded and false claims,” according to her opening statement obtained by POLITICO.

She said the people pushing those allegations had “questionable motives,” adding that U.S. interests are “harmed” when “private interests circumvent professional diplomats for their own gain, not the public good.” It appeared to be a reference to Giuliani, whom Democrats have accused of running a shadow foreign policy toward Ukraine that was vastly different from that of the U.S. government.

Yovanovitch’s successor in Kyiv, William Taylor, delivered bombshell testimony earlier this week, tying Trump directly to a quid pro quo with Ukraine involving military aid and a Trump-Zelensky meeting. He testified that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, said Trump personally told him that he wanted Ukraine to publicly announce investigations targeting the president’s political opponents before U.S. would release the military aid.

Democrats are expected to continue holding closed-door depositions for at least the next two weeks before moving the impeachment inquiry into the open. Democratic leaders have defended the secrecy of the evidence-gathering process amid claims from Republicans that Democrats are running a “sham” investigation that lacks basic transparency.

Kyle Cheney contributed to this story.