George Kent, the deputy secretary of state responsible for European and Eurasian affairs, has told House investigators that he was told to “lie low” earlier this year as unorthodox diplomatic channels were set up to deal with the country now at the centre of an impeachment inquiry of the president.
Mr Kent, speaking to investigators in Washington, said that White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney organised a meeting this past spring in which energy secretary Rick Perry, ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland and special US envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker were put in charge of communications with the former Soviet republic — instead of the established traditional channels.
Today Mr Volker was seen in the US Capitol but it was unclear why he had returned following his testimony to the impeachment inquiry earlier this month.
Mr Kentl told House investigators that he was told to “lay low” and focus on five other countries in his portfolio, which normally includes Ukraine. He was told to defer to those three officials — referred to as the “three amigos” — on matters related to Ukraine.
The meeting, according to Mr Kent, took place on 23 May, just days after Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, was recalled, allegedly following a campaign to bring her down.
Ms Yovanovitch, a career diplomat who has served under both Democratic and Republican presidents, testified last week that she believes she was the target of a concerted campaign spearheaded by Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
The timing of the meeting suggests that the Trump administration’s efforts to sideline career diplomats came weeks before Mr Trump’s now infamous phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
During that call, according to a whistleblower complaint and a rough transcript provided by the White House itself, Mr Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to conduct an investigation into Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s business dealings with a Ukrainian oil company.
No evidence has emerged to suggest that Mr Biden or his son acted illegally. But the phone call came just after the Trump administration sought to withhold foreign aid to Ukraine.
During testimony on Tuesday, politicians heard that the state department informed Ukraine of the shift in diplomatic responsibilities in June, and that the decision surprised some in the diplomatic corps at the time.
Mr Perry, who has announced his resignation for later this year, was in the Capitol on Tuesday for unrelated matters, and told reporters he “was involved in that [Ukraine policy] more than anybody. And I never saw or heard anything that was untoward, not by the president, not by anybody.”
Mr Kent’s testimony was delivered behind closed doors to the House foreign affairs, intelligence and oversight committees, which are conducting an impeachment inquiry into whether Mr Trump inappropriately used his public office for personal gain or motives.
He had been subpoenaed by those committees, which are also analysing Mr Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine. The former New York City mayor and personal attorney to Mr Trump has maintained that his business dealings in Ukraine were legal, and above board. He has also accused Mr Kent and Ms Yovanovitch of endeavouring to protect Mr Biden and his family.
The details of the meeting were made public by representative Gerald Connolly, a Democrat.
Soon after Mr Connolly told reporters about the substance of the testimony, his recollections were blasted by Republicans, who claimed that Mr Connolly was in and out of the hearings and would therefore not have an accurate idea of the total testimony. The Democrat said he had been in the hearing for at least an hour.