Trump pick for Russia envoy grilled by senators on Ukraine

State Department official says he knew Trump lawyer, Giuliani, was involved in campaign against ambassador to Ukraine.

    Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was grilled about his knowledge of Ukraine during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday [J Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press]
    Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was grilled about his knowledge of Ukraine during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday [J Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press]

    The number-two official at the United States State Department faced off Wednesday with senators demanding to know why he did not know more about the Trump administration's backchannel diplomacy with Ukraine and the dismissal of the former US ambassador to Kyiv, issues now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry into the president.

    Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, President Donald Trump's nominee to be ambassador to Russia, told senators at his confirmation hearing that he did not know of any attempt by the president or others to press Ukraine to open a corruption probe into Joe Biden's son, Hunter. He said he knew that Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had spearheaded a campaign to remove Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from her post, but said he did not know details, including what motivated it.

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    Sullivan said he had been told that Trump had lost confidence in Yovanovitch, but was given no further explanation.

    "I was told that he had lost confidence in her. Period," he said.

    "When the president loses confidence in the ambassador, right or wrong, the ambassador goes," Sullivan added. 

    Democratic legislators have previously demanded an explanation from the State Department on why Yovanovitch was removed.

    Giuliani has previously said he had gone to Trump and the State Department as part of his effort to have the career diplomat removed at a time when he was seeking to persuade Ukraine to open an investigation into Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential frontrunner. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens. 

    Shadow foreign policy

    Witnesses have testified during the House impeachment investigation that Giuliani conducted a shadow foreign policy in dealings with Ukraine. His unofficial role often rankled Trump administration officials, including former National Security Council Adviser John Bolton, and blurred the lines on what was considered official government business. 

    Yovanovitch, during her testimony earlier this month in front of a House panel leading the impeachment probe, warned against "private interests" circumventing "professional diplomats for their own gain, not the public good".

    She also said she was "incredulous that the US government chose to remove an ambassador based, as best as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives".

    The impeachment probe specifically seeks to answer if Trump sought the help of a foreign government for his political campaign, and if he withheld $400m in Congress-approved military aid to pressure Ukraine to comply. 

    Separately on Wednesday, two more State Department employees, Ukraine specialists Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson, testified as part of the House probe. 

    Croft told legislators that Robert Livingston, a Republican former congressman turned lobbyist, had pushed for Yovanovitch's removal, calling the ambassador a "holdover" of former US President Barack Obama, according to her prepared opening statement. 

    Croft said she did not know on whose behalf Livingston was working. Lobbying disclosure filings, however, show a connection between Livingston's firm and Giuliani, according to the Reuters news agency.

    According to one filing, Republican former congressman Bob McEwen of Ohio, working as a consultant to Livingston's firm, the Livingston Group, introduced former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to Giuliani last December.

    House to vote on probe

    Earlier this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House would vote on a resolution to affirm the impeachment investigation, set rules for public hearings and outline the potential process for writing articles of impeachment against Trump. The vote is expected on Thursday.

    The move aims to nullify complaints from Trump and his allies that the impeachment inquiry is illegitimate, unfair and lacking due process. The White House had cited a lack of a vote on the inquiry, among other reasons, as justification for the administration not complying with the investigation. 

    Trump has repeatedly denied wrong wrongdoing. He and his Republican supporters dismiss the impeachment probe as a Democratic effort to overturn the Republican president's 2016 election victory.

    "This Impeachment nonsense is just a continuation of the Witch Hunt Hoax," he tweeted on Wednesday, calling on Republicans to "go with Substance and close it out!"

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies