George Kent, Ukraine-Russia expert, testifies before Congress as part of impeachment inquiry – USA TODAY
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Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – George Kent, an expert on Ukraine and Russia who now serves as a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, is fielding questions from lawmakers Tuesday as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Kent arrived Tuesday morning under a congressional subpoena because the State Department attempted to block his appearance, according to an official working on the impeachment inquiry. He quickly made his way behind two oak doors to a private hearing room, ignoring questions shouted by reporters.
“In light of an attempt by the State Department, in coordination with the White House, to direct Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent not to appear for his scheduled deposition, and efforts by the State Department to also limit any testimony that does occur, the House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena to compel his testimony this morning,” the official working on the impeachment inquiry said. “As is required of him, DAS Kent is now complying with the subpoena and answering questions from both Democratic and Republican Members and staff.”
House Democrats are investigating allegations, made by an unidentified whistleblower, that Trump used the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election. In a July 25 call, Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic rival in the 2020 presidential race.
Kent’s appearance could be important to lawmakers because he played a key role at the State Department as Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, ramped up his pressure on the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Kent drew Giuliani’s ire earlier this year. In an interview with a Ukrainian news website in May, Giuliani alleged, without evidence, that Kent was working with George Soros, the liberal billionaire philanthropist, to find “dirty information” on Trump campaign officials.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J. and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said Kent’s testimony on Tuesday helped back up information the impeachment panel learned the previous day from Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia adviser.
“Every witness has provided further back up for the initial story that was provided by the whistleblower,” he said.
Hill reportedly told the panel that former National Security Adviser John Bolton wanted no part in the White House’s efforts in Ukraine, comparing it to a “drug deal,” according to the New York Times and NBC.
Malinowski said the initial story outlined in the whistleblower complaint about Trump and the administration’s efforts to pressure Ukraine has been verified and “backed up by multiple direct sources,” he said.
Before taking his current post, Kent served as the deputy chief of mission in Kiev, and he also spent years working on anti-corruption efforts across Europe. He joined the foreign service nearly 30 years ago, and speaks Ukrainian, Russian and Thai, among other languages.
Tuesday’s closed-door session came as Congress returned from a two-week recess; during that break, the impeachment investigation continued to advance quickly, with hearings scheduled and subpoenas issued nearly every other day.
Republicans have attacked the impeachment inquiry as unfair and opaque.
As he arrived for Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, denounced Democrats for holding the impeachment proceedings behind closed doors – in “the most secretive room in the Capitol.”
He was referring to the secure room in the basement of the Capitol Visitor Center, normally reserved for classified briefings, where witnesses have been grilled by lawmakers and staffers leading the impeachment probe.
“If Congress is going to proceed on this measure – which is probably the most important thing that Congress can do is remove a president from office – then it should do so with the spirit of fairness and the spirit of due process,” McCaul said.
Democrats, however, have argued the process was better done in private, to prevent witnesses from hearing each other’s testimony. Three committees, the House Foreign Affairs, Oversight and Intelligence committees, are leading the probe.
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Along with Kent’s appearance, Tuesday also marks the deadline for Vice President Mike Pence, Giuliani, the Pentagon and the Office of Management and Budget to turn over documents pertaining to both Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s president and the delay of military aid for Ukraine meant to fend off Russian aggression.
House Democrats subpoenaed those documents, except in Pence’s case, although it’s possible they will issue one to force his cooperation as well. The White House has issued a blanket refusal to cooperate with the inquiry.
In a letter to Congress, an attorney for Giuliani said the former New York mayor will not comply with the document subpoena. The attorney called the inquiry “unconstitutional, baseless and illegitimate,” and said the documents are protected by attorney-client privilege and executive privilege, despite the fact that Giuliani doesn’t work for the government.
At least three other witnesses are also scheduled to appear before the panel this week, according to a schedule released Monday by an official working on the impeachment inquiry:
• P. Michael McKinley, former senior adviser to the secretary of State, is scheduled to appear in a closed session on Wednesday.
McKinley resigned from his post just last week after a career that spanned decades and included posts as U.S. ambassador to Brazil and Afghanistan. The timing of his departure raised questions and the Washington Post reported that his resignation came amid low morale within the State Department and worries that Pompeo was not supporting those wrapped up in the controversy over Ukraine, allegations Pompeo denied in an interview with The Tennessean.
“I protect every single State Department employee,” Pompeo said. “It’s one of the reasons that we asked the House of Representatives to stop their abusive prosecutions where they won’t let State Department lawyers sit with our employees. That’s not fair.”
• Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, is expected to return to Capitol Hill to testify on Thursday. The State Department blocked him from testifying last week. Sondland, a wealthy former hotel magnate from Oregon, has emerged as a central player in the Ukraine affair.
Text messages released earlier this month show that he and Kurt Volker, Trump’s former special envoy to Ukraine, orchestrated a months-long effort to push Ukraine’s newly elected president, Zelensky, to make a public promise that he would order probes into Biden and Ukraine’s alleged role in 2016 election meddling.
• Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper is expected to appear Friday before lawmakers in a closed-door session.
Cooper is a career Defense official, who joined the department in 2001, is responsible for policy regarding a number of countries, including Russia and Ukraine, topics that lawmakers will be eager to ask about. Cooper could have knowledge about the delay of military aid for Ukraine.
On Thursday, T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, the State Department counselor, was scheduled for a deposition with the three committees but it’s unclear if he is still planned to appear that day.
Brechbuhl is a longtime friend of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; both graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served together in Germany. Brechbuhl and Pompeo were also business partners at Thayer Aerospace, a Kansas defense company. Brechbuhl was among those listening to the call July 25, according to a whistleblower’s complaint about the call.
Contributing: Bart Jansen