Ousted Diplomat to Detail Giuliani Role in Ukraine Back-Channel

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(Bloomberg) -- Rudy Giuliani’s role in back-channel efforts to pressure Ukraine will come under closer scrutiny Friday as the House impeachment investigation hears public testimony from a U.S. diplomat who was abruptly ousted following what she has described as a smear campaign that he directed.

Marie Yovanovitch, who was removed as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in May, previously testified that she was a casualty of an effort orchestrated by President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and his associates, some of whom “may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”

While Yovanovitch will be on camera before the Intelligence Committee, there will be high interest in a closed session later in the day where a staff member at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv will be questioned about the bombshell revelation from the first public hearing on Wednesday -- that Trump on July 26 asked envoy Gordon Sondland about the status of “investigations” sought from Ukraine.

Ousted Diplomat to Detail Giuliani Role in Ukraine Back-Channel

David Holmes, the U.S. political counselor in Ukraine, was with Sondland in Kyiv when the call took place. His testimony could be the most direct evidence yet that the president was focused on pressuring Kyiv to launch a politically motivated investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden’s role in Ukraine and that of his son, Hunter Biden.

Friday’s hearing presents a challenge for Democrats, who are focusing their impeachment investigation on whether Trump abused his power by withholding nearly $400 million in U.S. security assistance as leverage to pressure new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for commitments to conduct those probes. The money was later provided to Ukraine, without such a public commitment.

The Intelligence Committee led by California Representative Adam Schiff has yet to deliver direct evidence of Trump himself explicitly tying the aid to the investigations by Ukraine, though a series of career foreign service officers have testified they were told by others that he did. The White House has blocked administration officials who were centrally involved in the Ukraine discussion from cooperating with the inquiry.

Ousted Diplomat to Detail Giuliani Role in Ukraine Back-Channel

That may make it difficult to build broad support for impeaching Trump with the American public, which polls show is largely evenly divided on whether the president’s actions merit removal from office.

Republicans dismissed Wednesday’s testimony from two State Department officials as a collection of second-hand accounts. “Their testimony is not credible because it’s not based on first hand knowledge,” Republican Representative Mark Meadows said of acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent.

Yovanovitch, a career foreign service officer who remains a State Department employee, is the sole witness Friday and isn’t expected to give testimony tied to directly to the question of what Trump did or said.

But Yovanovitch has been able to provide her view of some of Giuliani’s activities against her in Ukraine on behalf of Trump in back-channel diplomacy before she was removed as ambassador.

‘False Claims’

Yovanovitch has already told impeachment investigators privately about how she believes she was ousted because of “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives” with Giuliani leading those attacks, according to a transcript of her closed-door testimony on Oct. 11 released last week.

She said that Ukrainian officials alerted her to contacts between Giuliani and former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, and “that Mr. Lutsenko was looking to hurt me in the U.S.” She has testified that in February, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told her to “watch my back.”

“She will be able to testify to the fact that President Trump set up a second, covert channel of people that Ambassador Taylor described as an ‘irregular channel’ to do his dirty work,” said Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, an Intelligence Committee Democrat. “And they had to push Ambassador Yovanovitch to the side to do it.”

Taylor and Kent, the two witnesses who appeared at the first public hearing on Wednesday, bolstered Yovanovitch’s account.

“Over the course of 2018-2019, I became increasingly aware of an effort by Rudy Giuliani and others, including his associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, to run a campaign to smear Ambassador Yovanovitch and other officials at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv,” Kent testified.

Parnas and Fruman have since been charged by federal prosecutors with illegally funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to U.S. officials and a political action committee that backed Trump. They’ve pleaded not guilty.

‘Exact Revenge’

Kent said some corrupt Ukrainian former prosecutors were involved, and this group of people were seeking “to exact revenge against those who had exposed their misconduct, including U.S. diplomats, Ukrainian anti-corruption officials, and reform-minded civil society groups in Ukraine.”

Giuliani “was looking to dig up political dirt against a potential rival in the next election cycle,” Kent said he believed. “I agree with Mr. Kent,” Taylor said.

Meadows said Thursday that “the Democrats’ motive is to bring Giuliani in front and center and they believe that by impeaching Giuliani they can impeach the president.”

More impeachment coverage

Intelligence Committee members also will gather behind closed doors to hear directly from Holmes, who officials familiar with the impeachment probe say is the unnamed staffer that Taylor testified on Wednesday was with Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, at a restaurant on July 26 when the ambassador placed a call to Trump.

Taylor, who didn’t identify Holmes by name, said he wasn’t aware when he gave a deposition last month about the later conversation his staffer had overheard.

Taylor said the member of his staff had been accompanying Sondland on July 26 -- the day after Trump’s call with Zelenskiy that helped to trigger the impeachment probe.

Sondland called Trump from a restaurant, and “the member of my staff could hear President Trump was on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations,’” Taylor testified.

When the staffer later asked Sondland what Trump though of Ukraine, Taylor said he was told Sondland replied that “President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”

That testimony also places added focus on Sondland, who is scheduled to testify publicly before the committee on Wednesday. He is one of eight witnesses scheduled to appear over three days.

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