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Impeachment testimony details lobbyist bid to get US envoy to Ukraine fired

The impeachment inquiry focuses on a 25 July telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden, a former US vice president.

FILE: US President Donald Trump speaks to the press as he meets with Finland's President Sauli Niinisto (not shown) in the Oval Office of the White House on 2 October 2019 in Washington, DC. Picture: AFP

WASHINGTON - A Republican former congressman turned lobbyist repeatedly pushed for the dismissal of US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, an action later taken by President Donald Trump after he was urged to do so by his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, a US diplomat said in testimony on Wednesday.

Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson, Ukraine specialists at the State Department, became the latest current and former US officials called as witnesses in the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry against the Republican president in the House of Representatives.

Croft, testifying after being subpoenaed, said she was a member of the National Security Council (NSC) staff at the White House from July 2017 to July 2018.

“During my time at the NSC, I received multiple calls from lobbyist Robert Livingston, who told me that Ambassador Yovanovitch should be fired. He characterised Ambassador Yovanovitch as an ‘Obama holdover’ and associated with George Soros,” Croft said in her opening statement to lawmakers, posted online by the Washington Post.

Soros is a wealthy financier often assailed by conservatives and known for his support of liberal causes. Barack Obama was Trump’s Democratic predecessor.

“It was not clear to me at the time - or now - at whose direction or at whose expense Mr. Livingston was seeking the removal of Ambassador Yovanovitch,” Croft said.

The impeachment inquiry focuses on a 25 July telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden, a former US vice president, and his son Hunter, who had served as a director for Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Trump has denied wrongdoing.

Trump removed Yovanovitch as ambassador in May. Giuliani has said he went to Trump and the State Department as part of his effort to have her removed from the post at a time when he was seeking to persuade Ukraine to open an investigation of Biden, a contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the November 2020 US election.

Croft’s testimony showed that Livingston was yet another well-connected conservative who was advocating for Yovanovich’s ouster, including Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, Giuliani and former Republican congressman Pete Sessions.

Lobbying disclosure filings show a connection between Livingston’s firm and Giuliani. According to one filing, Republican former congressman Bob McEwen of Ohio, working as a consultant to the Livingston Group, introduced former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to Giuliani last December.

Other lobbying disclosures filed with the Justice Department showed that Livingston called Croft on 17 May, 2018, on behalf of two clients, an association of Ukrainian metal producers and the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Zelenskiy, a former comedian, won Ukraine’s presidency in a landslide in April. Tymoshenko had also run but was eliminated in the first round of voting.

Livingston played a prominent role in the Republican-led impeachment of Democratic President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and was in line to become House speaker. But the Louisiana Republican quit the House in 1998, saying he could not lead the effort to impeach Clinton for lying about a sexual relationship with an intern because he himself had engaged in an extramarital affair.

His firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Croft said she told Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia adviser, and George Kent, a senior State Department Ukraine expert, about Livingston’s efforts concerning Yovanovitch but was “not aware of any action that was taken in response.”

Anderson, in his opening statement seen by Reuters, also mentioned Giuliani’s actions. Before Zelenskiy’s inauguration in May, Anderson said “my colleagues and I saw a tweet by Rudolph Giuliani” alleging that Ukraine’s incoming leader “was surrounded by enemies of President Trump.” Anderson said he sought to counter the “negative narrative” sparked by Yovanovitch’s removal and Giuliani’s statements.

Trump’s nominee to become US ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, testified in his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday that he knew earlier this year about Giuliani’s involvement in the campaign to oust Yovanovitch.

In her own testimony this month, Yovanovitch said she did not know Giuliani’s motives for attacking her and that she believed she was ousted based on “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”

‘MORE POWER’

Giuliani has admitted sending to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a packet of information in March that included a document describing a discredited theory promoted by Trump allies that Yovanovitch was installed in her post in Kiev by Soros and that unless she was removed, Soros “has as much, or more power over Yovanovitch as the president and the Secretary of State.”

After hearing Croft testify, Democratic congressman Gerald Connolly said he was shocked to hear of Livingston’s role, adding, “We would love to know what possessed him to recommend the firing of an honorable career foreign service ambassador who was doing a good job in protecting U.S. interests and trying to promote democracy in Ukraine.”

The July telephone call is at the heart of the congressional inquiry into whether Trump misused the power of his office for personal political gain and, if so, whether that rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that merit impeachment and removal from office under the Constitution.

If the Democratic-led House approves formal charges against Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate would then hold a trial on whether to remove him from office.

Trump made his request to Zelenskiy for an investigation into the Bidens after withholding $391 million in security aid approved by Congress to help Ukraine fight Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Zelenskiy agreed to Trump’s requests. The aid was later provided.

Anderson and Croft described Trump’s negative view toward Ukraine even as other State Department and White House officials underscored Kiev’s importance to US national security in the face of Russian aggression.

Anderson said that in November 2018 Russia escalated the conflict when its forces attacked and seized Ukrainian military vessels heading to a Ukrainian port.

“While my colleagues at the State Department quickly prepared a statement condemning Russia for its escalation, senior officials in the White House blocked it from being issued,” Anderson said.

He said Kurt Volker, at the time the US special representative for Ukraine, drafted a tweet condemning Russia’s actions, which he posted to his account.

Later on Wednesday, the House Rules Committee is scheduled to take up a resolution proposed by House Democrats laying out the procedures in the next steps of the impeachment inquiry.

Trump has urged Republicans to fight the impeachment effort.

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