Editor’s note: This is one of many summaries of depositions released by House impeachment investigators. The others are available here.
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale testified before Congress in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Nov. 6. Below is a summary of his testimony, as compiled from the transcript of his deposition.
The testimony of Ambassador David Hale, the under secretary of state for political affairs, focused first on the smear campaign surrounding Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and then on the Ukrainian security assistance freeze. He stated that, to his knowledge, no one ever had evidence supporting the allegations against Yovanovitch. He recommended that the State Department make a statement of defense of Yovanovitch, but his recommendation was refused, most likely by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Regarding the aid freeze, Hale discussed the Ukrainian security assistance hold in distinct terms from the general assistance review and testified that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the only agency advocating for the Ukrainian aid freeze, gave no further justification for it other than a directive of the president through Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
Hale is the most senior career official at the Department of State. He has served in this role since August 2018. He has been a foreign service officer for more than 35 years, working primarily in the Middle East, and served as ambassador to Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan. As under secretary for political affairs, he is responsible for managing bilateral relations and policies with every recognized nation as well as with multilateral organizations such as the U.N.
Hale testified that he first focused on the State Department’s policy toward Ukraine in October 2018 when Yovanovitch came to introduce herself and brief him on Ukraine. She informed him of the importance of their anti-corruption effort and the importance of helping Ukraine stand up to Russia. She encouraged him to visit Ukraine before the presidential elections, which he did in early March of 2019. Hale recalled that when he began in his role he asked about various ambassadors in areas with which he was unfamiliar and had heard positive things about Yovanovitch.
While in Kyiv in March with Yovanovitch, Hale assessed that “she was doing a very good job” and asked her to consider staying on in the position, as a new ambassador had not been selected and confirmed to replace her when she was due to leave that summer. After the trip, she indicated to him that she was prepared to stay on.
Hale recalled that in the fall of 2018, Pompeo mentioned to him that he had received a letter from Rep. Pete Sessions complaining that Yovanovitch “was saying derogatory things about President Trump.” Pompeo said he would not take these allegations seriously unless he saw evidence. In late March 2019, several articles relating to Yovanovitch, including one in The Hill, were brought to Hale’s attention. In a series of emails, primarily from the European Affairs Bureau, two “streams” of issues were discussed: what, if any, press statement should be made in response to the allegations and what should be done to protect or defend Yovanovitch. The department ultimately released a statement saying that the allegation that the U.S. government had presented a “do not prosecute” list to Ukrainian authorities was “an outright fabrication.” Regarding the second stream, Hale testified that there was discussion of whether Rudy Giuliani was involved. He stated that at the time he found this hard to believe because it seemed “abnormal.” Later, however, it “became more and more obvious that this was an unusual set of things that were happening and that the mayor [Giuliani] was involved.”
On March 24, Yovanovitch emailed Hale stating that, due to the public criticism, she could no longer function without a strong statement of defense of her from the State Department. She spoke on the phone with Hale, who asked her to send him a written account of what she thought was happening, as Hale found it “extremely confusing.” He described her email as “an informed series of speculations about the motivations of people who may have been behind this campaign,” including Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko and Giuliani. She speculated that Giuliani’s motives might be related to his business connections in Ukraine, the recent release of the Mueller report, or an attempt to remind the public of issues around Vice President Joe Biden’s son’s board position. She did not connect the allegations to the president or make any reference to investigations.
When asked about his understanding of Giuliani’s role in Ukrainian matters, Hale described an email that Philip Reeker forwarded to him from George Kent regarding information from two Ukrainian journalists who quoted Giuliani as saying the president wanted Yovanovitch to go. Hale found it hard to understand why the president would choose this roundabout approach, as ambassadors are presidential appointees.
On March 25, the day after speaking with Yovanovitch, Hale attended the weekly Monday morning meeting with the Secretary of State and raised the question of a statement of defense of Yovanovitch. After the meeting, Hale instructed his special assistant to send an email to the European Bureau press office stating: “P said no statement.” He also emailed Yovanovitch informing her that he had briefed the secretary and that a statement would be on hold until State Department Counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl held conversations with Americans thought to be spreading the allegations. Hale testified that these conversations included a phone call from the secretary of state to Sean Hannity saying that he needed to see what the evidence was for these allegations. He also testified that, in preparing for his testimony, he reviewed the secretary’s call records and noted two calls to Giuliani on March 28 and 29, but did not believe he knew about these calls at the time. When asked if he or anyone else within the State Department viewed the allegations against Yovanovitch to have any validity, Hale replied:
No. No one that I met. The Secretary of State consistently maintained that he could not credit these allegations in the absence of credible evidence, and I never met anyone who felt that they received that credible evidence, including the Secretary of State.
Hale advocated strongly during this period for the State Department to make a robust statement of defense and praise of Yovanovitch’s work and believed she should also put out her own statement in coordination. He believed it would be a good idea for her “to remind people what foreign services are and who we were loyal to and who we work for and that she was committed to that.” While Hale was not sure who made the decision not to release a statement, he said that given his seniority, the decision to refuse his recommendation of a statement would most likely have come from the secretary. He described that the rationale against the statement was that it “would only fuel further negative reaction” and that at that point the plan was to try to contain and move on from the story. He also stated “one point of view was that it might even provoke a public reaction from the President himself about the Ambassador.”
Regarding his understanding of the president’s views of Yovanovitch, Hale recalled a “general impression that there was a serious problem” but said he did not know this firsthand; rather, “it was in the atmosphere.” He also pointed to Donald Trump, Jr.’s March 24 tweet that “[w]e need ... less of these jokers as Ambassadors.” After the decision not to release a statement of support for Yovanovitch, Hale stopped working on the issue for some time.
On April 25, Hale attended a meeting chaired by the deputy secretary of state with Counselor Brechbuhl and the Director General of the Foreign Service Carol Perez to discuss how to end Yovanovitch’s assignment while minimizing the controversy. Prior to the meeting, they had learned—likely from Pompeo—that the president had lost confidence in Yovanovitch. The group decided to bring her back to Washington to have a consultation on how to proceed. He also recalled that, because this was around the time of Zelensky’s election and inauguration, the transition of leadership would provide an opportunity to have a fresh team in Ukraine. The department issued a statement indicating that she was rotating out of Ukraine. Hale asked that “as planned” be removed from the statement, as it was not accurate, but it remained in the final statement.
Hale was concerned about allegations targeting Kent and told Reeker to have Kent keep his head down because he “did not want another officer to encounter this kind of turbulence.” With all the allegations already targeting Yovanovitch, Hale felt it was prudent to be extra cautious and careful.
On May 18, the presidential delegation to the Ukrainian inauguration was announced. The delegation included Amb. Gordon Sondland, Ambassador Kurt Volker, and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. Hale described Volker’s role as a special envoy to pursue the Minsk process, a diplomatic effort to affect the Russian departure from Ukraine, and stated that Volker had a very strong reputation. He stated that he was surprised by Sondland’s inclusion because his responsibilities did not cover Ukraine, but that delegations often include an array of individuals the president selects. He said that Sondland “definitely wanted people to know that he had direct access to the President,” and that “any time Ambassador Sondland came up, there is usually a discussion of the fact that he was involving himself in matters that, I think, went beyond the normal writ of an Ambassador to the European Union.”
Hale received a written readout of the president’s May 23 meeting with delegation members outlining the president’s policy guidance. The president would send a congratulations letter to Zelensky inviting him to the Oval Office. The members of the delegation would push for reform, highlighting the President’s deep concerns about corruption in Ukraine, its poor investment climate, and oligarchical influence in the economy. Hale testified that the focus on corruption and oligarchical influence was consistent with his views and the department’s policy toward Ukraine at the time. He explained that it was clear that Volker and Sondland, presumably working with Amb. William Taylor, would be empowered to pursue this policy.
Hale also testified that he met with Taylor once before Taylor headed to Kyiv. He described Taylor as a “well regarded person” who was enthusiastic about the appointment. He did not hear any concerns from Taylor until Aug. 27, when Taylor emailed Hale with three reasons for his concern that there was a shift underway in U.S. policy toward Ukraine: rumors that the president was considering an expansion of the G-7 to the G-8 by including Russia, the freeze on security assistance, and the fact that the Zelensky meeting did not occur. He also followed up with more detail explaining the negative consequences of the freeze on assistance on Aug. 29. Earlier, on July 2, he had also emailed Hale to inform him that the secretary was reportedly saying the president had invited Zelensky to Washington. Also on July 2, Volker met with Zelensky in Toronto and encouraged him to make a call to Trump.
Hale had already been aware of problems related to security assistance freezes specific to Ukraine and Lebanon since June 21, though he was given no explanation for them. He was briefed on a July 23 interagency meeting during which the OMB said the Ukraine assistance was suspended and he had learned from a staff member that the aid package to Lebanon had similarly been held up, leading him to question if this was the “new normal” on aid. He also stated that the security assistance to Ukraine was in the interest of the U.S., as it was very important to provide tangible, not just rhetorical, support to Ukraine in the face of Russian intimidation and aggression.
On July 26, he attended a Deputies Small Group meeting on Ukraine chaired by Deputy National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman. At the meeting, each agency was asked for their view and Hale advocated strongly for resuming the assistance to Ukraine, as did every other agency represented there with the exception of OMB. OMB said that their guidance on the freeze came from the president through Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, but OMB provided no further explanation for the decision. Hale then sent a note to the secretary of state informing him that this issue was “going to have to be resolved at the principals level and that it was unlikely that OMB would be shifting their position at the principals level given what [they] just heard.” Therefore, it would have to be resolved directly with the president. Hale stated that he was relieved when the assistance was released on Sept. 11.
Asked why the State Department had yet to provide a single document to Congress on the Ukraine matter, Hale replied that this was not his area of responsibility and that he had only overhead snippets of these discussions. He understood that the relevant documents were being gathered and prepared but then the White House sent notice not to share these documents.
Hale also stated that he was vaguely aware of a letter from the secretary of state to the committee accusing them of bullying members of the department, but that he had not heard from any career State Department members that they felt bullied by requests to testify. He testified that when he notified the secretary’s office, the deputy secretary, the under secretary for management, the legal adviser, and the head of legislative affairs that he would be testifying before the committee, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told him to do what his lawyer and his conscience told him to do