The Ukraine Connection
Summary of Catherine Croft’s Deposition Testimony
Editor’s note: This is one of many summaries of depositions released by House impeachment investigators. The others are available here.
Foreign service officer Catherine Croft testified before Congress in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Oct. 30. Below is a summary of her testimony, as compiled from the transcript of her deposition.
Catherine Croft is a nine-year career foreign service officer currently serving as the special adviser for Ukraine negotiations. In her opening statement, Croft recounted hearing, directly and indirectly, President Trump describe Ukraine as corrupt. She testified that while she was on the staff of the National Security Council, she received multiple calls from lobbyist Robert Livingston, who told her that Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch should be fired. She reported these calls to her then-boss, Fiona Hill, and to George Kent, then-deputy chief of mission in Kyiv.
In response to questioning, she described Yovanovitch as a skilled diplomat and said that there was no factual basis for the allegations against Yovanovitch.
After Croft accepted her position advising Ambassador Kurt Volker in July 2019, she became aware for the first time that Volker and President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani were in contact. She, however, was “generally unaware” of what Volker and Giuliani spoke about, and Croft asserted that she never had any contact with Giuliani. Later in her testimony, Croft noted that she deliberately stayed out of Volker’s activities related to Giuliani and that “a couple times he mentioned sort of a need to get this Giuliani line of effort, sort of, off the table, so we can get on with the business of our actual policy.”
Croft also recounted that, soon after beginning her position with Volker, an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) representative told her that Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had placed an informal hold on security assistance to Ukraine at the direction of the president.
Croft stated that she was not on the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. However, she did later receive a readout of the call. Based on this readout, she understood the call to focus on scheduling a face-to-face meeting between Trump and Zelensky.
Croft said she was involved in the decision in 2017 to provide lethal defensive assistance—specifically, Javelin anti-tank missiles—to Ukraine to use in their efforts against Russian aggression. She stated that the decision to provide the assistance went through the Policy Coordination Committee process and was approved at all lower levels but that, at the Principals Committee level, OMB put a hold on the decision. The hold lasted a week or two. Majority counsel Daniel Goldman asked if Croft understood why OMB placed the hold, and Croft responded, “I understood the reason to be a policy one.” Based on a briefing she did with Mulvaney, she understood that the question centered around whether Russia would react negatively to the provision of Javelins to Ukraine. When asked how other agencies reacted to the hold, Croft said that all of the policy agencies were in support of providing the Javelins and that Gen. H.R. McMaster, Gen. James Mattis, and Secretary of State Tillerson had all agreed that the U.S. should provide the Javelins to Ukraine. She said that OMB’s decision to object, and to do so on a policy basis, was “highly unusual.” Later in the deposition, Croft noted that she had never before heard of OMB injecting itself into a pure policy decision-making process.
Croft stated that she was asked, along with her colleague Richard Hooker, to brief Mulvaney on the decision to provide the Javelins. They did so, telling him that the policy process had worked, that the potential issues had been discussed and that the agencies were in agreement about providing the Javelins. Croft stated that, during the meeting, they discussed Mulvaney’s concerns about Russia’s reaction to providing the Javelins. When asked whether Mulvaney referenced the president’s views during their conversation, Croft answered that he did not. But, she testified, it was well known that Trump was skeptical of providing weapons to Ukraine because after then-President Petro Poroshenko expressed his desire for Javelins to Trump, Trump stated that he thought the country was corrupt and was rich enough to pay for the weapons itself. According to Croft, a day or two after her meeting with Mulvaney, the hold was lifted.
The committee chairman asked whether Croft thought there may have been factors behind the hold that were related to investigations Trump wanted Ukraine to do or work that Trump wanted Ukraine to refrain from doing in connection to the Mueller investigation. Croft stated that she was not aware of a connection, but she added that OMB’s decision to hold the Javelin decision came as a surprise.
Moving to her original decision to take a job working on Ukraine in the Trump administration, Croft mentioned that she hesitated originally because she thought it was possible the Trump administration would change its Ukraine policy to suit domestic politics. In May, before Croft went to Kyiv, she had a conversation with Ambassador William Taylor when he was considering accepting his own current position as acting ambassador to Ukraine. He had asked for the department’s views because he was concerned that America’s policy to support Ukraine might change. Croft recalls telling him that U.S. policy might change if Trump thought that Biden was a credible rival in the 2020 election. According to Croft, the narrative that Russia was for the Republicans and Ukraine was for the Democrats was in Trump’s interest and might push him to change his policy on Ukraine. Otherwise, Croft thought U.S. policy would not change.
Returning to the discussions of the hold on the Javelin missiles, Croft mentioned that in past administrations, the White House had not authorized the provision of Javelins, as she understood it, in part because of concerns about how Russia would respond and whether the provisions would be provocative. Later in the deposition, Croft stated that, because the invasion of Ukraine took place during the Obama presidency, the risk of escalation may have been different then.
Regarding the difficulty in scheduling a meeting at the White House between Presidents Zelensky and Trump, Croft understood the hold-up to be based on their inability to convince Trump that the new Ukrainian administration was serious about combating corruption.
Croft also recalled that she helped organize a meeting between Volker and Attorney General William Barr regarding Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections, though she was not sure if the meeting took place. Volker asked her to set up the meeting, so she emailed Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Bruce Swartz, to try to set up the meeting. She said that Swartz indicated to her that she should have Volker call him. She said she repeatedly reminded Volker to call Swartz and was unsure whether Volker and Swartz ever connected.
Croft then recounted a sub-Policy Coordination Committee meeting about low-level routine business, at the end of which Kent brought up the hold on security assistance. Croft noted that Kent’s question “blew up the meeting.” Around the time she reached out to Swartz to schedule the meeting between Volker and the attorney general, Kent pulled Croft aside and relayed his concerns about “everything that was going on.” She relayed to Kent a question Volker had previously asked her concerning whether the United States had ever asked another country to do an investigation. Kent, in response, expressed his displeasure with conversations about investigations and any State Department involvement in those conversations. Croft said that she understood Kent to be unhappy about the role that Giuliani was playing and that Volker was speaking with Giuliani.
Regarding the security assistance that was held by OMB, Croft stated that she believed the aid eventually would be released because of bipartisan support in Congress and because of the “questionable sort of legality” of OMB putting on an informal hold. Croft said that she hoped the hold would not become public because it might undermine Ukraine policy. But she thought it was inevitable that word would get out, particularly because members of Congress learned about the hold. Volker and Croft briefed staffers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Ukraine issues. Croft noted that two individuals from the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, D.C., contacted her about the hold. The two calls, Croft recounted, were roughly a week apart and were both before the Aug. 28 Politico article that reported on the hold. She noted her surprise that the Ukrainians knew of the hold at that time—she felt they found out much earlier than she expected them to. According to Croft, the Ukrainians did not want the hold to become public because it “would be a really big deal, it would be a really big deal in Ukraine, and an expression of declining U.S. support for Ukraine.”
Croft was asked about the call between Presidents Zelensky and Trump. Croft said that the Javelins referenced in the call were not part of the U.S.’s security assistance as had been the case in the past but, rather, would be purchased with Ukrainian national funds.
Croft then was asked about the readout she received of the meeting between Ambassadors Volker, Sondland and Taylor and President Zelensky. Taylor and Volker gave her the readout. Her notes of the readout, based on her recollection, included that Zelensky raised investigations multiple times and that she wrote, “no mention of B” but could not remember what B stood for. She guessed that it stood for Barr, Biden or Burisma. The investigations, according to Croft, included an investigation into the potential Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and an investigation into potential Ukrainian support for Biden or a conflict of interest with Biden and Burisma.
In response to questions from the minority regarding her hopes for scheduling a meeting at the White House, Croft stated that she believed that if Trump and Zelensky met face to face they would get along and that Trump might change his view that Ukraine is a corrupt country. That would, in turn, resolve Trump’s concerns about corruption and would hopefully lead to lifting the hold on security assistance.