The Ukraine Connection
Summary of George Kent’s Deposition Testimony
Editor’s note: This is one of many summaries of depositions released by House impeachment investigators. The others are available here.
State Department official George Kent testified before Congress in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Oct. 15. Below is a summary of his testimony, as compiled from the transcript of his deposition.
The testimony of George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eastern Europe, focused on the importance of Ukraine’s success to our national interest. He claimed that a “Europe whole, free, and at peace” was not possible without a “Ukraine full, free, and at peace, including Crimea and Donbas, both currently occupied by Russia.” However, he expressed concern that U.S. officials who have spoken out against Russian aggression in Ukraine “have been subject to defamatory and disinformation campaigns, and even online threats for years.” This reaction from Russian proxies and corrupt Ukrainians is to be expected, but what was most concerning to him was the U.S. government’s decision to remove an ambassador based on “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”
Under questioning, Kent denied having discussed his testimony with the State Department in any capacity before his appearance. When pressed, Kent indicated that he did not agree fully with State’s characterization of the impeachment proceedings, relaying that Secretary Mike Pompeo had conveyed in a letter to employees that “the committees had been attempting to bully, intimidate, and threaten career foreign service officers,” but Kent denied feeling bullied, threatened, or intimidated. The State letter also stated that the committee requested all communications be routed through the House liaison, which Kent said was inaccurate based on his experience with House committee members. However, he could not remember whether he had raised these misrepresentations or concerns with the letter with the secretary.
To date, the committee has not received any documents from State, but Kent claimed he had fulfilled his responsibility in complying with State’s internal policy for the appropriate way to respond to a House subpoena. Kent had received a personal letter to produce documents concurrently with a request sent to State for the same, and more, documents. He was directed to allow State to organize and produce the documents for Congress, a request with which he acquiesced. The committee seemed concerned with the lack of production by State and why Kent did not personally feel any responsibility to produce documents himself if he does, in fact, intend to be responsive and cooperative.
Kent relayed a conversation with a redacted individual, who he says was “adopting positions [regarding compliance with the subpoena] at odds with the language that [his] office is providing the Secretary of State.” This individual was the author of the lines in the Pompeo letter that Kent disagreed with. Kent also indicated he wrote up a contemporaneous account of this conversation, which he provided with State to be turned over with the remaining requested records. Kent confirmed that his documents, including this recounting of the conversation, are not his personal documents but rather federal documents that are to be managed by the State Department, according to an Oct. 2 guidance, which is why he has not personally handed them over.
Kent then communicated that he had received a call from Michael McKinley on Sept. 28, before the formal subpoena guidance was issued, about his concern that the State Department should be standing up for its career foreign service officers, but that he had not succeeded in securing an agreement to issue the statement McKinley was seeking. Kent shared his concerns and had brought them up to Director General Carol Perez. In a follow-up call, to check on Kent, McKinley expressed concern about the conversation with the redacted individual and requested that Kent share his written recollection of the conversation. McKinley then shared this document in his professional capacity with Deputy Secretary John Sullivan and acting legal counselor Marik String.
Kent went on to confirm that he had known Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney, had an interest in Ukraine for the better part of a decade, as a private individual, but that he had never met or communicated with Giuliani in Ukraine or otherwise in his professional tenure with State. He testified to learning that Giuliani was recently actively engaged in Ukrainian policy in May 2018 when then-Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko had planned to go to New York, before his flight was canceled, to meet with Giuliani. The next time he heard about Giuliani was January 2019, when Giuliani had reached out to the State Department regarding the inability of the previous prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, to get a visa to the United States. Kent conceded that Shokin was known as “a typical Ukraine prosecutor who lived a lifestyle far in excess of his government salary, who never prosecuted anybody known for having committed a crime, and having covered up crimes that were known to have been committed.” He did not have a valid visa, and Kent indicated that “under no circumstances should a visa be issued to someone who knowingly subverted and wasted U.S. taxpayer money.” Evidently, Giuliani was pushing to have the visa granted because Shokin was coming to share information about potential corruption at the U.S. Embassy, which Kent called a “bunch of hooey.” Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Blair inquired about the situation and Kent relayed his grounds for denying the visa, which Blair accepted.
On Feb. 11, Kent learned from Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, that Lutsenko had ultimately met Giuliani in New York to “throw mud” at Kent and Marie Yovanovitch, among others. However, Kent did not know the content of this mud-slinging. Later, it became clear that Giuliani had engaged in a “campaign of lies” against Yovanovitch, publicly but without substantiation, stating she was a part of the efforts against the president in Ukraine.
Kent then recounted the media cycle during which a fake “do-not-prosecute” list, with his real business card attached, was circulated around U.S. and Ukrainian news sources, alongside interviews with Lutsenko, alleging that Kent was engaged in corruption. The four story lines picked up in these news cycles came in waves: (a) claims that the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine had undermined the Office of the Prosecutor General and attempted to halt certain prosecutions the office was pursuing; (b) allegations that the National Anti-Corruption Bureau head, Artem Sytnyk, had provided the list of people taking money from the discredited pro-Russian party, Party of Regions, in 2016, with a vendetta against Paul Manafort; (c) allegations of Vice President Joe Biden using his role to shield his son Hunter Biden and the gas company Burisma; and (d) descriptions of some civil society organizations, including the anti-corruption action center, as George Soros organizations. Kent claimed there was no merit to any of these storylines.
Amid these news stories, most originating with an interview Lutsenko gave to The Hill, the deputy director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau for Ukraine (NABU), named Gizo Uglava, said he had a discussion with an inebriated Lutsenko. In this conversation, Lutsenko had said he had given an interview to an American journalist because the embassy was anti-Trump and had tried to undermine him. NABU, a Ukrainian law enforcement agency, came to the embassy because they had a good working relationship with them and were focused in their first year on addressing corruption. The information came in an email, which should be a part of the records the State Department hands over.
In response to the baseless stories, Kent said that the State Department issued a press release stating that the allegations were baseless but that once Donald Trump Jr. tweeted an attack against Ambassador Yovanovitch (calling her a “joker”), the Department did not know how it should try to show support to allow the ambassador to remain effective. Kent continues to believe a high-ranking State Department official should have made a statement in support, but none took place. Some suggested that Yovanovitch speak out against the allegations herself and express support for the president’s foreign policy. Ultimately, he said, the ambassador had made videos for release in Ukraine encouraging the vote, and within those videos, she included a statement of support of the Trump administration and its foreign policy.
When asked whether there was any validity to the assertion that the embassy asked Ukraine not to prosecute certain individuals, Kent said, “[W]e just don’t do that.” He later said, “[U]sing selectively politically motivated prosecutions to go after their opponents” is “wrong for the rule of law regardless of what country that happens [in].”
Minority questioning pressed Kent on whether the embassy asked Ukraine not to prosecute Sytnyk, the first and current head of NABU. Kent said officials do not operate by giving commands on whom not to prosecute but that they “warned both Lutsenko and others that efforts to destroy NABU as an organization, including opening up investigations of Sytnyk, threatened to unravel a key component of our anti-corruption cooperation, which had started at the request of Petro Poroshenko.” Whether Lutsenko interpreted this as a command, according to Kent, “is an issue of believability about someone who routinely lies.”
Minority questioning then turned to Vitaliy Shabunin, one of the leaders of the NGO AnTac, which is an anti-corruption center in Ukraine that has funding from the EU and U.S. government, as well as from the Open Society Institute, a George Soros-backed foundation. Shabunin had hooliganism charges brought against him for pushing an individual outside his house who pretended to be a journalist and threw bright green paint on his face. Minority questions inquired as to whether the embassy told Lutsenko’s office that this was not a worthwhile charge, to which Kent responded that they did share a concern with Lutsenko about the harassment of civil society activists.
Minority questioning then pressed Kent hard on whether the second narrative, about the release of information about Paul Manafort from the black book, could have come from the embassy or Ukrainians with whom the embassy was friendly, and could have been seen as a political move. Kent denied embassy involvement in this release of information, for political purposes or otherwise, and said that there are multiple potential Ukrainian sources of information about Manafort’s involvement in presidential elections in Ukraine leading up to the Orange Revolution, and many possible motivations for releasing this information.
Minority questioning also engaged Kent on the Bidens and Burisma, but Kent focused his answers on his desire to uncover why the Ukrainian prosecutor had halted a case involving billions in frozen assets and considered a priority by the British Serious Crimes Unit. When asked about whether Burisma engaged in corrupt practices, he agreed that it did, but when asked why the company would appoint Hunter Biden to its board, he declined to speculate. He did, however, confirm that he had concerns about the optics of Hunter Biden’s being “on the board of a company owned by somebody that the U.S. government had spent money trying to get tens of millions of dollars back and that could create the perception of a conflict of interest.” He mentioned that he asked USAID to stop a sponsorship competition for energy companies in Ukraine given the history of corruption with Burisma.
When pushed about whether there were investigations into Burisma and Mykola Zlochevsky, owner of Burisma and former minister of ecology and natural resources in Ukraine, Kent firmly responded that he had heard rumors and reports of investigations but had no personal knowledge of them and could not confirm their existence, status, or nature.
The first time Kent heard about Giuliani associates Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas was in the first week of May, in the context of a trip they were planning to Ukraine as well as their general interest in moving into the gas industry. A later conversation with Avakov confirmed that Fruman and Parnas were in fact traveling to Ukraine in May. Later, Kent also met Ivan Bakanov, who was Zelensky’s childhood best friend. Kent said Bakanov mentioned that Fruman and Parnas had wanted to meet with him, and Kent had advised him that he could get coffee with them but does not need to make any commitment. At this time, Kent did not know what the specific purposes were of Giuliani’s associates in Ukraine. After Fruman and Parnas’s trip, Giuliani gave an interview in late May in which he accused Yovanovitch, Kent, and other State officials of undermining U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine against the interests of the president. After that, Kent was told by Acting Assistant Secretary Philip Reeker to keep a low profile.
Kent also recounted a conversation with Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, and Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, in which Trump was convinced to have greater skepticism about Ukraine. Fiona Hill, also at the meeting, assessed that the tone in both meetings was the same and that the foreign leaders each alluded that Zelensky was in bed with the oligarchs—a fact that if true would undermine Trump’s anti-oligarch and anti-corruption agenda in strengthening ties with the Ukraine. Giuliani was mentioned in the debrief of these meetings as another voice that had soured Trump’s view on Ukraine.
Kent also mentioned a deep mistrust among the senior State officials of Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who had a separate relationship with Trump and espoused his own Ukraine agenda. Kent stated that Hill “may have been as direct as saying that Gordon Sondland lies about conversations that occur in the Oval Office.” Sondland originally stated that the investigations, and the statements Trump was requesting Zelensky to make, were general in nature. Kent stated that Sondland had told others that Trump told him he “wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to microphone and say investigations, Biden, and Clinton.” The reference to Clinton is a reference to the 2016 election. Despite consistently reiterating the fairly ubiquitous view in State that these requests were ill advised as a matter of diplomacy and ethics, Kent said that Volker told him he did relay the requests to Zelensky in an effort to appease Giuliani. Kent says that Volker, and many others, strongly believed that Giuliani had the president’s ear and that any diplomacy beneficial to Ukraine and subsequently the U.S. would not be possible without Giuliani on board. However, Kent said he was not aware of what this request was being made in exchange for.
Kent referred to the frustration in dealing with “multiple channels” of diplomacy regarding the Ukraine, not all of them working in concert, and some often in tension with others. His efforts and work, as well as that of Yovanovitch, were directly frustrated by non-State officials as well as other individuals in whom he had little trust, such as Sondland. He called these “unusual channels” and said they became dominant after Giuliani’s allegations compromised his and Yovanovitch’s effectiveness.