The Ukraine Connection

Summary of Philip Reeker’s Deposition Testimony

By Samantha Fry
Monday, December 2, 2019, 1:41 PM

Editor’s note: This is one of many summaries of depositions released by House impeachment investigators. The others are available here.

Ambassador Philip Reeker testified before Congress in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Oct. 26. Below is a summary of his testimony, as compiled from the transcript of his deposition.

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Ambassador Philip Reeker is acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs. He testified in detail regarding the “outlandish” allegations surrounding Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, who he described as a highly professional and well-respected diplomat and mentor. He described conversations among colleagues regarding Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s “irregular” involvement in Ukraine and the “distraction” of Rudy Giuliani’s activities. He also recounted the positive impression he and his colleagues had of President Volodymyr Zelensky and the “whole new chapter” he represented for Ukraine, in contrast to the negative views they perceived Giuliani to be sharing with President Trump.

Reeker joined the Foreign Service in 1992 and held postings primarily in Central Europe. In late 2018 he was asked to consider the ambassador position in Ukraine, and by late December of that year he was selected as the candidate for nomination. However, in January 2019, Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell instead asked him to return to Washington to take on his current role in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

In his previous postings, Reeker was aware generally of the U.S.’s policy toward Ukraine, including U.S. sanctions against Russia and military support for Ukraine. He has known Ambassador Yovanovitch for about 20 years and testified that she had an “outstanding” reputation, that she was “very precise, very ... professional ... an excellent mentor ... a good leader.”

When Reeker reported to his new role on March 18, 2019, one of his first tasks was handling personnel issues, including finding a new candidate to replace Yovanovitch when her three-year tour came to an end. He discussed with her the possibility of extending her posting to cover the gap in the ambassador position in Ukraine, and he was aware that Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale had done the same. He had also previously discussed with Yovanovitch the possibility of her succeeding Reeker at United States European Command (EUCOM), an opportunity about which both she and the commander at EUCOM were excited.

However, in his first week in the new role, the negative press stories regarding Yovanovitch began. Reeker testified that there was a public prosecutor in Ukraine making allegations about the ambassador and that Ukraine was in a “highly politicized period” leading up to their presidential election. He described a “storm” of stories coming out and press inquiries to the European Bureau and the department as a whole, including allegations that he found to be “very outlandish and unrealistic.” He discussed the stories and where they might be coming from with Hale and also Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl. George Kent, Reeker’s deputy, coordinated looking into these questions. Kent’s office compiled reports of the stories—including where they were coming from and how they were “demonstrably wrong”—and forwarded them to Reeker.

On his fourth day in the role, March 21, Reeker called in the deputy chief of mission of the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington to tell her that the allegations originating from the prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, who was known to be close to President Petro Poroshenko, were “unacceptable.” He stated that the deputy chief of mission was “mortified” and that the Ukrainian president or his staff offered some apologies and tried to tone down the stories. Ukrainian Ambassador Valeriy Chaly called him to emphasize that Ukraine valued Yovanovitch, the U.S. relationship and U.S. support for Ukraine’s progress.

Reeker was aware of the 2018 letter from Rep. Pete Sessions criticizing Yovanovitch as a partisan, but Brechbuhl told Reeker nothing had been found to substantiate these allegations. When asked whether the department determined if any of the allegations about Yovanovitch had any merit, Reeker testified that there was never any proof and that the prosecutor who had initiated some of the allegations had recanted his claim. He also stated that he was aware that Giuliani was one of the main voices of these stories, as well as Joseph diGenova. Reeker stated that he was “pushing for responses, what we were going to say about this in terms of pushing back, defending our Ambassador and our mission there.” On March 20, he provided some edits and cleared a response to a Ukrainian TV query regarding allegations that the ambassador had been dismissed, citing articles in The Hill. The cleared press guidance was provided on March 21.

Reeker also supported a statement by the State Department defending Yovanovitch but believed that they should see if the story continued. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs put out a statement that they cooperated with the U.S. ambassador and thanking her and her team for their contribution to building strategic partnerships. By Friday night, March 22, the news reports had escalated to threats of violence against Yovanovitch, and over the weekend Reeker forwarded excerpts from the press compilations to Hale, copying Brechbuhl. On Saturday, March 23, Hale responded that he believed Yovanovitch should publicly deny saying anything disrespectful and reaffirm her loyalty to the president and the Constitution. On March 25, a formal statement of support for Yovanovitch by the department was forwarded for clearance; however, Reeker then was forwarded a message reading “P says no statement,” referring to Hale.

By April 1, the end of Reeker’s second week in his position, Kent had identified four strands or narratives of stories emerging about Yovanovitch: the ambassador was putting undue pressure on anti-corruption efforts, 2016 collusion between Ukraine and the Clinton campaign, Biden and Burisma, and a general theme through all of these regarding the Soros organization. Reeker testified that neither he nor Kent was aware of any validity to any of these strands of allegations.

After the Ukrainian presidential elections on March 31, the stories died down for a bit and Reeker became more focused on the NATO Ministerial in Washington. But the stories then began to pick back up in anticipation of the April 21 runoff elections.

On April 21, Yovanovitch informed Reeker that she had decided not to pursue succeeding Reeker in his former posting because it “wasn’t the right fit for her.” Reeker noted, however, that all the EUCOM commanders had expressed interest in having her in the position due to her strong reputation. That weekend, the media storm suddenly became much worse, and Reeker testified that there was a “lot of unhappiness” from the White House that Yovanovitch was still in her role. There was a belief in the State Department at this point, he stated, that she needed to come back to Washington for consultations. On April 24, Reeker informed Yovanovitch about a call he had with Brechbuhl in which Brechbuhl said he heard things had suddenly “changed for the worse.” Later, Reeker wrote in a text message to Yovanovitch that he was largely in the dark.

Yovanovitch returned to Washington on Friday, April 26. On Sunday, April 28, Reeker also returned to Washington for a series of meetings on April 29 about how to cover the Ukraine mission and who to propose for nomination as ambassador. At the time, Yovanovitch had set a departure date for early July, which was a period of transition for the Foreign Service. On April 29, Reeker sat in on a meeting with Yovanovitch and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, in which Sullivan told her that she had done nothing wrong. The problem, Sullivan said, was that the president had lost confidence in her. Sullivan gave her an option of what date to return, and she decided to stay through May 9, when she was to be inducted into the hall of fame at the National Defense University. On May 10, she returned to Kyiv to pack up and then left her posting on May 20.

Reeker testified that once it was clear that the nomination process for a new ambassador would not be completed in time for someone to take over from Yovanovitch, he worked with Brechbuhl and Hale to select former Ambassador William Taylor as the Charge d’Affaires to provide coverage in Ukraine beginning in early June.

On May 20, President Zelensky was inaugurated and Energy Secretary Rick Perry led the U.S. delegation, including Ambassador Kurt Volker, Sondland, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Sen. Ron Johnson. Reeker described these individuals as being the “leads” on Ukraine, with Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent serving as the institutional knowledge on Ukraine. Reeker described Volker as a “pro” and was very confident in him as the lead. He described Volker’s push for an end to the war and against corruption and said he was “getting under the skin of the Russians, which was great: They were complaining regularly about his statements.” With Taylor in place, Reeker stated, “the mission was falling into a good place.”

The team met with Trump on May 23, and Volker provided Reeker with a readout laying out the path forward to implement U.S. strategy and policy toward Ukraine. Reeker recalled that he heard the president was not in a good mood at this briefing, had expressed a lot of skepticism and unhappiness about Ukraine, and did not like Ukraine. He also stated that there was an understanding that Giuliani was feeding the president a lot of negative views on Ukraine. The White House meeting readout focused on the president signing a congratulatory letter to Zelensky and inviting him to the Oval Office. Reeker stated that the goal was for this to occur before the July parliamentary elections to demonstrate their support. The delegation would work with the Ukrainian government to push for reform and flag the president’s concerns regarding corruption, poor investment climate, oligarchic control of the economy and improving U.S.-Ukraine bilateral relations. Meanwhile Reeker was tasked with helping to find a long-term ambassador, and Perry, as part of the delegation, with helping Ukraine find solutions to their energy and gas needs.

Reeker described Sondland as the “political lead” on the team: He had conversations with the president, Ambassador John Bolton and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. He also stated that Sondland was determined to get a White House visit arranged for Zelensky. He agreed with the statement that Sondland had a rather large remit from the president and that Sondland had the support of the secretary to get involved in some activities beyond his regular EU portfolio. Sondland was very clear that the president asked him to lead on Ukraine policy, and Reeker stated that the secretary also affirmed the arrangement. On April 2, in an email to Hale, Reeker sought a better understanding as to why Sondland was so involved in Ukraine, to which Hale replied that he agreed it was irregular. He also recalled Sondland stating that he had a script of some sort to help Zelensky prepare for his call with President Trump.

When asked about his understanding of Giuliani’s role in Ukraine, Reeker recalled that he was frequently on television in March promoting some of the allegations about Yovanovitch and the embassy. The department’s press line at the time, he stated, was that Giuliani was not a government employee and to refer the inquiry to Giuliani’s office. At some point, Volker also mentioned to Reeker that he planned to call or meet Giuliani in order to help explain U.S. strategy and process in Ukraine and their view that Zelensky represented a “whole new chapter” in Ukraine. Reeker testified that Volker communicated concerns to him that Giuliani may have been amplifying a negative narrative regarding Ukraine to the president. Both he and Volker had a positive impression of Zelensky as a “pragmatic, young, a different, very different kind of leader, a new generation.”

Reeker also recalled that Taylor expressed some concerns about Giuliani’s involvement in Ukraine in an exchange, on May 26, before Taylor left for his posting. He worried that Giuliani’s involvement and the varying narratives and allegations were a distraction from the focus on U.S. policy in Ukraine. Taylor stated to Reeker: “I’m still struggling with the decision whether to go. Basically, whether the politics back here will let me or anyone succeed.” Taylor also told him: “The Giuliani Biden issue will likely persist for the next year. I’m not sure S [Secretary Pompeo] can give me reassurance on this issue.” However, after meeting with Pompeo on May 28, Taylor seemed reassured about taking the posting. Reeker recalled being aware of some of Taylor’s frustrations but did not believe he was aware of Taylor raising the prospect of resigning.

Reeker referred to a March 26 email he was forwarded from Kent recounting some insights from Ukrainian journalists Kent had met at an event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, commenting on the “Giuliani-Lutsenko dynamic.” The journalists shared that they believed Giuliani probably initiated the relationship, but even if it had been Lutsenko (as Kent believed) that it was Giuliani shaping the dynamics. Most notably, Giuliani allegedly told Lutsenko that he was acting fully on the president’s behalf and the president wanted Yovanovitch gone. Finally, the journalists felt that Giuliani’s message fed Lutsenko’s determination to proceed with attacks on Yovanovitch and that, by attacking her, Lutsenko and his allies could “validate their usefulness by delivering.” Reeker also referred to an email chain he was forwarded on April 22 regarding a request by Hale to be “more tightly lashed up in the Ukraine decision information cycle.”

Reeker became aware of the hold on military assistance to Ukraine and the Policy Coordinating Committee (PCC) process in July through an assistance coordinator on his staff. He described a “sort of puzzlement” as to where the hold came from and if it was part of a more general hold. He was aware of other holds as well including one for Armenia. Reeker testified that there was a distinct, “broad” Office of Management and Budget pause on all funds that went into effect on Aug. 3 and was lifted on Aug. 9.

He attended a PCC on Ukraine later in July during which Laura Cooper from the Department of Defense raised the issue of holding funding when they had an obligation under law to move forward with it. He testified that his understanding, without definitive knowledge, was that the hold was coming from Mulvaney. He anticipated there would be a principals small group on the issue, but it was difficult to get Pompeo and the secretary of defense together—and before the meeting could happen the hold was lifted, on Sept. 11.

Reeker stated that he was aware of the president’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky but that he was not on the phone call. After the call he received a WhatsApp message from Volker stating: “Great POTUS-Ze call.” He also referred to an email on July 29 from Kent saying that someone they knew had heard on the previous Thursday, which would have been the July 25 call, that “D.C. pushed Kyiv on investigating the Bidens.” Reeker stated that the source of the information was a former ambassador to Ukraine who was now in the think tank world.

After the July 25 phone call came to light, Reeker discussed with Ambassador Michael McKinley what the department should do over email on Sept. 28. McKinley felt the department should issue a strong statement of support for Yovanovitch, and Reeker replied saying he fully agreed. Reeker then received a call from Hale, who told him he did not think the statement was going anywhere.