The parade of witnesses going before the House committees weighing impeachment of President Trump has come overwhelmingly from one government agency: the State Department.
That would be the same State Department that Trump has dismissed and disdained; whose budget Trump has repeatedly slashed; whose foreign-service corps Trump has hollowed out, in the opinion of many career diplomats.
Representatives of this agency are now defying administration orders to refuse to testify and instead offering explosive evidence that could build the case for impeachment against Trump.
It started nearly two weeks ago with the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled by Trump amid a smear campaign, and crescendoed Tuesday with the current senior diplomat in Ukraine, William B. Taylor, directly contradicting the president’s claim that there was no quid pro quo in withholding much-needed American security aid for Ukraine until the country’s government agreed to investigate his political rivals.
Perhaps most tarnished in what might be called the revenge of Foggy Bottom is the top diplomat himself, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.
Pompeo failed to rise to the defense of Yovanovitch, who says baseless rumors defiling her were fed to Trump by his personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani. It led to her recall from the diplomatic post apparently to further Giuliani’s business pursuits, she testified to a congressional panel on Oct. 11.
The “basic understanding,” she testified, that “our government will have our backs and protect us if we come under attack from foreign interests … no longer holds true.”
“Harm will come when private interests circumvent professional diplomats for their own gain, not the public good,” she added.
Pompeo came to the State Department a year and a half ago, promising to restore the agency’s “swagger.” He was initially welcomed by a staff suffering depleted morale following the rocky, budget-slashing tenure of Rex Tillerson.
Now, however, many foreign service officers are angry or dismayed — and emboldened by Yovanovitch’s testimony.
If she opened the door, Taylor flung it wide. He described Trump’s demands that Ukraine investigate his political opponents if it wanted military aid, even as Kyiv fights a war with Russian-backed separatists. And, with detailed notes, Taylor described the “shadow” diplomacy conducted by Giuliani, on behalf of Trump’s reelection and his own business interests.
“In August and September of this year, I became increasingly concerned that our relationship with Ukraine was being fundamentally undermined by an irregular informal channel of U.S. policy-making and by the withholding of vital security assistance for domestic political reasons,” Taylor, a four-decade foreign-service officer and Vietnam War veteran, said.
“In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened,” he added. “The irregular policy channel was running contrary to the goals of long-standing U.S. policy.”
Yovanovitch and Taylor were not the only State Department witnesses.
Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor and political appointee as ambassador to the European Union, initially refused to testify but relented and appeared six days after Yovanovitch. Despite his being close to the president, Sondland’s testimony also offered a glimpse of Giuliani’s role in conducting his own foreign policy for Ukraine, going around the State Department. Ultimately, it became clear the effort was aimed at helping Trump’s reelection.
“We asked the White House to arrange a working phone call from President Trump and a working Oval Office visit” for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Sondland told congressional investigators. “However, President Trump was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anticorruption, and he directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Mr. Giuliani, his personal attorney, about his concerns.
“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani.”
Sondland, who became a key intermediary on Ukraine even though it is not a member of the EU, acknowledged he was “disappointed” at Trump’s “explicit direction.”
A day earlier, another senior State Department official testified to the panel. Michael McKinley had just resigned as one of Pompeo’s top advisors after 37 years as a foreign service officer, including postings as ambassador in numerous countries.
McKinley was one of the people who welcomed Pompeo with high hopes that he could rebuild the department, and served as his right hand. But McKinley grew disillusioned over recent months as the secretary marginalized career diplomats and seemed to infuse foreign policy with partisan politics. Generally, secretaries of State who must represent the U.S. worldwide stay above the domestic political fray.
For McKinley, the final straw was the evolving Ukraine scandal and the way Pompeo handled the Yovanovitch matter. He told the congressional investigators that he opposed “what appears to be the utilization of our ambassadors overseas to advance domestic political objectives.”
“I was disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents,” McKinley said, according to people familiar with the testimony.
As Pompeo heads this week for speeches in his home state of Kansas, the diplomatic parade will continue. Philip T. Reeker, acting assistant secretary for European affairs, and Suriya Jayanti, a State Department officer stationed in Kyiv handling energy, will appear in coming days.
And already, two additional State Department officials have testified: Kurt Volker, the administration’s special envoy for Ukraine who resigned as the impeachment hearings focused on his role, and George P. Kent, a deputy assistant secretary who oversees Ukraine and other former Soviet republics — each offering a piece of the impeachment puzzle.
“Many of us for the past two and a half years have been hoping that there was a proof of honor inside the administration, good people working in there who would actually do the right thing,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “Now you’re starting to get pings of that. ... That’s encouraging.”
Times staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn in Washington contributed to this report.