WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Russia said on Wednesday he had known Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was involved in a campaign against then-Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch that helped lead to her dismissal.
John Sullivan, a deputy secretary of state, said under questioning by ranking Democratic Senator Bob Menendez at his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing that he knew Giuliani was involved before he was asked to remove Yovanovitch in May because Trump had lost confidence in her.
Sullivan said he was given no explanation of why the president had lost confidence. “I was told that he had lost confidence in her. Period,” he said.
Yovanovitch was abruptly recalled in May after Trump allies leveled unsubstantiated charges of disloyalty and other allegations against her.
“I was aware that Mr. Giuliani was involved in Ukraine issues. My knowledge, particularly in the April-May-June time frame, even into July, was focused on his campaign, basically, against our ambassador to Ukraine,” Sullivan said.
Trump nominated Sullivan, 59, for the position in Russia in August. He will replace Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor, who resigned after two years in the post.
The veteran diplomat is expected to be easily confirmed, but his hearing was largely about Ukraine, not Russia, as Democrats took advantage of a rare chance to question an administration official publicly about the events that helped lead to an impeachment investigation of the Republican president.
Giuliani commented later on Wednesday on Twitter. Sullivan “doesn’t know what he’s talking about and shouldn’t be incorrectly speculating,” the former New York mayor wrote.
“This is an orchestrated attempt to harass and hinder me in my role as (President Trump’s) attorney.”
The dismissal has been a focus in the Democratic-led House of Representatives’ inquiry into whether Trump should be impeached for pressing his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate unsubstantiated corruption charges against Democratic political rival Joe Biden.
Congressional investigators are trying to determine whether Trump offered Zelenskiy a “quid pro quo,” exchanging or withholding nearly $400 million in U.S. security assistance as Ukraine combats Russian aggression, according to whether Ukraine helped damage a Trump political rival.
Sullivan also seemed to break from Trump as he was questioned about whether it was “ever appropriate” for a president to use the power of his office to seek investigations of domestic political opponents.
“I don’t think that would be in accord with our values,” Sullivan said.
However, under questioning from Republicans, Sullivan noted that it is not illegal for a president to remove an ambassador. He said it would have been illegal for Trump to remove Yovanovitch from the foreign service, but he had not done so.
Witnesses have testified in the House impeachment probe that Giuliani conducted a “shadow” foreign policy in dealings with Ukraine.
Trump denies wrongdoing. He and his supporters dismiss the impeachment probe as a Democratic effort to overturn the Republican president’s 2016 election victory. They have argued the Trump was merely concerned about long-standing corruption in Ukraine.
Some Republicans made that point at the Senate hearing on Wednesday.
Senator Jim Risch, the committee’s chairman, said, “The fact that it’s been so long-standing in Ukraine is what makes it so difficult to change and eradicate now.”
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Tom Brown