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Democrats Grill Trump's Nominee For Russia Ambassador Over Ukraine

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday for his confirmation hearing to be the new U.S. ambassador to Russia.
J. Scott Applewhite

John Sullivan, a senior State Department official and President Trump's nominee to be the next ambassador to Russia, faced questions from lawmakers Wednesday about his connection to events at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

Sullivan, currently the deputy secretary of state, has bipartisan support for his appointment. But the open confirmation hearing provided a window into the discussions at the State Department over dealings with Ukraine — at a time when the impeachment testimony hearings are happening behind closed doors.

Sullivan was the official who told then-Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch that she was being recalled from her post. The circumstances behind the recall of that long-serving diplomat are being scrutinized in the impeachment probe.

"In your view, was there any basis to recall Ambassador Yovanovitch?" Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., asked Sullivan at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

"Yes, there was. The president lost confidence in her," Sullivan replied. He said he asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for more information on why the ambassador was being recalled, and he was again told, "the president has lost confidence in her. Period."

When Sullivan was asked if he thought she had served the State Department capably and admirably, he replied that he "told her so" when they met in Kyiv last year. Menendez admonished Sullivan for not pushing back harder on the decision to recall her.

Sullivan stated that discussions about Yovanovitch had taken place over several months. "The secretary finally told me that there had come a point when the president lost confidence in the ambassador, and that we needed to make a change in our mission to Ukraine."

When asked by Menendez if he was aware of "individuals and forces outside the State Department, seeking to smear Ambassador Yovanovitch ... and seeking to remove her," he said he was, and he believed that included Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Sullivan also added that after Pompeo asked for information on what Yovanovitch had done, a packet of information was sent from "someone at the White House." Sullivan says he didn't know who created the package and that it "didn't provide, to me, a basis for taking action against our ambassador."

Sullivan served as a lawyer prior to his appointment at the State Department. And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reported, Sullivan is "well-respected in the building and has a personal connection to the State Department." His uncle was the last U.S. ambassador to Iran and was recalled by the Carter administration.

"He was undermined by the White House," Sullivan said. "There were leaks about his character, his loyalty to the United States and to the administration, and as a result after 32 years of service in the Foreign Service, three-time ambassador, he resigned from the Foreign Service."

It's a story that appears to have some common elements with the Yovanovitch situation — and this is how Sullivan summed up the story about his uncle: "When the president loses confidence in the ambassador, right or wrong, the ambassador needs to come home."

Sullivan vowed that he would be "relentless" in combating Russian interference in U.S. elections. In reference to the impeachment probe, Menendez asked him whether it was appropriate for the president to use his office to solicit investigations into a domestic political opponent.

"I don't think that would be in accord with our values," Sullivan responded.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.