Top State Department official breaks with Trump over Ukraine phone call

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U.S. President Donald Trump | Scott Olson/Getty Images

John Sullivan was speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is vetting his nomination as the next US ambassador to Russia.

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Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan implicitly broke with President Donald Trump on Wednesday, telling lawmakers that it would not be “in accord with our values” for a president to ask a foreign government to investigate a political rival.

Sullivan was speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is vetting his nomination as the next U.S. ambassador to Russia. His appearance has offered Senate Democrats a rare chance to quiz a top Trump administration official on issues related to the House-led impeachment inquiry into Trump — and they are taking full advantage of the opportunity.

Sullivan was grilled in particular by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, the committee’s ranking Democrat, on impeachment-related topics, including the propriety of what Trump is accused of doing: pressuring Ukraine’s government to investigate a political rival, former vice president Joe Biden.

“Soliciting investigations into a domestic political opponent—I don’t think that would be in accord with our values,” Sullivan said.

The diplomat acknowledged that he was the one who informed Foreign Service veteran Marie Yovanovitch that she was being pulled out early from her post as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. But he said that despite trying to find out why, he was never given any reason other than Trump had lost confidence in her.

Yovanovitch was the victim of a drumbeat of allegations led by allies of Trump, according to documents turned over to Congress by the State Department inspector general. Sullivan said he was aware of the smear campaign and believed that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, was involved.

He also said he was looped in when the State Department was given a packet of material that appeared to be aimed at denigrating Yovanovitch. “It didn’t provide to me a basis for taking action against our ambassador,” said Sullivan of the packet, which Giuliani is suspected of helping put together.

Sullivan said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had tried to find out exactly why Trump was unhappy with Yovanovitch, but that after several months, the reason — which Sullivan said he was never told — became irrelevant because it was clear the president wanted her out.

Sullivan said he thought Yovanovitch was an excellent diplomat. She testified before House impeachment investigators earlier this month, sharing that he’d told her she’d “done nothing wrong,” but was being pulled out early anyway, just weeks after being asked to extend her stay.

Sullivan said he was not aware of all of the machinations involving Ukraine policy, but made clear that he did know Giuliani was playing an outside role in shaping it. His focus, though, was largely limited to Giuliani’s attacks on Yovanovitch, Sullivan said.

Sullivan is a relatively well-regarded figure on Capitol Hill, and his nomination to serve as the U.S. envoy in Moscow is expected to make it through the Senate. One of the people who introduced him on Wednesday was Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, a member of the committee.

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