Two career U.S. diplomats are testifying Wednesday during the impeachment inquiry targeting President Donald Trump that the president held a deeply negative view of Ukraine as a corrupt country that complicated diplomatic efforts to bolster Washington's relations with Kyiv and support its fight against Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.
Catherine Croft, who was working as a Ukraine specialist on the National Security Council at the White House, testified to impeachment investigators that in 2017 she worked on Trump's plan to provide Ukraine with an anti-tank missile system and also staffed his meeting with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly.
"Throughout both, I heard — directly and indirectly — President Trump describe Ukraine as a corrupt country," she said in prepared testimony.
During her time as a national security aide, Croft also said she received multiple unexplained calls from Robert Livingston, a former U.S. Republican lawmaker turned lobbyist, telling her that Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, should be fired. She said Livingston characterized Yovanovitch as an "Obama holdover" from the administration of former President Barack Obama and "associated with George Soros," a longtime supporter of liberal causes and U.S. Democrats opposed to Trump.
"It was not clear to me at the time — or now — at whose direction or at whose expense Mr. Livingston was seeking the removal of Ambassador Yovanovitch," Croft said.
The Trump administration earlier this year recalled Yovanovitch months before her tour was up and dismissed her. She has told the impeachment inquiry that she was fired because of "unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives."
Trump's dealings with Ukraine are at the center of the impeachment inquiry launched by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, whether he temporarily withheld $391 million in military aid to Ukraine until he got investigations to help him politically.
The lawmakers are considering Trump's late July request to the current Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, that he launch investigations of any involvement Ukraine had in efforts to thwart his 2016 election and probe the actions of one of Trump's leading 2020 Democratic challengers, former Vice President Joe Biden, and the work of his son, Hunter Biden, as a board member of Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company.
Trump has described the call with Zelenskiy as "perfect," and denied there was a quid pro quo involving the military assistance to Kyiv in exchange for the political investigations. But on Tuesday, Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, another National Security Council aide, told the impeachment investigators he was so troubled by Trump's call for Ukraine to investigate a U.S. citizen, Biden, that he alerted his superiors.
The White House last month released a rough transcript of the Trump-Zelenskiy call, but Vindman told the investigators there were missing elements in the transcript that involved references to Biden and Burisma, the energy company where Hunter Biden worked.
A second career diplomat, Christopher Anderson, testified Wednesday that late last year when Russia escalated the conflict with Kyiv by seizing Ukrainian military vessels heading to a Ukrainian port in the Sea of Azov, his colleagues at the State Department "quickly prepared a statement condemning Russia," but that "senior officials in the White House blocked it from being issued."
In another episode, Anderson said he and others supported efforts to get the White House to improve relations with Ukraine. But Anderson said he was "cautioned" by then-national security adviser John Bolton that Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who had been delegated by Trump to oversee Ukraine affairs, "was a key voice with the president on Ukraine, which could be an obstacle to increased White House engagement."
On Twitter, Trump continued to assail the impeachment investigation.
Trump has called the impeachment probe illegitimate because the entire House never voted to conduct the inquiry, even though no law requires a vote. The White House has complained that the proceedings are being held behind closed doors, which is a routine practice for any grand-jury style investigation.
In order to satisfy Republican concerns, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democratic House majority, will hold a vote on a resolution Thursday spelling out the rules for the inquiry.
It would give the Republican minority equal opportunity to question witnesses, ask for written testimony, and subpoena witnesses and records.
Pelosi says she wants to "eliminate any doubt" about the process, although Republicans say the vote is merely an attempt to justify the "sham" behind closed-door hearings that have already been held.