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Former Ambassador On Kurt Volker And Ukraine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What do six pages of text messages reveal about the actions of U.S. diplomats toward Ukraine. House investigators released those messages. They relate to President Trump withholding military aid from Ukraine while also demanding an investigation of a political rival. One diplomat says it's, quote, "crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign." Another diplomat responds that it's not a quid pro quo and urges his colleague to stop writing text messages about it. Some of these exchanges involve Kurt Volker, a former special envoy to Ukraine. He testified in person before lawmakers yesterday conducting an impeachment inquiry. Volker's longtime colleagues at the State Department included Ambassador Jim Melville, who was a longtime U.S. diplomat himself and who now teaches at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Good morning, sir.

JIM MELVILLE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you make of the text messages?

MELVILLE: They're deeply disturbing. I just see somebody who - in my friend Kurt, somebody who is a real gifted diplomat and dedicated to building and maintaining the trans-Atlantic alliance. And that's what I know he did throughout his career in the State Department. But, you know, it's - in a way, it's a bit of the triumph of hope over wisdom and dealing with people who don't seem to have the same appreciation for the need to align our national interests with our values, which is the way you come up with a good policy. You know, throw in some deep knowledge of history and culture, and you're going to have a good result in terms of our foreign policy.

INSKEEP: Instead, there seems to have been a focus on President Trump wanting to have the family of Joe Biden - his political rival - investigated. And, in fact, there's a text message in which Volker himself writes to a Ukrainian adviser - it's July 25, which is the same date, if I'm not mistaken, of the president's phone call with the president of Ukraine - heard from the White House. Assuming President Z - Zelenskiy of Ukraine - convinces Trump that he will investigate, get to the bottom of what happened, we will nail down a date for a visit to Washington. It does seem pretty clear - if you do the president this political favor, you get a perk, like a visit to the White House.

MELVILLE: Well, it's illegal and immoral to solicit foreign assistance in our elections. And anyone who would give any sort of truck to that kind of thought is making a fundamental mistake.

INSKEEP: Are you surprised to find your longtime friend Kurt Volker in the middle of all of this?

MELVILLE: Well, it reminds me a little bit of that that frog that was having a nice time in some cool water, and the heat just kept getting more and more problematic. And when you add people who are not professionals, the Giulianis and the Sondlands, and you have them operating at the highest levels on the most important issues of foreign policy, you know, the result is going to be somewhat less than ideal.

INSKEEP: You just referred to Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney who was involved himself in Ukraine matters. And Gordon Sondland is U.S. ambassador to the EU who had been a contributor to President Trump's campaign. I think I hear you saying that professional diplomats, like your friend Kurt Volker, may have been overwhelmed by the political imperatives of people close to the president.

MELVILLE: Yeah, indeed. That's what it looks like to me.

INSKEEP: What do you think about this statement that was drafted for Ukraine's president announcing an investigation - a statement, by the way, he seems never to have signed?

MELVILLE: Well, you know, if your moral compass is so broken that you don't see this as illegal and immoral - this idea of soliciting foreign assistance in any respect - then I don't understand how you can be a good leader or make good decisions. And that's why we find ourselves here.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks very much for your insights.

MELVILLE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Jim Melville is a longtime U.S. diplomat. He was U.S. ambassador to Estonia, among other positions - is now at the College of Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.