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Why The Nominee For Ambassador To Russia Is Fielding Impeachment Inquiry Questions

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The House impeachment inquiry is being held behind closed doors, but some of what is being discussed there spilled out in an open hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. That's where Trump's appointee to be the next ambassador to Russia was grilled by Democrats. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan has bipartisan support to become the next ambassador to Russia. But his hearing offered Democrats a chance to raise topics central to the impeachment inquiry. Ranking Democrat Robert Menendez points out that it was Sullivan who informed the former ambassador to Ukraine that she was being withdrawn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT MENENDEZ: In your view, was there any basis to recall Ambassador Yovanovitch early?

JOHN SULLIVAN: Yes, there was. The president had lost confidence in her.

MENENDEZ: The president had lost confidence in her.

SULLIVAN: Yes.

MENENDEZ: And you were told that by the secretary of state?

SULLIVAN: I was.

MENENDEZ: Did you ask why he lost confidence in her?

SULLIVAN: Yes.

MENENDEZ: And what was the answer?

SULLIVAN: I was told that he had lost confidence in her.

KELEMEN: Sullivan also understood, though, that Marie Yovanovitch was facing a smear campaign by the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. And he confirmed that he told her at the time that she did nothing wrong. Menendez says the State Department should have backed her with a public statement of support.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MENENDEZ: When it is because surrogates like Mr. Giuliani and others who have political and economic interests are pushing against our ambassador, I would have hoped that you would have spoken up a lot more loudly.

KELEMEN: Sullivan defended the State Department's handling of the Yovanovitch recall, saying his uncle, who was ambassador to Iran, was withdrawn by President Carter's White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SULLIVAN: He was undermined by the White House. 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.

KELEMEN: Sullivan is a lawyer who briefly served as secretary of state last year. If confirmed to be ambassador to Russia, he says he will be, quote, "relentless" in opposing Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. elections or violate the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia. Democrats kept bringing him back to the impeachment inquiry to find out what he knew about a shadow foreign policy led by Giuliani.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SULLIVAN: I can't offer a judgment that what he did was kosher or correct because I'm not sure exactly what he was up to in toto with respect to Ukraine.

KELEMEN: Sullivan says he knew this summer that military aid was being held up, but he didn't know why. He says it would not be proper for the U.S. to ask Ukraine to open up investigations into Trump's political rivals. But he wouldn't say if that's what he thought was happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SULLIVAN: Asking a foreign government to investigate a domestic political rival as opposed to as part an - a larger anti-corruption campaign, which we'd been engaged in encouraging the Ukrainians for years, those are two different things.

KELEMEN: Democratic Senator Chris Murphy says Trump made clear in his call with Ukraine's president that he wanted Ukraine to work with Giuliani to look into alternative theories about the 2016 election meddling and investigate an energy company that had Vice President Biden's son on the board.

CHRIS MURPHY: I just don't buy this idea that there was this general interest in corruption given the fact that the president has only raised two of these issues in the phone call. But I have no doubt that you care about the issue.

KELEMEN: John Sullivan says he's focused on promoting anti-corruption reforms in the region.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SULLIVAN: That's something that I've worked on for over two years, but never with respect to a particular investigation or company or individual.

KELEMEN: As he testified in public, two foreign service officers were answering subpoenas for closed-door depositions in the impeachment inquiry. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY MCGRIFF'S "BLUE JUICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.