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Career Public Servants Testify On Ukraine

Nov 13, 2019
Originally published on November 13, 2019 10:09 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today two career public servants take center stage in the impeachment hearings. The acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, and a foreign service officer with long experience in the region, George Kent, will be questioned in the first public hearing. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more about them.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The White House calls them unelected radical bureaucrats, and President Trump has tried to downplay the testimony they have given so far.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I've never even heard of these people. I have no idea who they are. They're some very fine people; you have some never-Trumpers.

KELEMEN: Without offering any evidence, Trump calls William Taylor a never-Trumper. Retired Ambassador Ronald Neumann, though, says Americans who tune in to Taylor's public testimony will see a public servant with 50 years of experience.

RONALD NEUMANN: He, like I, served in Vietnam as a combat officer. He has served multiple administrations in both parties. And I find it disgusting that people who have never had the courage to go in harm's way are busy criticizing somebody who has served our nation in this way.

KELEMEN: One thing that's clear from Taylor's closed-door deposition is that he took copious notes and knows all the players in Ukraine. He had been ambassador there before. Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent also has deep knowledge of Ukraine, says Nancy McEldowney, who used to run the Foreign Service Institute.

NANCY MCELDOWNEY: All of our diplomats are taught to take copious notes because we know that the details matter.

KELEMEN: In depositions released publicly last week, Taylor describes a cable he sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, telling him it was, in his words, folly to hold up military aid to Ukraine at a time when Russia was watching. Retired career diplomat Tom Countryman says Taylor took the job because he was told he would be upholding the bipartisan approach to help Ukraine deter Russian aggression.

THOMAS COUNTRYMAN: When the president's action in delaying aid threatened to undermine the stated policy of the United States, it's utterly appropriate for Ambassador Taylor to warn Secretary Pompeo of the consequences of that action.

KELEMEN: Career foreign service officer George Kent explains in his deposition why he was worried that the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was pushing Ukraine to open investigations that could be seen as helping Trump politically. McEldowney was struck by that.

MCELDOWNEY: George Kent made a very impassioned and evocative statement. He said explicitly that politically motivated prosecutions undermine the rule of law.

KELEMEN: Kent told the committees that he spent much of his career trying to improve the rule of law in former Soviet states. He also explained that Giuliani had aligned himself with corrupt Ukrainian prosecutors, including one who helped to undermine a Ukrainian probe into a fake passport ring. McEldowney, who is now at Georgetown University, says these are important details from public servants who pride themselves in being nonpartisan.

MCELDOWNEY: They are not opponents of the Republicans nor are they pawns of the Democrats. These public servants do not want to be in the spotlight.

KELEMEN: Some of these witnesses have faced threats and are the targets of conspiracy theories. That includes Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted from her job as ambassador to Ukraine, facing what George Kent described as a campaign of slander. Tom Countryman says this is hurting morale.

COUNTRYMAN: It matters for the same reason that it matters in a military unit, in a police department or in any other government profession where the job is protecting American citizens.

KELEMEN: And that's why he's so distressed that the secretary of state has not publicly defended his employees, including Yovanovitch, who testifies in public on Friday.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "DRUNKEN TUNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.