WASHINGTON — A senior State Department official described in perhaps the starkest terms to date President Trump’s shadow efforts to force Ukraine’s leadership to open investigations that would benefit him politically, according to a transcript of his impeachment testimony released Thursday.
Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent, who oversaw Ukraine policy, told lawmakers Trump wanted the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open investigations into the 2016 US election, Trump’s former rival Hillary Clinton, and former vice president Joe Biden in exchange for an Oval Office meeting.
‘‘Potus wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to the microphone and say investigations, Biden, and Clinton,’’ Kent testified. ‘‘Basically there needed to be three words in the message, and that was the shorthand.’’
Kent’s assessment came from a summary of a conversation that Trump had with Gordon Sondland, a Trump megadonor turned diplomat, who from his perch as US ambassador to the European Union in Brussels had seized control of Ukraine policy.
The senior diplomat, in testimony delivered last month, also criticized Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, whom he described as waging a ‘‘campaign of lies’’ aimed at the former US ambassador to Ukraine and designed to advance his and the president’s personal agenda.
Democrats expect Kent to testify publicly on Wednesday with William Taylor, the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, as the impeachment inquiry moves into a new phase.
Trump, meanwhile, offered a glimpse into the defense he would like Republicans to mount on his behalf, insisting that Biden, a potential 2020 general-election challenger, and his son Hunter be called to testify as part of the impeachment proceedings. The younger Biden served on the board of Burisma, a controversial and obscure Ukrainian gas company that Trump pressed Zelensky to investigate in a July 25 call.
In a tweet, Trump quoted Senator John Neely Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, asking, ‘‘What did Hunter Biden do for the money?’’
‘‘A very good question,’’ Trump added. ‘‘He and Sleepy Joe must testify.’’
Kent’s testimony was released on the same day that Jennifer Williams, a Foreign Service officer and top aide to Vice President Mike Pence, offered insight behind closed doors into Pence’s knowledge of the shadow campaign to extract favors from the Ukrainians.
Williams is expected to be the last witness in the non-public phase of the inquiry.
The transcript of Kent’s hours-long deposition suggests that the career diplomat’s public testimony will lay bare his disappointment and anger with the president’s approach to Ukraine and the conduct of his own State Department in responding to Congress as lawmakers moved to investigate the administration’s dealings with Ukraine.
Kent began his closed-door testimony by describing ‘‘snake pits’’ in both Washington and Kyiv that were populated by corrupt Ukrainian politicians, self-interested businessmen, and ambitious US officials scrambling to win the president’s favor.
Throughout March, Giuliani trafficked in ‘‘slander’’ designed to get the former US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, fired from her posting in Kyiv and clear a roadblock to the agenda Giuliani and his clients were pursuing there, Kent said. Yovanovitch is also expected to be among the Democrats’ roster of public witnesses next week.
At various points Kent also described himself as battling officials inside the State Department to ensure that congressional subpoenas were honored and a full accounting of Giuliani’s activities reached lawmakers.
In his testimony, Kent described Ukraine as a struggling democracy beset by Russian-backed forces, crooked prosecutors, and rapacious oligarchs.
‘‘If you took the roster of the richest Ukrainians, they didn’t build value, they largely stole it,’’ he said. ‘‘Most of the billionaires in the country became billionaires because they acquired state assets for largely under-valued prices and engaged in predatory competition.’’
That harsh assessment also extended to Burisma, the gas company that offered Hunter Biden a lucrative position on its board despite his lack of experience in Ukraine or the energy industry.
‘‘You knew Burisma was a troubled, corrupt company, right?’’ asked Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, in a preview of the strategy Republicans are likely to deploy in their defense of Trump next week.
Kent agreed that it had ‘‘a reputation for not being the . . . cleanest member of the business community.’’
And he noted that he had raised concerns with the vice president’s office in 2015 about Hunter Biden’s $50,000 a month position with the company, but was ignored.
Kent, though, was equally critical of Giuliani’s willingness to work with corrupt Ukrainians when it served his political agenda.
He detailed how local officials literally thought there were ‘‘bags of cash’’ at the US Embassy in Kyiv that US officials would hand over, and noted that former prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko was upset that the Americans wouldn’t ‘‘show him the money.’’ Lutsenko, who Trump lauded as a ‘‘good guy’’ in his July 25 call with the Ukrainian president, became one of Giuliani’s key allies in his successful effort to bring down the American ambassador.
At the time Trump was singling out Lutsenko for praise, the Ukrainian prosecutor was ‘‘essentially colluding’’ with corrupt officials in Kyiv to undermine a probe into a fake-passport ring, Kent said.
‘‘We were very angry and upset because this threatened our security, and potentially also threatened [the Ukrainians’] ability to retain their visa free status in the European Union,’’ he told the inquiry.
Kent called the passport investigation a ‘‘breaking point’’ for the United States, which decided to end ‘‘capacity building assistance’’ to Lutsenko’s office as a result.
Meanwhile, Kent detailed the frustration of senior State Department officials in Washington who sought to counteract Giuliani’s ‘‘non-truths and non-sequiturs’’ with a high-level endorsement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or other top officials in Washington. The statement was never issued, ‘‘even though this was clearly a crisis for Ambassador Yovanovitch and a crisis that was threatening the relationship’’ between the United States and Ukraine.
Shortly after the ambassador was sent home, control over Ukraine policy shifted to Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Kurt Volker, the US special envoy to Ukraine. Sondland, rather than working through traditional channels, had his own ‘‘network of influence’’ that ran through Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff.
Kent also described Volker as too willing to cut corners in an effort to please Trump and Giuliani, and to help the Ukrainian president secure an Oval Office meeting.