George Kent’s testimony destroyed the right-wing conspiracy theories central to the impeachment inquiry

George Kent

Citation Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent debunked a series of false narratives in recently released congressional testimony. Those narratives consumed President Donald Trump and his right-wing media allies for months, ultimately leading to the abuses of power that triggered an impeachment inquiry into the president’s corrupt actions.

The impeachment inquiry revolves around the fruits of a disinformation campaign led by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney. Beginning in the fall of 2018, Giuliani presided over a shadow foreign policy campaign at the president’s behest, seeking information that would undermine the intelligence community's finding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and damage the political prospects of Trump’s potential 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Giuliani’s investigation revolved around the claims of corrupt current and former Ukrainian officials. He filtered the results of his probe through The Hill opinion columnist John Solomon, whose work was then trumpeted by Sean Hannity and other pro-Trump Fox News hosts. Trump, both personally and through federal agents, then corruptly sought to leverage U.S. aid to Ukraine in order to compel that country’s government to open investigations into Biden and 2016.

Kent, who gave an October 15 deposition before the impeachment inquiry which was released last week, had a unique vantage point giving him keen insight into the conspiracy theories that ultimately led to a congressional impeachment inquiry. A foreign service officer with nearly three decades of experience, Kent was deputy chief of mission in Kyiv, Ukraine, from 2015 to 2018, then moved to a State Department post where he oversaw U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine.

During his testimony, Kent laid out four meritless Ukraine storylines that played out in right-wing media: attacks on the U.S. embassy in Ukraine over its anti-corruption efforts; the allegation that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 election; the narrative that Biden had forced Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor to protect his son; and attacks on Ukrainian civil society organizations.

As Kent explained, the stories were “started off” by Solomon in a series of March columns in The Hill, then “extensively” covered by Fox, even though they were based on “non-truths” largely originating with Yuriy Lutsenko, a source the U.S. embassy considered a “corrupt prosecutor general” and one Kent believed was “bitter and angry at the embassy.” 

Storyline 1: Attacks on U.S. Embassy

Lutsenko, in an interview with Solomon which aired on Hill.TV March 20, claimed that then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch “gave him a do not prosecute list during their first meeting” and had failed to allocate funds she was supposed to provide to his office. The same day, Solomon reported that then-Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) had sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2018 in which he said that Yovanovich should be recalled, alleging she had “spoken privately and repeatedly about her disdain for the current Administration.” 

Hannity led his program with Solomon’s reporting that night. During one of the several segments about the reports, Hannity regular (and Solomon lawyer) Joseph diGenova argued that Yovanovich “needs to be called home to the United States for consultation” in order to “answer a slew of questions about her conduct and her assault on the president of the United States.”

Kent described the attacks on Yovanovitch as a “campaign of slander” that was “full of lies and incorrect information” aimed at removing an obstacle to Giuliani’s Ukrainian meddling. 

As Kent explained during his deposition, the “do not prosecute” list Lutsenko claimed to have received from Yovanovitch did not exist. “What Lutsenko alleged was that we were not doing a law enforcement-to-law-enforcement request based on a criminal nexus in the United States but that we were politically asking them not to prosecute Ukrainians. And we just don’t do that,” he said.

A document circulated on the internet following Lutsenko’s interview purporting to be such a list, but it was an obvious forgery, Kent explained. Someone had apparently taken one of his old business cards and attached it to “a hodgepodge of names,” he said.

“Some of the people I had to Google, I had not heard of. Half the names were misspelled. Not the way that any American, or even Ukrainian, or Russian would transliterate Ukrainian names,” he added.

Kent further explained that Lutsenko’s claim that the embassy had failed to provide his office with money it was entitled to showed Lutsenko “fundamentally misunderstood how our assistance is administered.” Lutsenko, Kent said, apparently thought the embassy “had bags of cash” to distribute, when in fact the government’s anti-corruption funding goes through four organizations with which it has “signed contracts or grants to administer our justice programming for the reform of the Prosecutor General’s Office.” 

As for the claim that Yovanovitch had privately discussed “her disdain” for the Trump administration, Kent pointed out that Sessions had sent his letter claiming such the same day he met with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, Soviet-born con men who had worked with Giuliani and had reportedly sought Yovanovitch’s firing in order to advance their business interests in Ukraine. The pair have been arrested for campaign finance violations related to their work trying to get Sessions to push for her ouster.

Storyline 2: Allegations that Ukraine interfered with 2016 election

In August 2016, a so-called “black ledger” obtained by Ukrainian anti-corruption authorities was publicly revealed, showing secret payments from a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party to then-Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort. The revelation caused a firestorm that triggered Manafort’s resignation

Lutsenko claimed during his March 20 interview with Solomon that Ukrainians had leaked the ledger in an effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential election to the benefit of Hillary Clinton. That night, Hannity claimed this was “major evidence of election collusion in 2016.” 

But as Kent explained, Ukrainians were keenly interested in Manafort’s work in Ukraine, his role in the 2016 election notwithstanding.

Q. Were there other sources of information regarding Manafort pushing out of Ukraine? 

A. About -- well, Mr. Manafort operated in Ukraine for over a decade. So are you specifically saying about his entire time, or what's the specific -- 

Q. Around that timeframe, which of course is -- you know, mid-2015 is when he became involved with the President's campaign.

A. Right. Because Mr. Manafort had spent a decade in Ukraine, Ukrainians followed his reemergence as a U.S. figure very closely.

Q. And was Leshchenko the primary person bringing that to the attention of The New York Times and the other -- 

A. No. I think, all Ukrainians, they didn't need a single person doing it. Because Mr. Manafort first appeared in Ukraine in 2005 when he was hired by former Prime Minister Yanukovych who tried to steal the election that became the Orange Revolution, that was the end of 2004. 

To the best of my recollection, in this case it's actually quite good because I was with Ambassador Herbst at the time when Yanukovych told us that he'd hired Manafort, and that was the spring of 2005. So Mr. Manafort's time in Ukraine started in 2005, and according to public records, he participated up through the campaigns of 2014. 

Q. Now, the allegation that the embassy shared an animus about Manafort or was interested in pushing information to the forefront, is that an accurate description of the second narrative that was pushed in the March 2019 timeframe? 

A. That is part of what Yuriy Lutsenko in that narrative pushed, yes. 

Q. Okay. 

A. It's, again, inaccurate, not accurate.

Storyline 3: Biden smeared over firing of  corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor

Solomon’s April 1 report in The Hill launched the false narrative that as vice president, Biden had forced the firing of former Ukraine Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin because Shokin was conducting a corruption probe into the natural gas firm Burisma Holdings, which at the time employed Biden’s son Hunter as a member of its board of directors. That conspiracy theory became a key line of attack on Hannity and other Fox programs, particularly after The New York Times reported in May that Giuliani was encouraging Ukrainian officials to investigate the Bidens.

But Kent, who was the number two official in the embassy at the time, explained that Biden was following the official U.S. government position that Shokin must be removed because he was “an impediment to the reform of the prosecutorial system, and he had directly undermined in repeated fashion U.S. efforts and U. S. assistance programs.” 

“And so,” he added, “because we had a strategic interest in seeing the Ukrainian prosecutor system reformed, and because we have a fiduciary responsibility for U.S. taxpayer dollars, it was the consensus view that Shokin needed to be removed so that the stated goal of reform of the prosecutor general system could move forward.” 

Kent also testified that removing Shokin was the State Department’s idea. “To the best of my knowledge, the idea originated with [then-Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey] Pyatt in discussion with Assistant Secretary [Victoria] Nuland and then was pitched to the Office of the Vice President.” 

He further stated Burisma “was not something that I ever recall coming up or being discussed” and that he was unaware of any probe into that company at the time. In fact, the Burisma investigation was long dormant, and Hunter Biden was never a subject of the investigation. 

Storyline 4: Attacks on Ukrainian civil society organizations

Solomon in a March column sought to undermine the Ukrainian civil society group Anti-Corruption Action Centre (AntAC) on the grounds that it is funded by George Soros, an American financier and philanthropist who figures prominently in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Solomon promoted Lutsenko’s suggestion that the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine had foiled his attempts to investigate AntAC because of that funding.

Soros’ name was subsequently invoked by Giuliani in several Fox interviews, with the president’s lawyer claiming that Yovanovitch had been “working for” Soros as ambassador and was planning to take a job with him after she left government, and that Giuliani’s investigation had been impeded because Ukraine’s president is surrounded by “Soros’ people.”

Kent explained that the State Department had intervened after Lutsenko had sought to prosecute AntAC’s founder, Vitali Shabunin, who had been charged with “alleged hooliganism” because he had pushed a person “picketing his house” who had thrown disinfectant in his face, calling this “harassment of civil society activists.” He also described the allegation that Yovanovitch had planned to work for Soros as “fake news.”