By Arshad Mohammed and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump turns on Tuesday to George Kent, a U.S. career diplomat who has spent much of his career fighting corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere.
The probe is focused on a July 25 phone call in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate unsubstantiated allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden, a top contender for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
Democrats have accused Trump of pressuring a vulnerable U.S. ally to dig up dirt on a domestic rival after withholding $391 million in U.S. security aid intended to help combat Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine. Zelenskiy agreed to investigate. Trump eventually allowed the aid.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and defended his request to Zelenskiy. Biden and his son also deny wrongdoing.
Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for U.S. policy toward six former Soviet republics including
Ukraine, is scheduled to appear behind closed doors before the three House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry.
It was not clear whether Kent would speak to members and staff of the foreign affairs, intelligence and government reform panels on Tuesday morning.
The State Department previously ordered officials not to do so, triggering congressional subpoenas to the witnesses. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, is due to testify later in the week, following one of the subpoenas.
Trump’s personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, also faces a Tuesday deadline to produce documents related to the Ukraine matter subpoenaed by the House Intelligence Committee. He has not said whether he will comply.
On Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, defied the State Department order and gave scathing testimony in which she accused the Trump administration of recalling her from Kiev based on false claims and of hollowing out the State Department.
According to State Department emails contained in a package of material shared with congressional staff last month and later seen by Reuters, Kent told colleagues that Yovanovitch had become the target of a “classic disinformation operation.”
Yovanovitch in her Friday appearance denied Giuliani’s allegations she provided a “do not prosecute list” to Ukrainian officials to protect Biden and others.
“One key sign of it being fake is that most of the names are misspelled in English — we would never spell most that way,” Kent said in the email to colleagues.
Kent suggested the department push back by “circling in red all the misspellings and grammar mistakes and reposting it,” as the U.S. Embassy in Moscow has done to counter propaganda.
Kent, who majored in Russian language and literature at Harvard, has held several jobs requiring him to grapple with corruption in Ukraine, which ranks 120th of 180 nations in a Transparency International corruption perceptions index.
Before taking up his current job, Kent served as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine from 2015 to 2018 and as the senior anti-corruption coordinator in the State Department’s European Bureau from 2014 to 2015.
From 2012 to 2014, Kent oversaw $200 million in annual funding for the rule of law, law enforcement and judicial system capacity-building in Europe and Asia, working in the department’s international narcotics and law enforcement bureau.
One former U.S. official said Kent had been among the most vigilant officials within the State Department in reporting on corruption in Ukraine and in seeking to combat it.