Wednesday’s Biggest Winners Might Have Been U.S. Diplomats

Despite partisan bickering over the first public impeachment hearing into Trump's behavior, foreign service officers lauded the performance of two of their own, William Taylor and George Kent.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Two diplomats, William Taylor and George Kent, testify in the impeachment hearing.
Top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor and career foreign service officer George Kent are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 13. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Until Wednesday, it was fair to say that U.S. diplomats were suffering a morale crisis as they found themselves pulled into a drawn-out impeachment saga that could spell the end of Donald Trump’s presidency. But following the first public testimony by two career foreign service officers before the House Intelligence Committee, some diplomats expressed a certain amount of relief.

“If there is a silver lining, it is that the American people have had a rare chance to see American diplomats at work” and to “understand the caliber and patriotism” of their work, said Molly Montgomery, a former adviser to Vice President Mike Pence on Europe and Eurasia who spent 14 years in the foreign service. 

“Current and former Foreign Service officers are justifiably proud of their colleagues for answering the call of duty in testifying before Congress at great personal risk and expense,” Montgomery said. 

Both witnesses, acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, testified that associates of Trump outside of government, including his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, operated “irregular” diplomatic channels outside the official chain of command to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate potential Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden. Giuliani’s informal channel was working against U.S. interests in Ukraine, they testified. Taylor, a decorated Vietnam War veteran whom Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pulled out of retirement to serve as acting ambassador to Ukraine, said he learned that Trump withheld vital U.S. military aid for Ukraine until it agreed to investigate Biden and his family.

The testimony spurred only more partisan bickering over whether Trump’s behavior amounted to an impeachable offense. But current diplomats praised the witnesses for standing up well under high-stakes lines of questioning from Democrats and Republicans, with each side eager to get Taylor and Kent to feed into their competing narratives on whether Trump acted improperly or did no wrong—leading to heated cross-examinations and testy exchanges with several Republican lawmakers who decried the impeachment probe as unfounded.

“They were exactly what they should have been: professional, nonpartisan, and of course, truthful,” said one senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They held their tongues better than I could have at certain points.”

Taylor and Kent testified that they had raised alarm bells internally over the political pressure from Giuliani and others, including sending memos to senior State Department leaders expressing their concerns. Taylor also brought up new information: One of his aides overheard Trump asking U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland for updates about his push to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. CBS News reports that the aide, David Holmes, will appear for a closed-door hearing on Friday. Holmes is the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

When the aide asked about the call, Taylor said, “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.” Taylor said he only learned of this information last week, after his closed-door testimony in the House impeachment probe on Oct. 22.

It was a historic moment for the State Department, which is normally used to operating out of the spotlight and behind the scenes but which finds itself at the epicenter of a Democrat-led probe into whether Trump’s alleged effort to withhold military aid from Ukraine unless it investigated a Democrat political rival constitutes an impeachable offense.

The impeachment probe has unnerved many in the U.S. diplomatic corps—some wary that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle or in the White House will try to politicize their nonpartisan ranks, others quietly fuming at Pompeo’s apparent lack of interest in defending those career diplomats thrust into the spotlight. 

But although Republicans on the committee sought to undercut the importance of the testimony and deny that Trump did anything wrong—accusing the Democrats of spinning a false narrative to move the impeachment probe forward—few lawmakers questioned the credibility of the two witnesses. And while there remains growing fear that the State Department will continue to be a political punching bag, there is also growing pride within the diplomatic ranks over the performance of their colleagues who were called to testify, potentially putting their careers at risk in the process. 

Over a dozen current and former State Department officials have told Foreign Policy there is also mounting frustration with Pompeo over his refusal to offer any public defense of the diplomats roped into the inquiry. This includes Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine removed from her post after a smear campaign by Giuliani and his associates with business interests in Ukraine.

Some in Ukraine disliked Yovanovitch’s efforts to root out corruption, including Giuliani’s associates, Kent said during a line of questioning from Democratic Rep. André Carson. Kent suggested this led to her ouster. “You can’t promote principled anti-corruption action without pissing off corrupt people,” he said.

Taylor, Kent, and Yovanovitch—who is expected to testify on Thursday—are “doing their best under the most difficult circumstances to defend American interests in Ukraine,” said one seasoned diplomat who has worked with them. “I am very proud of all three of them.”

Both Kent and Taylor were instructed not to cooperate with Congress and only appeared at Wednesday’s open hearing after the House issued subpoenas. 

As Foreign Policy previously reported, Kent also felt he was provided no support from senior levels of the State Department before he was called in to testify, and others fear their careers will be derailed after they are hauled in before the impeachment inquiry.

Pompeo has dismissed concerns about low morale. “More Washington insider-y stuff, a long history of the press reporting about unhappiness at the State Department, especially, frankly, in Republican administrations,” he said in an interview with the radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday. “I’m sure there’s lots of different thoughts, but suffice it to say the American people should be comfortable knowing that we are continuing to do the hard work to deliver good policy outcomes for President Trump and the United States.”

The concerns come as the State Department faces scrutiny over several Trump political appointees treating staff abusively or mismanaging them in politically motivated reprisals. 

Some State Department officials point to these data points as part of a broader trend of the U.S. diplomatic corps losing morale and hemorrhaging talent under the Trump administration. They fear that after the public hearings, political pressure on the apolitical ranks of the department will only get worse. 

“I think there’s a lot of worry about much State is being politicized,” said one current State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Trump and his appointees have already punished the department for much less.”

But so far the professionals within the foreign service appear to be holding their own before the American public.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer