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Diplomats Who Testified in Impeachment Inquiry Get Lifeline Through Legal Fund

Donors across the United States have provided more than a quarter of a million dollars so far.

State Department officials testify in the Trump impeachment inquiry.
State Department officials William Taylor and George Kent testify before the impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13. Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images

A legal defense fund set up to support career State Department officials testifying in the impeachment investigation into U.S. President Donald Trump has gained over a quarter of a million dollars from donors around the country, offering a financial lifeline to the government employees and signaling a widespread show of support for the beleaguered U.S. diplomatic corps.

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the union representing foreign service officers, sent a request to its members for donations to a legal defense fund after the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry first started in late September. As of this week, the AFSA legal defense fund stands at $250,477.80, according to correspondence the organization sent to its members and obtained by Foreign Policy

Over 1,400 donors across the country have contributed to the legal defense fund, with an average donation of $175, AFSA noted. Donations to the legal fund are restricted to U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and U.S.-based institutions, and individual donations are normally capped at $5,000. AFSA did not identify its donors, but multiple State Department officials told Foreign Policy they contributed to the fund to support their colleagues. 

While the amounts raised so far won’t go very far to pay legal fees from top law firms, the fund could ultimately provide some relief for career diplomats who needed attorneys to testify as fact witnesses before the House Intelligence Committee investigating whether Trump and his associates improperly withheld military aid unless Ukraine agreed to investigate one of Trump’s Democratic rivals in the 2020 elections. 

“How much money is needed? That answer is not knowable at this point,” AFSA wrote in its correspondence. “We do not know if Foreign Service members who have already testified will be called to testify again. We do not know if additional Foreign Service members will be summoned to testify. We do expect to receive more large requests for reimbursement.”

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee overseeing the impeachment inquiry, has not ruled out future impeachment hearings even after two weeks of public hearings with over a dozen witnesses—many of whom work at the State Department. “We’re not foreclosing the possibility of additional depositions or hearings,” Schiff told the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 22.

For over a month after the impeachment probe first started, career diplomats compelled to testify as fact witnesses in the inquiry had no indication of whether they would receive financial assistance from the U.S. government. The uncertainty raised concerns among some in the State Department that their colleagues, particularly midlevel foreign service officers, would not be able to afford legal counsel. It also reinforced the perception that senior leaders in the department, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, weren’t offering support for career diplomats ensnared in the hyperpoliticized impeachment panels. 

Several weeks ago, the U.S. government issued a partial course-correction, approving a measure to pay up to $300 per hour for up to 120 hours per month for attorneys for the State Department employees called to testify before the impeachment investigation, several U.S. officials confirmed to Foreign Policy. But attorneys from top firms equipped to handle such cases can cost $1,000 or more per hour, as AFSA noted in its correspondence—a fee that would be next to impossible to pay on a midlevel State Department officer’s salary even with support from the U.S. government. 

“In the case of one Foreign Service member whose initial bills AFSA has assisted with, the [U.S. government] reimbursement covered only 35 percent of the bill,” AFSA noted in its correspondence. Its legal defense fund paid the rest. 

“It’s a shame that we need to resort to this,” said one State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But especially for midlevel officers whose salary is not nearly enough to cover costs like these, the [legal defense fund] is enormously important both practically and as a sign of support.”

The State Department did not respond to request for comment. 

AFSA said in the correspondence it has greenlighted $104,920 to reimburse two foreign service officers’ private attorneys in the impeachment inquiry. It did not specify which two officers it covered. The career diplomats called to testify in the hearings and depositions include Undersecretary of State David Hale, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, and the U.S. Embassy to Ukraine’s political counselor, David Holmes. 

The impeachment probe has forced career diplomats and other public servants into a national public spotlight, where some have been denigrated by the president and his political allies. It has also fueled accusations that Pompeo is not doing enough to support his own employees, even as other senior State Department officials have publicly praised the career diplomats called to testify.

Pompeo has praised the Trump administration’s policies on Ukraine and said the department will continue to comply with the legal requirements for congressional oversight. But he has remained largely silent on the matter of his employees called to testify, even as Trump and his high-profile political allies disparaged some of them. As Yovanovitch testified on Nov. 15 about being abruptly removed from her post following a smear campaign by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his associates, Trump criticized her on Twitter. 

“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” Trump tweeted as she testified. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.”

On Tuesday, Trump said he would love for Pompeo to testify before the House impeachment investigation, which he called a phony Impeachment Hoax and Democratic Scam. Asked whether he would agree to testify in a press briefing on Tuesday, Pompeo only smiled and said: When the time is right, all good things happen.

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

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