Trump Promotes Senior Diplomats, Including Star Impeachment Witness

George Kent, promoted to a new rank in the senior foreign service, has avoided the grim fate of other impeachment witnesses.

State Department official George Kent testifying on Capitol Hill.
George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, at an impeachment hearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 13, 2019. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump this week signed off on promotions for a batch of senior U.S. diplomats including George Kent, a State Department official who became a key witness in the president’s impeachment trial, officials familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy

While many officials drawn into the impeachment investigation resigned or were forced out of office, including top diplomats, Kent has kept his job as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. Kent’s job standing and promotion were seen by some diplomats as a bellwether for how far political retaliation would go inside the State Department in the aftermath of impeachment. 

Kent and a group of other diplomats were first recommended by the State Department for promotions in the ranks of the senior foreign service last summer, months before the House-led impeachment investigation began. The promotion list that included Kent was sent to the White House during the fall, when the impeachment investigation began ramping up. The list remained in the White House’s hands for months without moving to the Senate for confirmation votes, several officials told Foreign Policy. The Senate approved the list in June, and the president signed off on the promotions this week, the officials said

Kent’s promotion comes the same week that another star witness in the impeachment trial, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, resigned after a 21-year career in the Army following a “campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation,” according to his lawyer. Vindman was sacked from his job on the National Security Council after testifying in the trial about the president’s efforts to block military aid to Ukraine unless the country agreed to investigate Trump’s Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Many career diplomats were angered when senior administration officials—including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—did nothing to shield civil servants from political attacks when they were thrust into the impeachment spotlight, including former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted from her job following a smear campaign by the president’s associates. These diplomats, including colleagues of Kent who spoke to Foreign Policy, feared that his career would be upended before learning of his promotion.

“This is good news—it suggests a certain normality in State Department promotion procedures, despite all the peculiarities last fall,” said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “An outstanding officer received a well-deserved promotion, which is how it’s supposed to work.”

Remembered for his signature bow tie as well as his sober testimony, Kent emerged as a crucial witness during the impeachment hearings. A career foreign service officer with a deep understanding of Ukraine, Kent was able to give a long-lens view on U.S. foreign policy toward Kyiv and how it was undermined by Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his allies as they sought to unearth compromising information on Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice president. 

“It was unexpected, and most unfortunate, to watch some Americans—including those who allied themselves with corrupt Ukrainians in pursuit of private agendas—launch attacks on dedicated public servants advancing U.S. interests in Ukraine,” Kent said in his testimony. “In my opinion, those attacks undermined U.S. and Ukrainian national interests and damaged our critical bilateral relationship.”

Kent, like the other sitting government officials who testified in the impeachment trial, was compelled to do so by congressional subpoena. Trump was acquitted of all charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on mostly partisan lines in early February.

Promotions in the senior foreign service require approvals from State Department promotion boards, then presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. State Department officials described promoting batches of senior foreign service officers as a largely pro forma process, without the scrutiny or rigorous political reviews of other presidentially nominated and Senate-confirmed positions such as ambassador posts. It would be highly unusual for the White House to block promotions within the senior foreign service or take officers off the list before passing along to the Senate, officials said. 

But the president broke precedent in the past to remove other officials involved in the impeachment probe from their posts. Trump sacked the U.S. intelligence community’s inspector general who first reviewed the whistleblower complaint that sparked the impeachment investigation. Several other key Defense Department officials who expressed concern over the president’s policy of withholding military aid to Ukraine were also forced out of their jobs this year. Vindman’s brother, also a National Security Council aide, was removed from his post at the White House the same day as his brother—days after Trump’s acquittal—despite having no role in the impeachment trial. 

Yovanovitch, another career foreign service officer who was ambassador to Ukraine, retired from the State Department after she was pulled from her post in Kyiv following a smear campaign by associates of the president and compelled to testify in the impeachment trial. Bill Taylor, a former diplomat pulled back into the service to serve as acting ambassador after Yovanovitch left, was also removed from his post a week ahead of his planned departure in January, just before a visit by Pompeo to Kyiv.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

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

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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