Diplomat Kurt Volker Caught Up In Whirlwind Of Impeachment Inquiry

Oct 3, 2019
Originally published on October 3, 2019 8:13 am

On paper, Kurt Volker's job in the Trump administration was to support Ukraine and help end a war started by Russia in the east of the former Soviet Republic. Volker is now caught up in a political battle at home over President Trump's efforts to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Volker will be deposed Thursday behind closed doors as part of the House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

Volker, 54, was a career diplomat who focused on Europe and was tapped by then-President George W. Bush in 2008 to serve as the U.S. ambassador to NATO, a position he held for less than a year.

By the time Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and sent troops to foment an uprising in eastern Ukraine, Volker was out of government, running the McCain Institute, a think tank in Washington run by Arizona State University. He was critical of the Obama administration's approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression.

"The most frequent phrase you hear out of mouths now is there is no military solution, and I think we just have to reject that," he told NPR in a 2015 interview. "We are seeing a military solution play out before our eyes on the ground in Ukraine, and it happens to be one that we don't like. It's Putin's military solution."

Volker returned to the State Department in July 2017 when he was tapped by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to serve as U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations.

Andrew Weiss, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Volker was an unlikely fit in the Trump administration.

"It was indicative of just how hard it was to get credentialed middle-of-the-road or right-of-center Republicans to serve in this administration," Weiss said. "So there was a real shortage of talented experienced people coming in. Kurt was one of the exceptions to that."

Kurt was appointed with a specific role in mind, Weiss said: halting the conflict in eastern Ukraine. But that mandate broadened over time.

"He ended up having a far wider portfolio that involved running U.S. policy on Ukraine writ large," Weiss said.

For one thing, Volker had to unify the Trump administration's position on Ukraine.

"Donald Trump came into office with a very bad attitude about Ukraine as a candidate," Weiss added. "[Trump] repeatedly talked about how Crimea would have been happier being part of Russia and how basically Ukraine was secondary to his all-important goal of resetting relations with the Kremlin."

Volker, though, made sure that the Trump administration sided with Ukraine when it comes to Crimea. He also oversaw a change in policy, with the U.S. now providing anti-tank systems and other defensive weapons to Ukraine in its conflict with Russian-backed forces in Ukraine's east.

Volker's work with the State Department was a part-time, volunteer job. He held on to his position at the McCain Institute and BGR, a powerful lobbying firm that represents Ukraine and Raytheon.

Raytheon manufactures the Javelin missiles that were part of the Trump administration's military aid package to Ukraine. The work raised questions about potential conflicts of interest. Volker did have an ethics agreement approved by State Department lawyers and recused himself from some of BGR's work. He has not been accused of violating any conflict-of-interest rules.

Instead, it is Volker's work with Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that is now under investigation. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, tweeted on Sept. 27 that Volker has "a well deserved reputation for fairness, toughness and integrity."

But, Murphy told NPR, "my esteem for Kurt frankly makes me even more disappointed that he has become part of this mess and perhaps facilitated the corruption of the State Department."

Volker resigned as special representative on Sept. 27. Volker offered no public explanation, and Murphy — who recently visited Ukraine — is calling on him to speak up now.

"I'm glad that Kurt stepped down, and now he needs to fess up to what he knows and what he did," said Murphy.

According to a whistleblower complaint filed last month about an interaction President Trump had with the leader of Ukraine, Volker visited Ukraine's capital of Kyiv a day after the July call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Volker "provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to 'navigate' " Trump's demands, according to the complaint. The as-yet unidentified whistleblower, citing multiple officials, claimed that Trump urged Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

The complaint is now central to the impeachment inquiry announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Sept. 24.

The Carnegie Endowment's Weiss said Volker may have believed he had to "corral the crazy stuff that Giuliani was doing to make sure that it wouldn't contaminate or impede the important work of U.S. foreign policy."

"Donald Trump clearly thought that embracing Giuliani's quixotic quest to get the goods on the supposed Ukrainian interference in 2016 was the priority for U.S. foreign policy," said Weiss. "He had this exactly backwards compared to work Volker and other career officials were doing."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is making a different case. He told reporters during a news conference in Rome that Volker was focused on "taking down the threat that Russia poses there in Ukraine," adding that continues despite "all this noise going on."

Volker has not commented publicly on the matter because of the House investigations.

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Well, today is a first in the impeachment inquiry. The first State Department official will testify before three congressional committees behind closed doors. It is Kurt Volker, who is U.S. special envoy for Ukraine. He resigned last week after being named in a whistleblower complaint about President Trump's dealings with Ukraine. So who is Volcker? What role did he play in all this? And what might his deposition reveal?

Let's turn to NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, who's with us this morning. Hi, Michele.


GREENE: OK. What should we know about Kurt Volker?

KELEMEN: Well, Volker's a former foreign service officer. He served briefly as U.S. ambassador to NATO at the end of the Bush administration - George W. Bush that is. He's since led the McCain Institute in Washington and has consulted for a lobbying firm. And he was tapped two years ago for this part-time job of being special representative for Ukraine negotiations.

The job was really to promote negotiations to end a war in eastern Ukraine and to push back against Russian aggression. But he ended up doing much more than that, really. He oversaw a shift in policy to start sending defensive weapons to Ukraine. That's something he advocated before. And now he's caught up in this political battle back home.

GREENE: Probably not exactly where he expected to be when he came into this job. So help me work through what role he played here. According to the whistleblower complaint, it looks like as President Trump was interested in getting Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe Biden's son, Volker may have put Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in touch with Ukrainian government officials. Is that right?

KELEMEN: Yeah. That's right. It was Volker, along with the ambassador to the European Union - another Trump appointee - who are facilitating these contacts. And now, let me just set the scene for you...


KELEMEN: ...About what's happening in Ukraine. You had a comedian and a political novice, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, winning elections. That surprised a lot of people. At the same time, you have Rudy Giuliani trying to dig up dirt about Joe Biden's son and looking into the origins of the Robert Mueller investigation. You have a president who's fixated on that and has a negative view of Ukraine.

And then you have Volker, who seems to be trying to help this new Ukrainian leader get his footing. So he puts Giuliani in touch with aides to the Ukrainian president. The whistleblower, as you mentioned, painted it as Volker trying to help the Ukrainian government navigate - that was the word that was used - navigate the president's demands. The whistleblower also said that Volker was in Kyiv a day after that very well-known phone call that Trump had with Zelenskiy.

GREENE: So a lot for lawmakers to question Volker about. And Volker's one of the State Department officials, we should say, whose deposition Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to delay. So now this deposition is happening. Do you have a sense for exactly what questions lawmakers are going to be focusing on?

KELEMEN: Well, I think they need to get a - kind of an accurate picture of what he was trying to do there, what he knew about Giuliani's ask and what he knows about the president's decision to hold up military aid to Ukraine during this time - you know, was the president using that aid as leverage to pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt? - and also just what the State Department's role in all of this was.

Secretary of State Pompeo says U.S. policy was clear. That's what his team was focused on. But there seems to have been this sort of separate side policy happening at the same time.

GREENE: Let me ask you, Michele, about another State Department involvement here. The State Department's inspector general gave some documents to Congress yesterday. Giuliani admitted on CNN some of the documents came from him. What exactly were these documents?

KELEMEN: Well, the staffers and the one lawmaker who were there said they were shown a package of documents containing debunked conspiracy theories about the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. You know, this smear campaign was certainly getting a lot of play in the right-wing media at the times, and none of that's really a surprise.

But since Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador, was abruptly fired in May, this provides some context to that. And she's also going to be one of the people expected to speak to the Hill committees on this impeachment inquiry.

GREENE: All right. NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen for us this morning. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.