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WATCH: Nominee to be ambassador to Russia testifies before Senate committee

WASHINGTON (AP) — The second highest ranking official at the State Department faced off Wednesday with senators demanding to know why he didn’t know more about the Trump administration’s backchannel diplomacy with Ukraine and the dismissal of the former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, issues now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry into the president.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Russia, told senators at his confirmation hearing that he did not know of any attempt by the president or others to press Ukraine to open a corruption probe into Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. He said he knew that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani had spearheaded a campaign to oust Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from her post, but apart from that was “not aware of what he was doing or his purpose.”

Sullivan was the person tasked with informing Yovanovitch in late March that she was being recalled early from Ukraine. He said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had told him only that Yovanovitch had lost the confidence of the president. He said he was given no other explanation and told Yovanovitch that he did not believe she had done anything to warrant her removal.

Asked why he did not oppose Yovanovitch’s ouster, Sullivan said ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president and can be removed at any time.

“When the president loses confidence in the ambassador, right or wrong, the ambassador goes,” Sullivan said, adding that he and Pompeo had tried to push back on Giuliani’s campaign.

“I was aware that Mr. Giuliani was involved in Ukraine issues,” Sullivan told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “My knowledge, particularly in April, May, June timeline, into July, was focused on his campaign basically against our ambassador.”

But faced with intense questioning from committee Democrats, including rankling member Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Sullivan could not say if Trump or Giuliani were withholding military assistance to Ukraine to press its new government to open a corruption probe into Biden’s family.

“I was aware that there was a hold on security assistance to Ukraine, I wasn’t aware of the reason,” he said. However, he added that using aid as leverage to push for a foreign investigation of a political rival “would be inconsistent with our values.”

Sullivan is the lead U.S. official in talks with Russia on counter-terrorism and strategic security. He testified that if confirmed he would be “relentless” in confronting Russia over its election interference, hostile moves against neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine, human rights abuses and violations of arms control agreements.

Sullivan said Russian efforts to undermine democracies in the U.S. and elsewhere continue apace without regard to election cycles and must be combatted.

“They view it as an ongoing hybrid campaign against the United States,” he said.

Sullivan also said he would be “indefatigable” in defending American diplomats and citizens in Russia.

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