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What Testimony In The Impeachment Inquiry Says About Backchannel Diplomacy


We are learning more about the back-channel diplomacy at the center of the impeachment inquiry. The House Intelligence Committee today released transcripts of the hours and hours of testimony from two officials - Michael McKinley, a senior diplomat and former top adviser to the secretary of state, and Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled from Kyiv this past May.

In her testimony, Yovanovitch describes learning that Ukraine's former prosecutor general was looking to, quote, "hurt her" in the U.S. And she learned that this Ukrainian official was in contact with Rudy Giuliani, President Trump's personal lawyer. We wondered what precedent might exist for something like this - a foreign entity apparently deeply involved in the removal of a sitting U.S. ambassador.

For more, we have reached out to Ambassador Daniel Fried, who spent 40 years at the State Department focused on Europe and Russia. Ambassador Fried, welcome.

DANIEL FRIED: I wish we were speaking under better circumstances.

KELLY: Tell me - can you think of a precedent for something like this, this level of foreign involvement in trying to unseat a sitting U.S. ambassador?

FRIED: There are all kinds of precedent for back channel, and that doesn't bother me. That exists. But I've never seen a case where the foreign officials were playing us. In this case, the back channel seems to have been representing not the public interests of the United States but the private interests of the president. And that I have never seen before.

KELLY: You said a couple of things there. One, you're describing back channel diplomacy. So the non-public, non-official branch of diplomacy, which as you say is part of relations between countries. You are happier with it when it's benefiting the U.S. side, and you're not sure that that was happening here.

FRIED: Well, there is ample precedent for this sort of thing. I mean, think of Kissinger's secret missions to develop relations with China or the secret missions to talk to Iran and get the nuclear deal started. You can like or not like the policy, but back channels, including by people somewhat outside the regular chain of command, has a precedent, and it has a place.

That's not the issue. The issue here is that the back channel in the form of Rudy Giuliani was advancing not the public interest of the United States but the private interest of the president. I've never seen anything like that before.

KELLY: Let me stick with some of the actual quotes and information that's coming out from this testimony that's just been released. Ambassador Yovanovitch describes, as she is being questioned, learning about efforts to spread disinformation about her not from U.S. sources but from Ukrainians. She describes Ukraine's interior minister expressing concern about Giuliani's involvement, telling her she needed to watch her back - her words. Can you think of an instance like that that you've encountered in 40 years of U.S. diplomacy?

FRIED: Sure. Actually, I can think of a number of cases where foreign governments have tried to manipulate our system and go after ambassadors that they thought were trying to uproot corruption. What I haven't seen is when it worked quite like this, when we - our side was being played. That's wrong.

KELLY: It struck me reading through some of these pages that Ambassador Yovanovitch seemed aware that something unusual was unfolding in real time. She seemed unsure about what exactly to do about it. Does that speak to how unusual this might have been?

FRIED: Well, first, full disclosure, I've known Masha Yovanovitch you've on events for 25 years. She's a straight-arrow, straight-up professional. The problem she had is that her chain of command back in the State Department was also similarly out of the loop and didn't know what was going on. She had nobody back at headquarters to turn to. And then it turns out that the State Department just sat on its hands at the highest level.

Secretary Pompeo, when he didn't defend her, also failed to protect the President, his boss, from being manipulated by corrupt information. So it's not simply that the chain of command didn't protect their ambassador in the field. They didn't protect the president of the United States from being manipulated by foreign actors whose motives are questionable - in fact, motives are bad.

KELLY: That's Daniel Fried. He retired from the U.S. State Department in 2017. He is now a fellow with the Atlantic Council. Thank you.

FRIED: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.