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VOL. 43 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 15, 2019

Congress to hear diplomat who overheard a key Trump call

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A State Department official who has drawn praise for speaking out in the past about problems in the Foreign Service was expected to testify Friday to House impeachment investigators about a conversation he overheard President Trump having about “investigations” in Ukraine.

Career diplomat David Holmes arrived on Capitol Hill in the afternoon to speak to lawmakers behind closed doors. He was expected to discuss his recollection of a July 26 call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union.

The conversation came the day after Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which the U.S. president pressed his counterpart to find information that could help his campaign. This second call was revealed in congressional testimony by Bill Taylor, the acting head of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, who said a staff member overheard while Trump spoke to Sondland by phone at a restaurant in Kyiv.

Holmes, now the political counselor at the embassy in Kyiv, joined the Foreign Service in 2002 and has served in Afghanistan, Colombia, India, Kosovo and Russia as well as on the National Security Council staff.

He won an award for constructive dissent from the American Foreign Service Association in 2014 for complaining about problems that an alternate diplomatic channel had caused in South Asia and recommending organizational changes to the State Department’s bureaucratic structure for the region.

Holmes believed that rivalry between the Office of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs was hurting efforts to promote American interests in the region. The special representative post, known as SRAP, was created in 2009 under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and held until his sudden death in late 2010 by the late, legendary diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

While he held the job, Holbrooke gradually expanded its authorities and responsibilities in ways that continued after he passed away. The expansion of the SRAP office outside the usual chain of command caused consternation within the South and Central Asia bureau, which had traditionally held the entire portfolio. Holmes said competing interests between the two, notably the “non-business as usual approach” of Holbrooke’s former office had “hindered our diplomatic effectiveness” in South Asia.

Holmes made his concerns known through the State Department’s so-called “Dissent Channel,” which provides diplomats with a confidential way of registering serious concerns. It’s similar to but distinct from the method — a personal cable to the secretary of state — that Taylor used to register his objections about Ukraine policy.

Taylor revealed the call between Trump and Sondland when he testified Wednesday to Congress.

The Associated Press later learned that a second U.S. Embassy staffer in Kyiv overheard the call between Trump and his ambassador to the European Union as they discussed a need for Ukrainian officials to pursue “investigations.”

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