Fiona Hill: A “Domestic Political Errand” Eclipsed the “Regular Channel” on Ukraine Policy

At some point over the course of the spring and summer of this year, U.S. policy for Ukraine diverged into two tracks. The first track was pursuing standard U.S. policy objectives: promoting democracy and the rule of law, fighting corruption, and protecting Ukraine from Russia.

The second track had a far narrower set of goals: Get the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to commit publicly to investigating supposed Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election as well as former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s top rivals in the 2020 election. To achieve this outcome, a politically crucial White House meeting and millions of dollars in U.S. military assistance were withheld to pressure Zelenskyy to acquiesce. For some working this channel,  especially Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Ambassador Kurt Volker, the hope was that if Trump could be appeased, then U.S.-Ukraine policy could get back on track: Zelenskyy would get a vote of confidence from the United States and the money would be restored. 

Ambassador Bill Taylor, who replaced Marie Yovanovitch in Ukraine as the acting top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv after she was removed from her post, first introduced us to this concept of the two “channels” in his Nov. 13 public testimony. As he told it, he had a foot in both. 

As the acting ambassador, I had authority over the regular, formal diplomatic processes, including the bulk of the U.S. effort to support Ukraine against the Russian invasion and to help it defeat corruption. My colleague, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, and our colleagues at the National Security Council (NSC) were my main points of contact in Washington in this regular channel. This channel is formally responsible for formulating and overseeing the implementation of U.S. foreign policy with respect to Ukraine, a policy that has consistently enjoyed strong, bipartisan support, both in Congress and in all administrations since Ukraine’s independence from Russia in 1991. 

At the same time, however, I encountered an irregular, informal channel of U.S. policy-making with respect to Ukraine, unaccountable to Congress, a channel that included then-Special Envoy Kurt Volker, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and, as I subsequently learned, Mr. Giuliani. I was clearly in the regular channel, but I was also in the irregular one to the extent that Ambassadors Volker and Sondland included me in certain conversations. Although this irregular channel was well-connected in Washington, it operated mostly outside of official State Department channels. 

But Taylor’s description took Sondland by surprise. The way the U.S. ambassador to the European Union saw it, there was nothing “irregular” about what he was doing. He was taking his orders from the president and keeping White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the loop. And he brought emails this week to prove it. Here’s what Sondland said in his opening statement on Wednesday:

The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false. I have now identified certain State Department emails and messages that provide contemporaneous support for my view. These emails show that the leadership of State, NSC, and the White House were all informed about the Ukraine efforts from May 23, 2019, until the security aid was released on September 11, 2019. 

After Sondland’s testimony, it was difficult to square what he said with what we’d heard from Taylor. But on Thursday, Fiona Hill, the former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council (NSC), explained how both could be true and how understanding this dual-track sheds light on the question of whether the president should be impeached. 

She described a meeting she had with Sondland that lasted about 15 to 20 minutes not long before she left office on July 19. She was angry with him and let him know it. She said he hadn’t been coordinating with the NSC on what he was up to related to Ukraine, apparently ignoring U.S. government policies that had been carefully crafted across multiple agencies. 

It wasn’t until she listened to him testify this week that she realized how she hadn’t fully understood what was going on at the time. While Hill and Sondland were both working on Ukraine policy, they were not actually pursuing the same goals. The “irregular channel” was carrying out the president’s objectives — getting Zelenskyy to commit publicly to investigating Biden. And, because the president had directed it and Pompeo and others were fully briefed on it, that effort had, in effect, become the official U.S. position, overshadowing U.S. foreign policy and national security goals in Ukraine. The so-called “regular” channel, staffed by career officials across the government, had been sidelined and left in the dark. 

Here is Hill connecting the dots between Taylor’s testimony and that of Sondland: 

Here is the transcript:

What I was angry about was that he was not coordinating with us. And, what I’ve actually realized, having listened to his deposition, is that he was absolutely right. He wasn’t coordinating with us because we weren’t doing the same thing that he was doing. 

So, I was upset that he wasn’t fully telling us about all of the meetings that he was having and he said to me, “But I’m briefing the president, I’m briefing Chief of Staff Mulvaney, I’m briefing Secretary Pompeo, and I’ve talked to Ambassador Bolton. Who else do I have to deal with?” 

And the point is we have a robust interagency process that deals with Ukraine. It includes Mr. Holmes, it includes Ambassador Taylor, as the chargé in Ukraine. It includes a whole load of other people. But it struck me yesterday when you put up on the screen Ambassador Sondland’s emails and who was on these emails, and he said, “These are the people who need to know,” and he was absolutely right, because he was being involved in a domestic political errand and we were being involved in national security and foreign policy, and those two things had just diverged. So, he was correct and I had not put my finger on it at the moment, but I was irritated with him and angry with him that he wasn’t fully coordinating. So I said to him, “Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up.” And here we are. 

And after I left to my next meeting, our director for the European Union talked to him much further, for a full half hour later, trying to ask him about how we could coordinate better or how others could coordinate better after I had left the office. And his [Sondland’s] feeling was that the National Security Council was always trying to block him. What we were trying to do was block us from straying into domestic or personal politics, and that was precisely what I was trying to do. 

But Ambassador Sondland is not wrong that he had been given a different remit than we had been. And it was at that moment that I started to realize how those things had diverged. And I realized, in fact, that I wasn’t really being fair to Ambassador Sondland because he was carrying out what he thought he had been instructed to carry out and we were doing something that we thought was just as, or perhaps even more important, but it wasn’t in the same channel.

Hill’s testimony clarified that what had appeared to be the secretive “irregular” channel actually had sign-off from the president. And while several career officials charged with Ukraine policy were kept out of the loop, the most senior members of the Trump administration knew exactly what was going on. The sideshow had become the only show. What was in Trump’s interest had supplanted what was in the national interest. 

Image: Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on the National Security Council, listens as she testifies during the House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on November 21, 2019. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).