WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. diplomat told Congress that he was briefed on conversations President Donald Trump had with Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban in which the two foreign leaders talked Trump into a negative view about Ukraine and its new leader.
George Kent, a senior State Department official responsible for Europe, told House investigators that Putin and Orban, along with Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, had "shaped the president's view of Ukraine and (President Volodymyr) Zelenskiy." He said Trump's conversations with the two leaders accounted for the change in Trump's view of Zelenskiy from "very positive" after their first call on April 21 to "negative" just one month later when he met with advisers on Ukraine in the Oval Office.
In the interim, Trump spoke by phone with Putin on May 3, and hosted Orban at the White House on May 13.
Kent's description of those conversations, included in the transcript of his deposition by the House released Thursday, feeds into longstanding concerns from national security experts that the president's views on key foreign issues are being influenced by Putin and other autocratic leaders such as Orban. The far-right leader of Hungary has been at the helm of a nationalist movement in Europe that has at times found common cause with Trump's foreign policy.
Kent testified that he took notes in mid-May of a conversation he had with Fiona Hill, then the top White House official for Europe. In that role Hill frequently participated directly in Trump's meetings and phone calls with foreign leaders, and Kent said that Hill described to him what had occurred in both the Putin call and the Orban meeting.
"Fiona assessed the conversations as being similar in tone and approach. And both leaders, both Putin and Orban, extensively talked Ukraine down, said it was corrupt, said Zelenskiy was in the thrall of oligarchs," Kent said. "Specifically mentioning this one oligarch Kolomoisky, negatively shaping a picture of Ukraine and even President Zelenskiy himself."
Ihor Kolomoisky, a major Ukrainian businessman, has close ties to Zelenskiy pre-dating his presidency that have been frequently cited by Zelenskiy's critics.
Hill, through her attorney, had no immediate comment. But in her own deposition before the House, Hill described how normal White House channels on Ukraine were circumvented by others in and out of the U.S. government who ran a "shadow" foreign policy on Ukraine.
Kent's testimony provides the first public confirmation by a senior diplomat that Orban and Putin pushed a damaging image of Ukraine to Trump, although officials previously described such a scenario to The Washington Post and The New York Times. Kent's testimony is also pointed in saying that Orban and Putin's views apparently wore off on Trump and succeeded in altering his view of Ukraine.
Kent testified that top Trump administration officials who had attended Zelenskiy's inauguration in May were "very positive" about the new Ukrainian leader, who had come into office pledging to clean up corruption.
"We were cautiously optimistic that this was an opportunity to push forward the reform that Ukraine needs to succeed in resisting Russian aggression, building a successful economy, and, frankly, a justice system that will treat American investors and Ukrainian citizens equally before the law," Kent said.
He said that was a "different" assessment of Zelenskiy than Trump got from Putin, Orban and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
Kent, whose portfolio includes several former Soviet Union countries, said Putin's motivation for turning Trump against Ukraine was "very clear." Putin denies Ukraine's sovereign existence and wants it to fail as an independent nation. He said Orban's view derives from his vision of a "Greater Hungary," including some 130,000 ethnic Hungarians who Kent said live in Ukraine.
"I would say that that's Putin's position," Kent said. "I think 0rban is just happy to jam Ukraine."