A Republican former congressman turned lobbyist repeatedly pushed for the dismissal of US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, an action later taken by President Donald Trump after he was urged to do so by his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, a US diplomat said in testimony on Wednesday.
Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson, Ukraine specialists at the State Department, became the latest current and former US officials called as witnesses in the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry against the Republican president in the House of Representatives.
Croft said she was a member of the National Security Council (NSC) staff at the White House from July 2017 to July 2018.
"During my time at the NSC, I received multiple calls from lobbyist Robert Livingston, who told me that Ambassador Yovanovitch should be fired. He characterized Ambassador Yovanovitch as an 'Obama holdover' and associated with George Soros," Croft said in her opening statement to lawmakers, posted online by the Washington Post.
"It was not clear to me at the time - or now - at whose direction or at whose expense Mr Livingston was seeking the removal of Ambassador Yovanovitch," Croft said.
She said she told Fiona Hill, Trump's former top Russia adviser, and George Kent, a senior State Department Ukraine expert, but was "not aware of any action that was taken in response."
The impeachment inquiry focuses on a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy to investigate political rival Joe Biden, the former US vice president, and his son Hunter, who had served as a director for Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
Trump removed Yovanovitch as ambassador in May. Giuliani has said he went to Trump and the State Department as part of his effort to have her removed from the post at a time when he was seeking to persuade Ukraine to open an investigation of Biden, a contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the November 2020 US election.
Anderson, in his opening statement seen by Reuters, also mentioned Giuliani's actions. Before Zelenskiy's inauguration in May, Anderson said "my colleagues and I saw a tweet by Rudolph Giuliani" alleging that Ukraine's incoming leader "was surrounded by enemies of President Trump." Anderson said he sought to counter the "negative narrative" sparked by Yovanovitch's removal and Giuliani's statements.
Trump made his request to Zelenskiy after withholding $391 million in security aid approved by Congress to help Ukraine fight Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Zelenskiy agreed to Trump's requests. The aid was later provided.
Anderson and Croft described Trump's negative view toward Ukraine even as other State Department and White House officials underscored Kiev's importance to US national security in the face of Russian aggression.
Anderson said that in November 2018 Russia escalated the conflict when its forces attacked and seized Ukrainian military vessels heading to a Ukrainian port.
"While my colleagues at the State Department quickly prepared a statement condemning Russia for its escalation, senior officials in the White House blocked it from being issued," Anderson said.
He said Kurt Volker, at the time the US special representative for Ukraine, drafted a tweet condemning Russia's actions, which he posted to his account.
"Russia's aggression in Ukraine posed, and continues to pose, a real and immediate threat to our national interest in a Europe free, whole, and at peace," Croft said.
She said "we do not lose sight of what is happening in Ukraine and its great promise as a prosperous and democratic member of the European community."
Later on Wednesday, the House Rules Committee is scheduled to take up a resolution proposed by House Democrats laying out the procedures as they move forward with impeachment of Trump.
The closed-door testimony on Wednesday followed 10 hours of testimony on Tuesday by US Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, an NSC Ukraine expert who raised the alarm after listening in on the July call between Trump and Zelenskiy over Trump's request for a Biden investigation.
The call is at the heart of the congressional inquiry into whether Trump misused the power of his office for personal political gain and, if so, whether that rises to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors" that merit impeachment and removal from office under the Constitution.
Trump has denied wrongdoing.
During the conversation, summarized in a memo released by the White House, Trump also sought an investigation into a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US election.
Vindman told lawmakers on Tuesday that the summary of the call released by the White House left out information he had sought to include, the New York Times reported.
The rough transcript left out an assertion by Trump that there were recordings of Biden discussing corruption in Ukraine and Zelenskiy's explicit mention of Burisma, the Times said, citing three people familiar with his testimony.
More witnesses are expected later this week, including Timothy Morrison, the National Security Council Senior Director for Europe and Russia, on Thursday and Robert Blair, a senior adviser to acting White House chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, on Friday.
The House is expected to vote this week on the formal process of moving forward with the impeachment inquiry after Republicans criticized the process as unfair to Trump.
Trump has urged his allies to directly tackle the allegations against him.
"This Impeachment nonsense is just a continuation of the Witch Hunt Hoax," he tweeted Wednesday morning, urging Republicans to "go with Substance and close it out!"