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Senate Holds Confirmation Hearing For Trump's New Pick For Ambassador To Ukraine

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

An update now on two important diplomatic vacancies. One is the post of U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine. The last woman who held that Senate-confirmed job was a central figure in President Trump's impeachment. And now the president's pick for the job is facing some lingering question in his own confirmation hearing. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Trump's ouster of the ambassador to Ukraine featured prominently in his impeachment trial. Marie Yovanovitch faced a smear campaign by Trump's private lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who had been pressing Ukraine to get dirt on Vice President Joe Biden. Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, says that's still happening.

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BOB MENENDEZ: Rudy Giuliani and a cast of unsavory Ukrainian characters have not let up their efforts to use Ukraine to interfere in U.S. politics. Others in the Senate seem intent on amplifying their efforts.

KELEMEN: Menendez wants the new nominee, retired Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, to avoid playing into this and avoid any meetings with Giuliani.

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KEITH DAYTON: Senator, I'm not going to commit to that because I believe that as an ambassador, I would have the obligation to meet with any U.S. citizen and hear them out if they come.

KELEMEN: Dayton has been a defense attache in Moscow, a security adviser for the U.S. on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in recent years has run the George Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. He's well-versed on Ukraine, but his answers frustrated both Menendez and another Democrat, Chris Murphy. So at the end of the hearing, he did offer this reassurance.

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DAYTON: If I, as the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, have any indication that there is any kind of election interference going on using Ukraine as a lever to do that, I would, of course, report that directly to this committee. I think you have a right to know that. I think I have an obligation to report that to you.

KELEMEN: Dayton says his priorities in the country if confirmed would be to help Ukraine fight corruption and beef up Ukraine's Navy and Air Force. Next door in Belarus, the U.S. is reviving diplomatic relations in part because of Russia's aggression in Ukraine. Career diplomat Julie Fisher has been tapped to run the U.S. Embassy in Minsk.

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JULIE FISHER: Our relationship with Belarus languished for more than a decade. But after Russia's illegal seizure and occupation of Crimea and its manufactured war in Ukraine's Donbass region, we began to see signs of interest from the Belarusian side.

KELEMEN: Belarus recently bought U.S. crude oil to decrease its dependence on Russia. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk earlier this year. But these warming ties will be tested by an election this Sunday, and Fisher faced questions about that.

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FISHER: The first component to ensuring that we can continue to grow this relationship is to not see steps backward in the conduct of this presidential election.

KELEMEN: The longtime ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, is facing a united opposition in the run-up to this election, and his regime has been cracking down. There will be no international monitors, though Fisher says the U.S. embassy will be watching the vote closely.

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FISHER: What we are trying to get done is basically to ensure that there is space, to ensure there is space for more than one voice in this country.

KELEMEN: Lukashenko kicked out the last U.S. ambassador to Belarus in 2008 after the U.S. accused his government of human rights violations and tighten sanctions.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOON SONG, "INSIDE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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