The Sludgy Career of Kurt Volker

The special envoy to Ukraine tried to have it both ways: Trump hatchet man and honorable public servant. He failed at both.

The Sludgy Career of Kurt Volker
Former Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker departs following a closed-door deposition led by the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on October 3, 2019 in Washington, DC.

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covering public policy and politics. Sludge is re-publishing this article.

Who exactly is Kurt Volker? His name came to light after it was disclosed that he played a prominent role in the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating Hunter Biden. Unlike other administration officials who tried to invoke executive privilege, Volker resigned from his post as special envoy to Ukraine, ostensibly so that he could testify freely before Congress.

But his actual testimony was clearly that of a Trump loyalist, one who tried to gloss over what was really going on, as well as his own central role in it. So who is this guy, and what is his game?

Volker, 54, began his career as a CIA analyst and soon became a foreign service officer. Most of his work was in Europe, including a three-year stint in Budapest. Under President George W. Bush, he was named U.S. ambassador to NATO.

After President Obama replaced him, Volker went to Wall Street. He then became executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership after it was launched at Arizona State University in 2012 as a living memorial to the late Senator John McCain. Volker had worked briefly in the 1990s as an aide to McCain in the Senate.

Volker’s appointment to serve as special envoy to Ukraine was also odd. He was not officially part of the government, but a citizen special representative outside of normal government channels, a role reminiscent of Rudy Giuliani’s.

Volker simultaneously worked as a Ukraine diplomat and as a lobbyist at BGR Group (the Haley Barbour/Ed Rogers super-firm), which represents Raytheon, the company that makes the Javelin anti-tank missile that Ukraine wants. Were it not for the larger Ukraine affair, that conflict of interest would be a scandal all by itself.

During this period, he kept his job as executive director of the McCain Institute. His salary was reported as $329,000 for 2018. The Arizona governor’s salary is $120,395.

The transcripts revealed his intimate role in the effort to squeeze Ukraine.

One other smarmy detail: Volker is on the board of something called the Hungary Initiatives Foundation, a not very well disguised front aimed at improving the image and influence of the Victor Orban dictatorship in the United States.

The foundation was founded in 2013, three years after Orban was re-elected as prime minister with a majority sufficient to amend the constitution and turn his government into an autocracy. One of the other trustees is Tamas Fellegi, a former minister in Orban’s government and previously Orban’s chief negotiator with the International Monetary Fund and the EU. According to its mission statement:

Our mission is to create lasting value by reviving and strengthening the cultural and educational bonds between the United States and Hungary, as well as Hungary and the diverse Hungarian American community. We promote cooperation and understanding between our two nations, thereby fostering democracy, freedom, human rights, and human dignity, the dearest values of our history and our peoples.

But of course the foundation has never said word one about Orban’s repression of human rights and democracy in Hungary.

And one of the foundation’s prime grantees is none other than the McCain Institute, which received $161,034 in 2014, and another $70,000 in 2017, according to IRS 990 reports. The sources of the foundation’s own income are not disclosed, though its assets have fluctuated between about $15 million and $18 million. So while Volker was not compensated directly for his services to the Hungarian Initiatives Foundation, it indirectly subsidized him through its gifts to the McCain Institute.

Last week, following Volker’s resignation as special envoy and his testimony, he put out a statement that he was continuing as executive director of the McCain Institute.

That didn’t last long. Trump and Cindy McCain, the senator’s widow, detest each other, and it cannot have been good for Volker’s relations with the McCains that he was an errand boy for Trump at his worst.

On Monday, Volker released a statement with the usual weasel language of someone who has likely been canned but is permitted to “resign”:

Today, I informed ASU President Crow and Mrs. McCain that I believe the recent media focus on my work as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations risks becoming a distraction from the accomplishments and continued growth of the Institute, and therefore I am stepping down as Executive Director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership.

A distraction indeed. Yet you can still fool some of the people some of the time. The New York Times’ postmortem painted Volker as a good man who was a victim of circumstances.

“I have no doubt he was trying to do the right thing,” said Daniel Fried, a former ambassador and 40-year State Department official who was Mr. Volker’s former boss at the National Security Council. “The question is not what his motives were, but whether what he was trying to do was just impossible because he was facing a situation so compromised, he couldn’t fix it with his usual skills.”

Shameless and ultimately inept opportunist would be more like it. Volker and Trump were made for each other.

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