A top US diplomat told impeachment investigators that Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine involved a quid pro quo, and that the receipt of military aid was dependent upon Kiev launching a corruption probe of Joe Biden and his son.
Having initially claimed the president's interactions with Kiev carried no strings, in testimony released on Capitol Hill as part of the Democratic-led impeachment investigation, the United States ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, said he was aware US assistance to Ukraine was dependent on such an undertaking. He also said he suspected the parallel outreach undertaken by Rudy Giuliani, the president personal lawyer, may have been illegal.
Meanwhile, testimony from another diplomat, the former special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, revealed he told investigators he thought the threat to withhold military aid, intended to help support Ukraine against Russia, was “unusual”.
“I agree with you in saying that assistance gets held up for a variety of reasons at various times. That is true,” Mr Volker said. “In this case, here you had an instance where everyone that I spoke with in the policy side of the administration—you know, Pentagon, military, civilian, State Department, National Security Council—they all thought this is really important to provide this assistance.”
The release of the latest testimony marked another step in what has become the Democrats' increasingly public investigatory process into the president, amid criticism from Republicans that there has been a lack of transparency.
The release came as House investigators asked Mr Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to appear before the impeachment inquiry, reaching to the highest levels of the White House.
Investigators say Mr Mulvaney’s news conference last month amounted to “nothing less than a televised confession” of Mr Trump’s efforts to have Ukraine investigate Democrats and Mr Biden as the White House was blocking military funding.
Such a request is likely to be rejected by the White House, which was also dismissive of the testimony released by Democrats. White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham pointed to Mr Sondland's inability to say who ordered the aid to Ukraine be withheld and that he admitted he “presumed” there was a link between the demand for a statement from the Ukrainians and releasing the aid.
“No amount of salacious media-biased headlines, which are clearly designed to influence the narrative, change the fact that the president has done nothing wrong,” she said in a statement.
The dual testimony, made public on Tuesday, which followed the release a day before of depositions provided by Marie Yovanovitch, whom Mr Trump abruptly recalled as ambassador to Ukraine in May, and Michael McKinley, a former top adviser to secretary of state Mike Pompeo, underscores the centrality of Mr Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, in the Trump’ administration’s interactions with Ukraine.
Mr Volker said at one point Ukrainian officials asked to be connected with Mr Giuliani as a conduit to Mr Trump. Mr Volker was asked why Mr Giuliani would hold any such role.
He replied: “Because the Ukrainians asked to be connected to him in order to try to get across their message of being different from the past.”
Mr Sondland sent a text message in September in which he said Mr Trump had insisted there was “no quid pro quos”, in relation to the administration's dealings with Ukraine.
In his new statement, Mr Sondland said by the beginning of September “in the absence of any credible explanation,” he concluded that the nearly $400m in withheld aid was linked to Mr Trump's demand that Ukraine publicly acknowledge an investigation. Mr Sondland has said he did not realise early on that the investigation was meant to target the Bidens, and said he assumed Mr Giuliani's actions could be in breach of the constitution.
“Resumption of US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Mr Sondland said he told a Ukrainian presidential adviser.
The release of the information from the two diplomats came a day after Republican senator Rand Paul called on the media to release the name of the US intelligence community whistleblower who made the allegations about the president’s July 25 telephone call with the leader of Ukraine.
It emerged in September that the whistleblower, believed to be a member of the CIA, had made a formal complaint about the president’s phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, when he allegedly pressured him to open an investigation into the alleged actions of the former vice president and his son, Hunter.
Mr Biden has always denied any wrong doing over his actions as part of an international effort to get rid of a prosecutor who appeared to moving too slowly to investigate corruption, and there has never been any evidence to support it. Despite, this Republicans have leapt on the issue.
The whistleblower claimed Mr Trump had threatened to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless it launched the probe.
“In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple US government officials that the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election,” they wrote.
Mr Trump has denied any wrongdoing and said his call with Ukraine’s leader, Mr Zelensky, was "perfect" and “beautiful“.
Mr Volker said he had found the call "extremely unfortunate" and "explosive". He told the hearing: "Asking the president of Ukraine to work together with the attorney-general and to look into this, you can see, as it has now happened, this becomes explosive in our domestic politics."
Additional reporting by agencies
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