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Democratic debates: Democrats prepare for fifth debate after key impeachment witness says Trump directed Ukraine 'quid pro quo' in bombshell testimony

Follow the latest updates, as they happened

Clark Mindock
New York
,Andrew Feinberg,Alex Woodward
Wednesday 20 November 2019 23:39
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Donald Trump reenacts conversation with Gordon Sondland after bombshell impeachment testimony

Gordon Sondland has implicated a number of White House officials who were “in the loop” with Donald Trump's direction to withhold aid to Ukraine in an exchange for a meeting and a public statement announcing an investigation into the president’s political opponents.

The testimony came as Democrats were preparing to hold their fifth debate of 2020 in Atlanta, where they will undoubtedly be asked about the freshly sprung impeachment inquiry that has dominated headlines.

Mr Sondland, a US ambassador to the EU, affirmed that there was a so-called quid pro quo, dropping a bombshell testimony into another pivotal hearing in the House impeachment inquiry into the president’s alleged abuses of power in his dealings with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

According to his testimony, Mr Sondland worked under the president’s order to work with Rudy Giuliani “not because we liked it but because it was the only constructive path” to building a relationship with a vulnerable Ukraine. In emails and other conversations with US officials — including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry — Mr Sondland established a clear link from the president, through Giuliani, and efforts to engage Ukraine with investigations into the 2016 election and Burisma.

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Mr Trump told reporters outside the White House that he barely knows Mr Sondland, who he previously called a "great American", and that he seems like a “nice guy".

The president read from a stack of papers in his hand, which included, in capital letters, his recollection of a conversation with Mr Sondland in which Trump said "I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO."

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said that "the US aid to Ukraine flowed, no investigation was launched, and President Trump has met and spoken with President Zelensky. Democrats keep chasing ghosts."

Mr Pence and Mr Perry also released statements during the hearing denying Mr Giuliani’s influence in their dealings with Ukraine. They’ve refused to testify in the impeachment probe.

Mr Trump also lashed out at his Democratic opponents conducting the House impeachment inquiry, mocked key witnesses giving testimony for their sartorial choices and denied that the onset of a heart attack was what prompted his sudden trip to hospital on Saturday.

"These people are sick. They’re sick. And the press really in this country is dangerous. We don’t have freedom of the press in this country. We have the opposite. We have a very corrupt media," the president ranted from the Cabinet Room of the White House on Tuesday.

The inquiry heard from four witnesses on Tuesday who detailed the administration’s coercion of Ukraine.

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Hello and welcome to The Independent's rolling coverage of the Donald Trump administration.

Joe Sommerlad20 November 2019 08:40
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Trump lashes out at opponents over heart attack rumours: 'These people are sick'

Donald Trump has lashed out at House speaker Nancy Pelosi and his Democratic opponents conducting the House impeachment inquiry and also criticised the press over its reporting of his unscheduled trip to Walter Reed Medical Centre in Bethesda, Maryland, on Saturday after some outlets suggested he had suffered a heart attack.

 "I had a very routine physical, visited the family of a young soldier who was very badly injured. He was in the operating room. I toured the hospital for a little while. I was out of there very quickly and got back home," the president explained testily from the Cabinet Room of the White House on his first public appearance since the visit.

"And I get greeted with the news that, 'We understand you had a heart attack.' I was called by our people in public relations: 'Sir, are you OK?' I said OK for what? 'The word is you had a heart attack. CNN said you may have had a heart attack. You had massive chest pains. You went to the hospital.'

"These people are sick. They’re sick. And the press really in this country is dangerous. We don’t have freedom of the press in this country. We have the opposite. We have a very corrupt media."

The president said his wife Melania had been so alarmed that the first lady believed the heart attack story was true: "My wife said, 'Darling, are you OK?... They are reporting you may have had a heart attack.' I said why did I have a heart attack? 'Because you went to Walter Reed Medical Centre.' That's where we go when we get the physical. I said I was only there for a very short period of time."

Trump otherwise spent his Tuesday firing out propoganda retweets from Republicans (some 35 by my count, with Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan, Steve Scalise, Mark Meadows, Kevin Ratcliffe, Lee Zeldin and Doug Collins all present and correct among the usual suspects) and attempting to spin another very bad day for him at the impeachment inquiry.

Here's Phil Thomas's report.

Joe Sommerlad20 November 2019 08:55
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President mocks impeachment witnesses for clothing choices at hearings

The president also derided impeachment witnesses Lt Col Alexander Vindman and George Kent for wearing formal military dress and a bowtie respectively to the hearings, a pretty pathetic attempt to intimidate and bully those with the courage to speak out against him.

Here's Lt Col Vindman on the subject.

Phil Thomas has more on a cheap slur indicative of the president's disdain for the institutions of state.

Joe Sommerlad20 November 2019 09:10
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EU ambassador Gordon Sondland to testify on Capitol Hill

Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the most anticipated witness in the impeachment inquiry, is likely to be unpredictable when he faces questions about his evolving accounts of the Trump administration's dealings with Ukraine and a newly revealed summertime phone call with President Trump.

Sondland, a wealthy hotelier Trump tapped as his ambassador to the European Union, is more directly entangled than any witness yet in the president's efforts to get Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden and Democrats in the 2016 election. Yet Sondland has already amended his testimony once - "I now do recall," he said, talking to Ukraine about investigations.

Sondland's appearance at Wednesday morning's hearing, and his closeness to Trump, is of particular concern to the White House as the historic impeachment inquiry reaches closer to the president, pushing through an intense week with nine witnesses testifying over three days in back-to-back sessions. Trump has recently tried to suggest that he barely knows his hand-picked ambassador, but Sondland has said he has spoken several times with the president and was acting on his direction.

Gordon Sondland (Olivier Douliery/AFP)

The envoy is likely to face tough questions from lawmakers of both parties about Trump's 25 July call when he asked Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky for the political investigations at the same time as US military aid for the ally was being stalled. Sondland routinely bragged about his proximity to Trump and drew alarm from the foreign service and national security apparatus as part of an irregular channel of diplomacy led by the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Last week State Department official David Holmes revealed one of those interactions to impeachment investigators, saying he recalled it "vividly." The political counselor was having lunch with Sondland in Kiev when the ambassador dialed up the the president on his cell phone and Holmes could hear Trump's voice. "I then heard President Trump ask, quote, 'So he's going to do the investigation?"' Holmes testified. "Ambassador Sondland replied that 'He's going to do it,' adding that President Zelensky will, quote, 'do anything you ask him to."'

Sondland was known for telling others "he was in charge of Ukraine" despite being the US envoy in Brussels, said another witness in the impeachment probe, former White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill. "And I asked, well, on whose authority?" said Hill, who will testify on Thursday. "And he said, the president."

Sondland's appearance follows the testimony on Tuesday of four national security and diplomatic officials, including a career Army officer who described Trump's call with Zelensky as "improper."

Lt Col Alexander Vindman told lawmakers it was his "duty" to report his concerns about the call, as he deflected Republican attacks, including from the White House on his loyalty and career in public service. It wasn't the first time Vindland had registered his concerns over Ukraine policy. He testified about a 10 July meeting at the White House when Sondland told visiting Ukraine officials they would need to "deliver" before the administration would agree to a meeting Zelensky wanted with Trump. "Ambassador Sondland referred to investigations into the Bidens and Burisma in 2016," Vindman testified, referring to the gas company on whose board Hunter Biden had a seat.

At the White House, Trump said he had watched part of the day's testimony and slammed the ongoing impeachment hearings as a "disgrace." Over the weekend, Trump assailed vice presidential aide Jennifer Williams as part of the "Never Trumpers" who oppose his presidency, though there is no indication she has shown any partisanship.

Former National Security Council official Timothy Morrison told investigators that he witnessed a key September conversation in Warsaw between Sondland and a top aide to Zelensky. Afterward, Sondland said he had relayed to the Ukrainian that US aid might be freed if the country would announce the investigations, Morrison testified.

Another diplomat, former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, shifted his own account of the 10 July meeting to say Sondland did, in fact, discuss investigations with the visiting Ukrainians. "I think all of us thought it was inappropriate; the conversation did not continue and the meeting concluded," Volker said.

A series of text messages Volker provided to lawmakers showed conversations between him, Sondland and other leaders in which they discussed a need for Ukraine to launch investigations, including into Burisma. Volker said meeting with Giuliani was just part of the dialogue, and he had one in-person meeting with him, in which Giuliani "raised, and I rejected, the conspiracy theory that Vice President Biden would have been influenced in his duties as vice president by money paid to his son."

AP

Joe Sommerlad20 November 2019 09:25
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Officials who heard Ukraine 'bribery call' first hand label it 'inappropriate'

Trump’s controversial phone call with the leader of Ukraine was “inappropriate” and “unusual”, Lt Col Vindman and Williams testified yesterday. Both of them had listened first hand to the conversation. 

The former said he was so troubled by what he heard that he promptly contacted White House lawyer John Eisenberg. “Without hesitation, I knew that I had to report this to the White House counsel,” said Lt Col Vindman.

Williams, a special adviser on Europe and Russia to Mike Pence, said she found the call “unusual” because it related to domestic politics, but she did not report it to anyone

It's worth drawing attention to this scurrilous attack on Vindman - an Iraq War veteran wounded in battle and recepient of the Purple Heart, lest we forget - during his testimony from the official White House Twitter account, nominally the voice of the exective branch of government.

Here's Andrew Buncombe's report.

Joe Sommerlad20 November 2019 09:40
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Kurt Volker says Joe Biden allegation 'not credible'

Allegations of corruption in Ukraine levelled at Barack Obama's former vice president Joe Biden were “not credible”, a witness called by Republican politicians told the impeachment inquiry in yesterday's afternoon session.

In comments that appeared to debunk one of the central conspiracy theories Republicans have cited to try and undermine the integrity of Biden - now the front-runner to challenge Trump at the polls in 2020 - Kurt Volker told members of Congress he did not believe it.

“As I said, I don’t find it plausible or credible that vice president Biden would have been influenced in his duties,” Mr Volker told the House Intelligence Committee. 

Joe Sommerlad20 November 2019 09:55
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Republicans didn't like the message – so they turned their fire on the messenger

Our man Andrew Feinberg was in the Longworth Office Building yesterday, ordinarily home to the House Ways and Means Committee, to observe the near-11 hours of testimony yesterday.

This is his report on proceedings and Republican fury at Lt Col Vindman.

Joe Sommerlad20 November 2019 10:10
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Nine key moments from Tuesday's Trump impeachment hearings

Clark Mindock has this round-up of the key exchanges from yesterday's testimony by Lt Col Alexander Vindman, Jennifer Williams, Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison.

Joe Sommerlad20 November 2019 10:25
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How the impeachment witnesses described Trump's Ukraine coercion

Here's more from Clark Mindock on yesterday's most telling quotes from the four witnesses.

Joe Sommerlad20 November 2019 10:40
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Mike Pompeo planning to resign as Trump 'hurting his reputation'

Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo has reportedly told three prominent Republicans he is planning to resign from the White House to run for a Senate seat.

Pompeo had planned to stay at the State Department until early spring 2020 but he is now concerned that his connection to Trump  is hurting his reputation, according to a Time report.

Here he is cravenly ducking out of the chance to defend ousted Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from Trump's attacks on Monday.

Here's Conrad Duncan's report.

Joe Sommerlad20 November 2019 10:55

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