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Trump news: Ukraine expert says White House cut key details from Zelensky call transcript as impeachment inquiry gathers pace

Officials continue to come forward with allegations of a shadow diplomacy surrounding Ukraine

Joe Sommerlad,Chris Riotta
Wednesday 30 October 2019 17:26 GMT
Donald Trump balances a chocolate bar on child's head dressed as a minion at White House Halloween party

The House impeachment inquiry investigating Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine heard on Tuesday that the White House cut key details from its transcript of the 25 July call between the president and Volodymyr Zelensky, including several references to 2020 rival Joe Biden and the Ukrainian gas company his son worked for.

The behind-closed-doors testimony of National Security Council expert Alexander Vindman was described afterwards as “extremely disturbing” by one exiting congresswoman in a hearing disrupted by a shouting match that erupted when House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff reportedly accused Republicans of trying to unmask the CIA whistleblower who first sounded the alarm.

In the prepared remarks, Mr Vindman said that if Mr Zelenskiy did as Mr Trump asked in the 25 July call and investigated Mr Biden, it would “undermine US national security.”

Mr Vindman, a veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart, was the first current White House official to testify in the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry, which was largely prompted by a whistleblower report on the call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelenskiy.

On the call, Mr Trump pressed Mr Zelenskiy to investigate Mr Biden, a former vice president and a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination to run against Trump in 2020.

“I was concerned by the call. I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine,” Mr Vindman said in his prepared statement.

Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, Mr Trump's nominee to be ambassador to Russia, told senators at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday that he did not know of any attempt by the president or others to press Ukraine to open a corruption probe into Joe Biden's son, Hunter.

He said he knew that Mr Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had spearheaded a campaign to oust Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from her post, but said he didn't know details, including why he was doing it.

"My knowledge in the spring and summer of this year about any involvement with Mr Giuliani was in connection with a campaign against our ambassador to Ukraine," Mr Sullivan said.

Mr Sullivan had the job of informing Ms Yovanovitch in late March that she was being recalled early from her post. He said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had told him only that Ms Yovanovitch had lost the confidence of the president. He said he was given no other explanation and told Ms Yovanovitch that he did not believe she had done anything to warrant her removal.

Mr Sullivan said he had reviewed a package of negative information about Ms Yovanovitch that was given to the department by "someone at the White House" after he and Mr Pompeo had inquired about complaints against her. But Mr Sullivan said he concluded it contained nothing that would warrant action against her.

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"It didn't provide to me a basis for taking action against our ambassador, but I wasn't aware of all that might be going on in the background and to be cautious I asked that the packet of materials ... be looked at by the inspector general and by the Justice Department," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Additional reporting by AP. Please allow a moment for our live blog to load


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

Joe Sommerlad30 October 2019 09:35

The House impeachment inquiry investigating Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine heard on Tuesday that the White House cut key details from its rough transcript of the 25 July call between the president and Volodymyr Zelensky, including several references to 2020 rival Joe Biden and Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company his son worked for.

National Security Council expert and Iraq war veteran Lt Col Alexander Vindman defied the administration's orders to appear before the investigating congressmen and women and told them he had twice raised concerns about Trump officials' attempts to pressure Ukraine to publicly announce a corruption investigation into the Bidens.

"I was concerned by the call," Vindman said in his opening statement.

I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a US citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the US government's support of Ukraine.

As the witness arrived on Capitol Hill in full dress uniform and medals, President Trump attempted to smear Lt Col Vindman by branding him a "Never Trumper".

But his credibility was undiminished by that attack or the words of pro-Trump pundits on Fox News and CNN, who had suggested that his being born in Ukraine under the Soviet Union might indicate this recepient of the Purple Heart was a double agent.

Acting House Oversight Committee chairwoman Carolyn Maloney of New York subsequently told NBC she had found Lt Col Vindman‘s remarks about the the administration “extremely, extremely, extremely disturbing”.

Here's Harry Cockburn's report.

Joe Sommerlad30 October 2019 09:50

The 10-hour Vindman hearing was reportedly disrupted at one point by a shouting match that exploded when House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff accused Republicans of trying to unmask the CIA whistleblower who first sounded the alarm, according to CNN.

Schiff is understood to have objected to a Republican line of questioning regarding the identity of the whistleblower, prompting the GOP to push back and leading to a heated exchange between California Democrat Eric Swalwell and his North Carolina counterpart Mark Meadows.

Vindman reportedly told the panel he did not know who the whistelblower was in any event.

Responding to Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz's accusation that the GOP had attempted to "backdoor" Vindman into tipping his hand through "a process of elimination", Ohio Republican Jim Jordan had gripes of his own:

Joe Sommerlad30 October 2019 10:05

Also speaking after the hearing, Chairman Schiff spoke out against the Laura Ingraham segment on Fox in which the anchor had attempted to smear Vindman:

He wasn't the only one to voice offence.

Republicans Mitt Romney, John Thune and Liz Cheney all went after their own side, with Pierre Delecto Romney calling the smears "absurd, disgusting and way off the mark" and Cheney labelling the tactic "shameful".

Boldest of all in her condemnation was MSNBC anchor Nicolle Wallace, who called the likes of Ingraham, John Yoo, Alan Dershowitz and ex-Wisconsin congressman Sean Duffy "chickens***".

Here's Alex Woodward.

Joe Sommerlad30 October 2019 10:20

The House Rules Committee also yesterday unveiled their new procedures for the next stage of the impeachment process: making the next round of hearings public to answer Republican demands for greater transparency.

The resolution from committee chairman Jim McGovern and backed by House speaker Nancy Pelosi again hands the lead role to Schiff, who would have broad latitude to organise extended questioning of potential public witnesses. Two other committees who have so far participated in the closed-door investigation into Trump's dealings with Ukraine - Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform - would not be permitted to directly participate in the open proceedings under the new legislation.

It also sets out for the first time the ability of House Republicans to make their own requests for testimony and documents, though those requests will ultimately be subject to a vote of the Democratic-majority committee - a practice that matches the minority powers in the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton.

A Tuesday statement by Schiff, Judiciary Committee chair Jerrold Nadler, Foreign Affairs chair Eliot Engel and acting Oversight chair Maloney announcing the resolution declared:

The evidence we have already collected paints the picture of a president who abused his power by using multiple levers of government to press a foreign country to interfere in the 2020 election. Following in the footsteps of previous impeachment inquiries, the next phase will move from closed depositions to open hearings where the American people will learn firsthand about the president's misconduct.

The resolution will be voted on by the lower chamber of Congress on Thursday, but White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham wasted no time in saying it merely "confirms that House Democrats' impeachment has been an illegitimate sham from the start as it lacked any proper authorisation by a House vote."

Joe Sommerlad30 October 2019 10:40

This is what's on the menu today.

The inquiry had also hoped to hear from senior Pentagon official Kathryn Wheelbarger but that is seemingly now not happening.

Joe Sommerlad30 October 2019 10:55

Statista has compiled this overview of the most recent polling on the impeachment question. 

The majority of Americans back the House Democrats' inquiry as damaging testimony like Lt Col Vindman's continues to emerge.

Joe Sommerlad30 October 2019 11:10

George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide, filed paperwork yesterday to run for the House seat being vacated by scandal-mired Democrat Katie Hill.

Papadopoulos tweeted on Sunday:

Hill, whose district covers Los Angeles County, announced her resignation that same day amid an ethics probe into allegations she had an inappropriate relationship with a staff member. She's admitted to a consensual relationship with a campaign staff member, but denied one with a congressional staff member, which would violate House rules. She's called herself the victim of revenge porn by an abusive husband she is divorcing.

Papadopoulos, meanwhile, was a key figure in the FBI's Russia probe into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

The FBI's counterintelligence investigation that later became the Mueller probe was triggered, in part, from a tip from an Australian diplomat who had communicated with Papadopoulos. The latter told the diplomat, Alexander Downer, at a London wine bar in May 2016 that Russia had thousands of stolen emails that would be potentially damaging to Hillary Clinton.

His lawyers have sought a pardon from the president, though Papadopoulos contends that's unlikely to come to fruition. In the last few months, he's been working on a working on a documentary series with his wife about their interactions with the special counsel's team. He's also on the board of advisers for a medical marijuana company that is hoping to help use cannabis to combat the opioid epidemic.

Papadopoulos was the first of five Trump aides to plead guilty as part of Mueller's investigation. He wants the government to declassify material, including authorisations by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that he contends could prove he was unlawfully targeted.

Attorney general William Barr appointed Connecticut state attorney John Durham in May to conduct a criminal investigation examining the origins of Mueller's probe. The current investigation is examining what led the US to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and the roles that various countries played in the US probe. Prosecutors are also investigating whether the surveillance and intelligence-gathering methods used during the investigation were legal and appropriate.

Papadopoulos enters a field of at least three other Republicans and one Democrat. The other Republicans are Navy veteran Mike Garcia, bank executive Angela Jacobs Underwood and Mark Cripe, who works for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Former Republican congressman Steve Knight, who lost the seat to Hill in 2018, is also considering running. The seat was the last Los Angeles County seat to be held by Republicans before Hill's victory and was one of seven Democrats flipped last year.

State assemblywoman Christy Smith is the only Democrat in the race so far. She quickly criticised Papadopoulos on Tuesday.

A special election to fill Hill's seat cannot be set by California governor Gavin Newsom until she officially leaves Congress, which she has not done. It's possible there is no special election, depending on how long she waits to leave office. That would make the next election for the seat in November 2020.

Joe Sommerlad30 October 2019 11:25

The Court of Appeals in Washington has issued a stay that blocks the release of an unredacted copy of former FBI special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election to the House Judiciary Committee.

US district judge Beryl Howell had ordered the Trump administration to hand over a copy of the Mueller report that included material that had been blacked out by Wednesday but the Justice Department requested the stay while it appeals Howell's ruling.

The department is trying to block Democrats from accessing the full Mueller report on the grounds that doing so would require the disclosure of secret grand jury materials and potentially harm ongoing investigations.

The House committee issued a subpoena seeking the full report as part of Democrats' effort to build a case for removing Trump from office through impeachment.

Mueller submitted his report to the attorney general in March after completing a 22-month investigation that detailed Russia's campaign of hacking and propaganda to boost Trump's candidacy in the 2016 election as well as extensive contacts between Trump's campaign and Moscow. Barr, a Trump appointee who Democrats have accused of trying to protect the president politically, released the 448-page report in April with some parts redacted.

The House impeachment inquiry does not centre on the Mueller report but believe the redacted materials could prove relevant to the Ukraine investigation.

In her initial ruling last Friday, Judge Howell also, incidentally, said the House need not pass a resolution formally initiating its impeachment inquiry, undercutting an argument that Trump's fellow Republicans have repeatedly made in attacking the probe.

Joe Sommerlad30 October 2019 11:40

Trump is up early - too early - and has posted this rambling brace of tweets promoting "Rupublican" unity and denouncing "infair Process". 

Here's Chris Riotta's report.

Joe Sommerlad30 October 2019 11:55

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