Impeachment investigators for the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday released the transcripts of the hours-long testimony of two diplomats involved in carrying out an alleged shadow foreign policy campaign aimed at pressuring Ukrainian leaders into delivering political favors to President Donald Trump.
The depositions of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Kurt Volker, the former special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, were among the most highly anticipated testimonies in the impeachment inquiry. The transcripts appear to bolster Democrats’ case that Trump, through his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, encouraged the off-the-books diplomacy.
Early last month, House Democrats released encrypted text messages between Volker and Sondland that demonstrated their active involvement in the plan to get Ukraine’s newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky to publicly commit to the investigations Trump demanded.
Trump told Sondland Ukraine was “a problem”
Sondland testified that Trump was not specific in what he wanted Sondland to work with Giuliani on in Ukraine, saying only that “Ukraine is a problem.” The president also repeatedly told Sondland, Volker and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry during a May 23 meeting to “talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy” about Ukraine policy — despite Giuliani having no formal foreign policy role and, by then, publicly demanding that Ukraine investigate the Bidens.
Sondland could not recall … a lot
Sondland appeared to cover himself on key questions by claiming he didn’t recall certain discussions of the Bidens with Giuliani, conversations with Zelensky about issuing a public statement committing to the investigations, talks with acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney about scheduling a White House visit for Zelensky, or details about a July 10 meeting with Ukrainian officials that alarmed White House aides.
Sondland also testified that he could not recall whether he ever mentioned the word “Burisma” in his meetings and conversations with the Ukrainians—Burisma is the gas company on whose board Hunter Biden sat—or whether he told Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), as has been reported, that U.S. military assistance aid was contingent upon Zelensky committing to the probes Trump demanded.
Sondland submitted new testimony last week, however, following rumblings among Democrats that he might have committed perjury. In that supplemental testimony, Sondland confirmed having a conversation with a top Zelensky aide in Warsaw on Sept. 1, in which he told the aide that U.S. military assistance funds would likely not be reinstated “until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
In his initial testimony, however, when asked “what facts or what firsthand accounts” he could provide about the aid holdup, Sondland replied: “None … other than I was aware of it. I didn’t know why I kept getting different answers from different people.”
A White House summit for Zelensky was contingent on political investigations
Sondland acknowledged that Trump and Giuliani were making “demands” of Zelensky, including that he commit to investigating Burisma and the unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. “If you mean that those conditions would have to be complied with prior to getting a meeting, that was my understanding,” Sondland said, referring to the investigations Trump was demanding and effectively confirming that the president attempted a quid pro quo.
Sondland also testified that Trump and Giuliani’s positions “kept getting more insidious,” evolving from a general interest in fighting corruption, to an interest in Burisma, and finally to an investigation of the Bidens—and that Sondland “assumed” such an investigation, as pursued by Giuliani with Trump’s support, would be illegal.
Trump hears what he wants to hear. And in this case it was Giuliani.
Volker testified that when he and others tried to convince Trump to meet with Ukraine’s new president, Trump hinted that he didn’t trust the government in Kyiv because he believed it had tried to undermine his election in 2016.
“They are all corrupt, they are all terrible people,” Volker described Trump as saying. “And they tried to take me down.”
When Volker and other officials tried to persuade Trump that the new Ukrainian president was different, Trump remained skeptical. He also indicated that Giuliani had been telling him other things.
“I think he said, not as an instruction but just as a comment, talk to Rudy, you know,” Volker described Trump as saying, adding that he further said of Giuliani: “‘He knows all of these things, and they’ve got some bad people around [Zelensky].’ And that was the nature of it.”
Volker also told lawmakers he came to see Giuliani’s role as a problem.
“The negative narrative about Ukraine which Mr. Giuliani was furthering was the problem,” Volker said. “[I]n my view, it was impeding our ability to build the relationship the way we should be doing.”
Volker was puzzled as to why the military aid was held up, but even he didn’t immediately make the connection.
The former envoy told lawmakers that he learned on July 18 that there had been a hold placed on several hundred million dollars worth of military aid to Ukraine. Impeachment investigators are trying to establish whether Trump ordered the hold to pressure Ukraine’s government into investigating his political rivals.
But at that point, Volker himself didn’t make any such connection, not least because the Trump administration has at various times tried to cut foreign aid for other reasons.
The “Pentagon, military, civilian, State Department, National Security Council—they all thought this is really important to provide this assistance. And so, in that circumstance, for there to be a hold placed struck me as unusual,” Volker said. “I didn’t know the reason. No reason was ever given as to why that was. It came from [the Office of Management and Budget], so I immediately thought about budgetary issues, that, for whatever reason, there’s a hold placed.”
Volker told Giuliani he didn’t believe Joe Biden had done anything improper.
Volker dismissed the idea that Joe Biden pushed Ukraine’s government to oust a prosecutor to benefit his son Hunter, an allegation that has been fueling much of the conservative pushback against the impeachment process.
And Volker said he tried to convince Giuliani to let that notion go at breakfast on July 19.
“He was repeating all of the things that were in the media that we talked about earlier, you know, firing the prosecutor general and his son being on the company and all that,” Volker said. “And I said to Rudy in that breakfast the first time we sat down to talk that it is simply not credible to me that Joe Biden would be influenced in his duties as vice president by money or things for his son or anything like that. I’ve known him a long time. He’s a person of integrity, and that’s not credible.”
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