Public to Get Glimpse at Trump’s Back-Channel Ukraine Effort
(Bloomberg) -- House Democrats will release closed-door testimony from two central players in President Donald Trump’s back-channel effort to influence the Ukrainian government, a key initial step as the impeachment inquiry shifts to a new, public phase.
The release on Tuesday will offer the American public a closer look at what Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland said behind closed doors to House impeachment committees last month and could help clarify their own roles and what their efforts on Trump’s behalf were intended to achieve.
They and Energy Secretary Rick Perry were the “three amigos” deputized by the White House to help Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani lead back-channel administration overtures to Ukraine.
In what is known about their previous testimony -- including their prepared opening remarks -- both men distanced themselves from Giuliani’s shadow effort to get Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden and his son, as well as the White House decision to withhold foreign aid that Congress had designated for Ukraine.
Sondland, a Trump donor turned ambassador to the European Union, testified last month at a closed-door hearing of the House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry. He is a key figure because of his direct conversations with the president and Ukrainian officials.
Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, was the first witness to testify before the three impeachment panels. He resigned days before his Oct. 4 testimony, in which he provided text messages between senior State Department officials, some of whom expressed concern over Giuliani’s activities.
The transcripts will be the second set released by the Democratic-led committees conducting the inquiry, which is set to move on to public hearings as soon as next week. On Monday, transcripts from former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and Michael McKinley, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, were made public.
Yovanovitch said Ukrainian officials alerted her to contacts between Giuliani and former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko and told her “that Mr. Lutsenko was looking to hurt me in the U.S.,” according to the transcript.
Yovanovitch, who was recalled from her post in May, said she subsequently felt threatened by the way Trump spoke about her on a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
In that call, documented by a White House memo later made public, Trump called her “bad news” and said “she’s going to go through some things.”
In his deposition, McKinley said he resigned last month over concerns about how Yovanovitch was treated, as well as “the emerging information on the engagement of our missions to procure negative political information for domestic purposes.”
McKinley said that in his 37 years in the State Department, he had never seen such efforts to dig up dirt on a political opponent.
Transcripts from other witnesses are expected to be released in the coming days. By making them public, Democrats who control the committees are trying to head off criticism from Republicans that their participation in the impeachment inquiry has been constrained. The transcripts show that members of both parties took part in questioning.
Republicans have argued the transcripts would bolster their case that the president did nothing wrong and didn’t make military aid contingent on an investigation of the Bidens. The president’s defenders contend he has the right to recall ambassadors, and they dismissed McKinley as someone who didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the Ukraine issues at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
Volker and Sondland were closer to the events under investigation. Text messages and testimony previously obtained by Bloomberg News show that they discussed a draft statement that would be made by Zelenskiy announcing his intention to investigate Burisma, a natural gas company that employed Biden’s son Hunter on its board, and the 2016 U.S. elections.
“Perfect,” Sondland replied.
‘Would Be Wrong’
Volker maintained in his opening statement to the committees that -- despite the proposed mention of Burisma -- “at no time was I aware of or took part in an effort to urge Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Biden.”
Sondland, in his testimony, distanced himself from Trump’s and Giuliani’s efforts to have the Ukrainians investigate Biden and his son. Sondland said he didn’t participate in any effort to withhold aid as part of an effort to investigate Biden.
“Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong,” he said in his statement. “Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong. I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings.”
William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, had repeatedly questioned Sondland in text messages about a quid pro quo: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?”
‘I Think It’s Crazy’
Taylor added in a later text message: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Nearly five hours later, Sondland responded: “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”
Sondland said he responded only after speaking with Trump. He said Trump told him there was no “quid pro quo” regarding an investigation of the Bidens and the Ukrainian aid that was being withheld.
“The president repeated: ‘no quid pro quo’ multiple times,” Sondland said in his testimony. “This was a very short call. And I recall the president was in a bad mood.”
Days later, the president released the aid to Ukraine.
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