Members of the United States House Intelligence Committee will question an official from the US embassy in Ukraine on Thursday as they seek to learn more about a phone call in which he says he overheard President Donald Trump ask about the status of an “investigation” into a political rival.
The public impeachment hearing marks the last scheduled day of marathon sessions by the Democratic-led House Intelligence Committee focused on whether Trump wrongfully pressured Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat bidding to face Trump in the 2020 election.
David Holmes told legislators in a closed-door testimony that he heard Trump’s voice on a July 26 phone call with Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, in which the Republican president asked about Ukraine’s willingness to carry out an unspecified investigation.
“So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Trump asked Sondland, referring to Zelenskyy, according to Holmes’s previous testimony.
“He’s gonna do it,” replied Sondland, according to Holmes.
Sondland added that the Ukrainian president would do “anything you ask him to”, Holmes said.
Holmes’s account ties Trump directly to an effort to get Ukraine to launch an investigation, though his recounting of the overheard telephone call does not explicitly cite the Bidens.
In his November 15 closed-door testimony, Holmes said that after overhearing Sondland’s phone conversation with Trump at an outdoor restaurant in Kyiv, he asked the ambassador if it was true that the president did not care about Ukraine.
In Holmes’s telling, Sondland said that it was, and added that Trump only cares about “‘big stuff’ that benefits the president, like the ‘Biden investigation’ that Mr Giuliani was pushing.”
Testifying before the impeachment inquiry on Wednesday, Sondland said he “followed the president’s orders” to work with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who in turn was pushing Ukraine to carry out two probes that could aid Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
The inquiry is focusing on Trump’s request in a July 25 call that Zelenskyy investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who had served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma, and an unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US election that brought Trump to office. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
Trump has said he did nothing wrong, verbally assailed witnesses, and described the proceedings as a “witch-hunt”. He also said he does not remember the call with Sondland.
The House Intelligence Committee on Thursday will also question Fiona Hill, former senior director for European and Russian Affairs on Trump’s National Security Council, who recounted in prior testimony a July 10 meeting in Washington, DC, that she attended with senior Ukrainian and US officials at which the investigations were discussed.
Sondland on Wednesday testified he could not remember the precise details of the call Holmes overheard, but said the president’s mention of investigations did not strike him as significant at the time.
“Actually, I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations,” Sondland said.
Sondland, however, took issue with Holmes’s recollection that he had talked to the diplomat about the Bidens, saying: “I do not recall mentioning the Bidens. That did not enter my mind. It was Burisma and 2016 elections.”
Sondland has previously testified that he was aware at the time that Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate Burisma. But he said he realised only later that such an investigation would involve the Bidens – given Hunter was on Burisma’s board of directors.
He said that several officials at the top of the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were aware of efforts to push Ukraine to launch investigations.
Sondland said that Trump never directly told him what he wanted Ukraine to investigate, but Giuliani’s instructions “reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements”.
“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” Sondland said.
The Trump phone call with Sondland occurred one day after a July 25 conversation between Trump and Zelenskyy that is at the heart of the inquiry into whether Trump misused US foreign policy to his political advantage. Trump asked Zelenskyy to investigate the Bidens on that call.
The inquiry is also looking at whether Trump may have withheld $391m in security aid to help Ukraine fight Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine as a way of pressuring Kyiv to undertake the investigations. Federal law prohibits candidates from accepting foreign help in an election.