Sondland: Highly-anticipated impeachment witness testifies

Gordon Sondland is more directly entangled than any witness yet in Trump's efforts to get Ukraine to pursue probes.

    Sondland: Highly-anticipated impeachment witness testifies
    US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is sworn in to testify before the US House Intelligence Committee as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

    US Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the most anticipated witness in the Trump impeachment inquiry, will face questions about his evolving accounts of the Trump administration's dealings with Ukraine and a newly revealed summertime phone call with the United States president. 

    Sondland, a wealthy hotelier President Donald 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.

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    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.

    The inquiry is centred on a July 25 phone call between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. During that call, Trump asked the new Ukraine president to launch an investigation into the US president's leading Democratic rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter, who had served on the board of an Ukrainian gas company. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens. It is now also known that Trump wanted an investigation into a now-debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 US presidential election.

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    Just weeks before the call, Trump froze nearly $400m in US military aid to Ukraine. The timing of Trump's request made during the call prompted speculation that he was using the aid as leverage for personal, political gain.

    Following a whistle-blower complaint about the call, Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry of the president. The inquiry moved into its public phase last week, with several witnesses being recalled to appear before televised hearings of the US House Intelligence Committee.

    Trump-Sondland phone call

    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.

    The envoy is likely to face tough questions from members of Congress of both parties about Trump's July 25 call when he asked Ukraine President Zelenskyy 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".

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    US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland arrives for a closed-door hearing of the impeachment inquiry [Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo]

    The political counsellor was having lunch with Sondland in Kyiv when the ambassador dialled up the president on his 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 Zelenskyy will, quote, 'do anything you ask him to'." 

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    Sondland was known for telling others "he was in charge of Ukraine" despite being the US envoy in Brussels, said former White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill, another witness in the impeachment probe.

    "And I asked, well, on whose authority?" said Hill, who will testify on Thursday. "And he said, the president."

    Other witnesses point to Sondland

    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 Zelenskyy as "improper", and a Mike Pence aide who said she found it "unusual".

    Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman told the House panel 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 was not the first time Vindland had registered his concerns over Ukraine policy. He testified about a July 10 meeting at the White House when Sondland told visiting Ukraine officials they would need to "deliver" before the administration would agree to a meeting Zelenskyy 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.

    Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, left, and National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol
    Williams and Vindman are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee [Andrew Harnik/AP Photo] 

    Testifying alongside Vindman was Jennifer Williams, a State Department foreign policy aide to Vice President Mike Pence. She said she thought Trump's call with Zelenskyy was "unusual" because "it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter".

    She said she did not, however, report her concerns or talk about the call after it took place. 

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    At the White House, Trump said he had watched part of the day's testimony and slammed the continuing impeachment hearings as a "disgrace". Over the weekend, Trump assailed 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 Zelenskyy. Afterwards, 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 July 10 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.

    Former US Special Envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker (L), and Tim Morrison, the top Russia and Europe adviser on President Donald Trump's National Security Council, prepare to testify during the House Int
    Volker and Morrison prepare to testify during the House Intelligence Committee hearing [Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP] 

    A series of text messages Volker provided to the inquiry 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."

    The impeachment investigation could lead the House to approve formal charges - known as articles of impeachment - against Trump that would be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial that could result in his removal from office.

    At the moment, that outcome is doubtful as few Republican senators have broken with Trump.

    Only two US presidents, Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson, have been impeached, but neither was removed from office. President Richard Nixon faced impeachment and resigned in 1974 over the Watergate scandal.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies