Trump ally Sondland admits tying Ukraine aid to Biden probe

Sondland says he told Ukraine official that military aid would likely not be released until Kyiv said it'd probe Biden.

    A top ally of US President Donald Trump admitted that he told a Ukrainian official that the release of United States military aid was contingent on Kyiv investigating Trump's Democratic rival Joe Biden, testimony released on Tuesday showed.

    Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, said he told a top adviser to Ukraine's president that US military aid would likely not be released until Kyiv made clear it would investigate Biden and his son's ties to Ukraine energy firm Burisma.

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    Sondland had initially denied knowledge of any link between the aid and Trump's request that Ukraine investigate the Bidens, but in supplemental testimony, he said "in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement".

    The House of Representatives's impeachment investigation is focused on a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic rival, and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that had been investigated for corruption. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens. 

    Trump froze nearly $400m in US military assistance to Ukraine shortly before speaking to Zelenskyy, prompting accusations from Democrats that he had misused taxpayer dollars destined for a vulnerable US ally for personal gain. 

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    Volker testimony released

    Congressional Democrats also released testimony from Kurt Volker, Trump's former special representative for Ukraine negotiations.

    Witnesses have testified that Volker and Sondland, with Trump's secretary of energy, Rick Perry, were known as the "three amigos", responsible for Trump's unofficial channel to Ukrainian government officials.

    Volker resigned as special representative in September. He testified to the House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight panels for more than eight hours behind closed doors on October 3.

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    Kurt Volker, a former special envoy to Ukraine, arrives for a closed-door interview with House investigators, as House Democrats proceed with the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump [Scott Applewhite/AP Photo] 

    Sondland, a major Trump donor, testified on October 17.

    Perry, a former Texas governor who said he was resigning from his Cabinet post as of December 1, has refused to testify so far.

    Trump has denied wrongdoing, stating there was no "quid pro quo" (Latin for a "favour for a favour"). He has accused Democrats of unfairly targeting him in hope of reversing his surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election. So far, he has maintained strong support from fellow Republicans in Congress. 

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    Mulvaney summoned

    The release of the transcripts comes as investigators announced they want to hear from Trump's chief of staff, reaching to the highest levels of the White House as they prepare to release more transcripts from the closed-door proceedings.

    Investigators say Mick Mulvaney's news conference last month amounted to "nothing less than a televised confession" of Trump's efforts to have Ukraine investigate Democrats and Joe Biden as the White House was blocking military funding for the Eastern European ally.

    Trump says he did nothing wrong, and Mulvaney later walked back his remarks.

    Mick Mulvaney
    Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney answers questions from reporters during a news briefing at the White House in Washington, DC [Leah Millis/Reuters] 

    Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence committee, said the panels are releasing the word-by-word transcripts so the American public can see it all for themselves.

    "This is about more than just one call," Schiff wrote Tuesday in an op-ed in USA Today. "We now know that the call was just one piece of a larger operation to redirect our foreign policy to benefit Donald Trump's personal and political interests, not the national interest." 

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    The White House has instructed its officials not to comply with the impeachment inquiry being led by House Democrats. It is uncertain if Mulvaney will appear.

    Public hearings could begin as soon as next week in the impeachment inquiry that Trump says is illegitimate and Republicans in Congress call a sham.

    The release of more transcripts comes as the Trump administration resumes its stonewalling of the inquiry. Two more White House officials, an energy adviser and a budget official, declined to appear Tuesday before investigators, even after one received a subpoena.

    Most of those who have testified before the House panel are from the ranks of the State Department, including recalled US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovonavitch, whose testimony was released Monday. Diplomats have testified to the mounting concerns in the State Department over Trump's interest in having a foreign ally investigate Biden.

    Volker and Sondland testified they were disappointed after briefing Trump at the White House upon their return from Zelenskyy's inauguration in May as a new leader of the young democracy vowing to fight corruption.

    That pivotal May 23 meeting raised red flags when Trump told them to work with Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, on Ukraine issues.

    SOURCE: News agencies