Trump Envoy and Decorated Officer Are Key Impeachment Witnesses

Billy House

(Bloomberg) -- The second week of public impeachment hearings kicks off with a former diplomat at the center of President Donald Trump’s back channel to Ukraine and a decorated Army officer who has been accused of disloyalty by the president’s allies after he raised alarms about what he saw at the White House.

Kurt Volker, who until recently was Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine, is a crucial witness for both Democrats and Republicans in the House investigation. GOP lawmakers wanted him to testify publicly because he’s said he wasn’t aware of attempts to withhold U.S. aid until Ukraine opened investigations that would help Trump politically.

But other witnesses have described Volker as a key player in an effort led by Rudy Giuliani at Trump’s behest to push Ukraine into public probes that would entangle former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival of the president. Volker plans to tell the House Intelligence Committee that he wasn’t involved in discussions at key points where linkage between aid and investigations may have been brought up, the New York Times reported, citing a person familiar with his testimony.

He’ll be preceded at Tuesday’s hearings by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine specialist who had been detailed to the White House National Security Council and listened to the July 25 phone conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Vindman, an Iraq war veteran whose loyalty to the country has been questioned by some Trump allies, testified that he was so disturbed by what he heard that he reported his concerns to the NSC’s legal counsel.

This week’s hearings -- running over three days with nine witnesses -- are crucial for both Trump and Democrats.

The House inquiry so far hasn’t caused any significant swing in public opinion about whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office, nor has it so far broken a solid wall of support for the president among GOP lawmakers. Yet the live coverage and constant drumbeat of revelations could damage the president politically as he campaigns for re-election in 2020 with already low approval ratings.

Volker was part of a trio of administration officials, along with Trump’s envoy to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who were delegated to help Giuliani’s shadow diplomacy efforts in Ukraine.

Volker has acknowledged in his previous closed-door testimony that he participated in an effort to push the new Ukraine government under Zelenskiy to investigate corruption. But he said he was unaware that Trump wanted Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter. He also said he didn’t think the Ukrainians were aware that military assistance that had approved by Congress was being blocked, “so there was no leverage implied.”

Yet Volker also has defended Joe Biden against the suggestions by Trump and Giuliani that he thwarted a corruption investigation in Ukraine to protect Hunter Biden, who was on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings.

Both Volker and Sondland, who’ve previously testified at closed-door hearings, put Giuliani at the center of the effort to extract a promise of an investigation from Ukrainian officials.

Telephone Call

Sondland, a Trump donor, is scheduled to testify on Wednesday, and liable to come under intense questioning from both parties after new information emerged about a telephone call he had with Trump on July 26. David Holmes, a member of the embassy staff in Kyiv, told House investigators on Friday that he overhead Trump asking Sondland about “the investigations.”

Afterward Sondland told Holmes that the president “didn’t give a s--- about Ukraine” and that the president only cares about the “big stuff” that benefits him “like the Biden investigation” that Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, was promoting. Holmes is scheduled to testify on Thursday.

Vindman, set to testify Tuesday morning, will face questions about several key moments he witnessed first-hand, including the April 21 and July 25 phone calls between Trump and Zelenskiy, and a July 10 meeting in Washington with visiting Ukrainian officials.

Vindman went to the NSC’s legal counsel with concerns about the July 10 meeting, which included Sondland, Perry, Volker, then-national security adviser John Bolton and Ukrainian officials. During the session, according to Vindman, Sondland demanded that Ukrainian leaders deliver “specific investigations” to secure a meeting between Zelenskiy and Trump.

Investigation

He also raised questions for the legal counsel about Trump’s July 25 call. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine,” Vindman said in his opening statement to the impeachment inquiry last month.

He will testify alongside Jennifer Williams, a State Department specialist assigned to Vice President Mike Pence’s staff who also listened in on the July 25 call. In her closed-door testimony on Nov. 7, she said that she found some of discussion on the call to be “unusual and inappropriate.”

Like Vindman, she also pointed out an omission from the memorandum of the call released by the White House -- a mention of Burisma. That draws a closer connection to the trade Trump was seeking in what he has characterized as a “perfect” call.

Williams said she felt that “the mention of these specific investigations” into the Bidens and the 2016 election went to the president’s “personal political agenda, as opposed to a broader foreign policy objective of the United States.”

Volker will be appearing alongside former NSC official Timothy Morrison on the same afternoon panel. Morrison also heard the July 25 call, and Republicans are likely to focus on his past statements that he heard nothing illegal in the conversation.

He did, however, testify that he was concerned about how it would look if leaked. The call was subsequently placed into a separate computer system usually reserved for national security matters and closed to some of those who’d usually have access to records of the president’s calls.

On Wednesday, in addition to Sondland’s testimony in the morning, the House Intelligence Committee will hear from the Pentagon’s top official on Russia and Ukraine, Laura Cooper in the afternoon as well as David Hale, the third-ranking official at the State Department is scheduled to answer questions.

The next day former White House adviser on Russia Fiona Hill will appear before the committee, along with Holmes, the staff member at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv who overhead Sondland’s phone call with Trump.

To contact the reporter on this story: Billy House in Washington at bhouse5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, John Harney

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