Trump’s Impeachment Defense Faces Test With Ally’s Deposition

Billy House

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s impeachment defense strategy will be put to the test Tuesday as one of his top diplomats appears before House committees to explain his call for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

The fact that Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, is set to appear for his private deposition is the next step for the panels leading the probe, after difficulties scheduling other requested testimonies. Lawmakers will be testing Sondland’s willingness to offer clear answers and his loyalty to Trump.

Sondland, a hotel executive who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, came under increased scrutiny last week after Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, turned over text messages in his closed deposition that showed Sondland seeking to encourage Ukrainian officials to agree to “the deliverable.”

To get to the bottom of that request, Democrats are trying to establish what leverage Trump used to ask Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, now a political rival for the 2020 election. They have faced broad resistance from the Trump administration, as the president and his legal counsel reject demands for documents and witness testimony.

Trump has responded furiously to the impeachment process, calling the inquiry a “scam” and a “witch hunt.” He will hold political rallies this week in Minnesota and Louisiana, and will likely offer his own defense to his most passionate supporters.

The heart of the House inquiry, led by the committees on Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight, is the accusation that Trump sought to use U.S. military aid to Ukraine as leverage to get that country to pursue probes, including one against the Bidens, The committees are requesting testimony from State Department officials and others who may have helped Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, push Ukrainian officials to comply.

‘Navigate’ Trump’s Demands

The contents of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelenskiy was initially revealed in a complaint filed by a intelligence community whistle-blower, whose identity remains unknown. That report details Sondland’s trip to Kyiv with Volker on July 26 -- a day after Trump’s call -- to meet “with President Zelenskiy and a variety of Ukrainian political figures.”

According to the whistle-blower’s complaint, “Ambassadors Volker and Sondland reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the president had made of Mr. Zelenskiy.”

The texts given to the committees last week also show that Sondland and another top American diplomat helped script a proposed announcement by Ukraine’s leader to say his government would investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. That announcement was never made.

The texts also show Sondland defending Giuliani’s efforts to get Ukraine to look into the Bidens, even over concerns raised by the top American diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, who warned against conditioning U.S. military assistance on an “investigation.”

“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote on Sept. 9.

Sondland replied that Trump isn’t seeking “a quid pro quo,” but wanted to test Ukraine’s commitment to reform. He then suggested they stop texting and said Taylor should speak directly to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

Though Ukraine is not part of the European Union, the documents now made public show that Sondland, the ambassador to the E.U., played a central role in Trump’s efforts to convince Ukrainian leaders to carry out the investigations.

Some Democrats, including Representative Gerald Connolly of Virginia, a Democratic member of the Oversight Committee, say Sondland should resign.

“These text messages are deeply troubling. Mr. Sondland has lost credibility and must resign,” said Connolly, in a statement.

Subpoenas Threatened

Sondland’s testimony comes after the lawyer for two Giuliani associates -- Ukrainian-born businessman Lev Parnes and his business partner Igor Fruman -- said on Monday they would, for now, put off a request to testify and turn over additional documents by Oct. 14. The committees are prepared to respond with subpoenas to force them to testify, according to a House official.

The House request is “overly broad and unduly burdensome” and “beyond the scope” of the inquiry, John Dowd, the lawyer representing Parnes and Fruman, wrote in an Oct. 3 letter to the House Intelligence Committee obtained by Bloomberg News.

Dowd said lawyers need time to review the documents for material that should instead be withheld under legal privileges. He asked the committees to amend their requests and said he would keep them advised about a “rolling production of non-privileged documents.”

Dowd previously represented Trump as a personal lawyer during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Dowd said the committees’ deadline for responses, which he said were made in a Sept. 30 letter, led him to believe the Democratic leaders of the panels want “to harass, intimidate and embarrass my clients.”

At least one other witness, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, is scheduled to testify on Friday.

The leaders of the three committees, Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, and Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings on Monday subpoenaed the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget for documents related to “the reasons behind the White House’s decision to withhold critical military assistance to Ukraine that was appropriated by Congress.” That subpoena requires a response by Oct. 15.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at kwhitelaw@bloomberg.net, Anna Edgerton, John Harney

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