World / Politics

'No ambiguity': White House pushed Ukraine for Biden investigation, ex-officials testify

AP, Reuters

It was a straight-out trade, two key White House officials told impeachment investigators: If Ukraine’s new leader wanted an Oval Office welcome from Donald Trump — and he did — he would have to open a public probe into the president’s Democratic foe Joe Biden and Biden’s son.

“There was no ambiguity,” said Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an army officer assigned to the National Security Council, recounting meetings with Ukrainian officials at the White House last summer.

According to transcripts released Friday in the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, Vindman and former White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill both gave firsthand descriptions of scenes central to the probe.

Vindman testified that Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor serving as ambassador to the European Union, told the visiting officials that if they hoped to win a face-to-face meeting, “the Ukrainians would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens.”

The House questioners asked Vindman to confirm that Sondland had specifically said “Bidens.”

“To the best of my recollection, yes,” Vindman testified. “My visceral reaction to what was being called for suggested that it was explicit.”

Vindman told lawmakers that he believes ties between the U.S. and Ukraine have been damaged by the administration’s actions. “It undercuts U.S. resolve to support Ukraine and certainly puts a question into their mind whether they in fact have U.S. support,” he said.

Hill testified that in another episode that day at the White House, national security adviser John Bolton “immediately stiffened” as Sondland “blurted out” that he had worked out the trade of a Ukrainian probe for an Oval Office welcome with Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.

She recalled Sondland saying, “Well, we have an agreement with the chief of staff for a meeting if these investigations in the energy sector start” — a reference to the firm where Biden’s son was on the board, Burisma.

Then Bolton then abruptly ended the meeting.

Pressed on how it came to be that Sondland, a wealthy businessman, played such a pivotal role in Ukraine policy, Hill testified she was dismayed by the idea. “He said he was in charge of Ukraine,” Hill recalled.

She testified that she challenged the new ambassador to the point of being “rude” to him.

“Who says you’re in charge of Ukraine?” she asked him.

“The president,” he replied.

Trump’s defenders say there is no evidence of him and the Ukrainian president engaging in a quid pro quo — exchanging a favor for a favor — because the aid to Ukraine was released and Zelenskiy never explicitly promised to investigate Burisma, the Bidens, or any supposed Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

A quid pro quo is not necessary, however, to prove high crimes or misdemeanors, which is the standard the U.S. Constitution requires for the impeachment of a president.

The hundreds of pages of transcripts show the investigation’s deep reach into the White House ahead of the coming week’s public hearings.

Vindman alerted superiors about the meeting and also after he listened to the July phone call in which Trump appealed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and the counterfactual theory of Ukrainian interference in the election.

A whistleblower’s complaint about that call triggered the impeachment probe, which focuses on allegations that Trump held up military aid to Ukraine, which fears aggression by Russia, until he got a public declaration of the Ukrainian investigations.

Both officials are among nearly a dozen who have testified behind closed doors so far, and both said they were not the whistleblower.

Trump insisted earlier Friday he has not been damaged by testimony. He and fellow Republicans complain that the witnesses generally are relying on secondhand accounts of central events.

Speaking to reporters as he left on a campaign trip, Trump said he was “not concerned about anything” that has been disclosed so far.

He also distanced himself from Sondland, whom he praised last month as “a really good man and great American.”

“I hardly know the gentleman,” he said.

Despite Trump’s dismissive comments, the new testimony, particularly the day of meetings July 10 at the White House, has become pivotal. It puts Mulvaney more directly involved in the shadow diplomacy that was being run through the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and implemented by Sondland.

After Bolton left the one meeting, he told Hill to follow the group into the next and report back to him.

She testified that at the second meeting Sondland, “as I came in, was talking about how he had an agreement with chief of staff Mulvaney for a meeting with the Ukrainians if they were going to go forward with investigations.” She said she heard Sondland mention Burisma.

When she relayed what she heard back to Bolton, he called it a “drug deal” and told her to report it to the National Security Council’s lead counsel, John Eisenberg.

She testified, “This is a direct quote from Ambassador Bolton: ‘You go and tell Eisenberg that I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this, and you go and tell him what you’ve heard and what I’ve said.'”

Republican Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe sought to portray Trump’s request for a favor in his call with the Ukrainian president as falling short of a demand.

But Vindman disagreed.

“When the president of the United States makes a request for a favor, it certainly seems I would take it as a demand,” he retorted.

Vindman, a veteran of the Iraq War, then added: “This was about getting a White House meeting. It was a demand for him to fulfill this particular prerequisite in order to get the meeting.”

Vindman also said he wanted to amend the White House’s rough transcript of the call in three places, notably by filling in the ellipses when Trump was discussing CrowdStrike, the security firm that, in an unsubstantiated theory, interfered in the 2016 election by hacking into a server storing Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Vindman heard Trump say about CrowdStrike, “They say you have it.”

He also wanted to substitute “Burisma” at a point where the transcript says that Zelenskiy tells Trump that Ukraine will look into “the company that you mentioned.” And Vindman wanted to add that Trump said, “there are recordings” of Biden, referring to a speech the then-vice president gave about rooting out corruption in Ukraine.

Vindman took his concerns about the call to the NSC’s lead counsel — and about Sondland’s comments at the White House to his twin brother, Eugene, an ethics lawyer at the National Security Council.

At one point in Vindman’s testimony, his lawyer objected to questions from Republicans he believed were intended to draw out the identity of the whistleblower who filed the initial complaint.

Michael Volkov said his client would not answer questions about how many people he had told about his concerns.

Pressed repeatedly, Volkov said, “He tells you he’s not the whistleblower, OK? He says he feels uncomfortable about it. Try and respect his feelings at this point.”

A person, presumably a Republican, identified only as “voice” interjects: “We’re uncomfortable impeaching the president.”