The House committees leading the impeachment inquiry Tuesday released transcripts from two more closed-door depositions as the proceedings move to a more public phase.
The transcripts include witness testimony from two figures central to the inquiry, Gordon Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, and Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine. Reporters from The New York Times combed through the documents and highlighted key parts, offering context and analysis.
Sondland told a Ukrainian official that more than an Oval Office meeting was at stake unless the Ukrainians announced the investigations that Trump sought.
Volker transcript, in text messages released with his testimony, Page 403: “Drove the ‘larger issue’ home with Yermak. Not about just a meeting but the relationship per se.”
By mid-August, the American officials were trying to impress upon Ukrainian officials the need for them to publicly announce investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, one of President Donald Trump’s political rivals, and into a conspiracy theory that Ukraine worked against Trump in the 2016 election.
In this 19 August text message to another US diplomat, Sondland wrote that he told Andriy Yermak, a top Ukrainian aide, that an Oval Office meeting between Trump and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine was not all that hung in the balance. The larger “relationship” between Ukraine and the United States was also at risk, he implied. The Ukrainians wanted the Oval Office meeting to bolster Zelenskiy’s credibility. But even more important, they wanted the White House to release its hold on $391 million in military assistance to help Ukraine fight pro-Russians forces waging a separatist war in eastern Ukraine. — Sharon LaFraniere
Sondland said he received a misleading description of the July call between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart.
Sondland transcript, Page 251: “I think the only readouts I remember seeing were the ones from my team, which were very innocuous, and did not represent what was actually said on the call that I found out once the transcript was a released.”
Even though he was dealing directly with the Ukrainian government to set up a meeting between the two presidents, Sondland said he was never given a readout of the telephone call between Trump and Zelenskiy, which would have been customary for someone in his position.
Other diplomats dealing with Ukraine were also left in the dark. When the White House publicly released the transcript on 25 September, they were stunned to learn what Trump had said.
— Lara Jakes
Trump complained Ukraine was trying to take him down.
Volker transcript, Page 31: “He gave the example of hearing from Rudy Giuliani that they’re all corrupt, they’re all terrible people, that they were — they tried to take me down — meaning the president in the 2016 election.”
Volker told impeachment investigators that Trump dismissed their positive assessments of Ukraine during a May 23 meeting at the White House because of what he was hearing from his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
That story was echoed by Sondland, who told investigators that he had also heard Trump make a remark about believing that Ukraine wanted to take him down.— Michael D. Shear
Sondland cast doubt upon accounts that he had linked Mulvaney to a quid-pro-quo scheme.
Sondland transcript, Page 221: “I don’t recall ever having a conversation with Mr. Mulvaney about that. I honestly don’t. I’ve had very, very few conversations with Mr. Mulvaney.”
Investigators were asking Sondland about a July 10 meeting with two senior Ukrainian officials in the White House office of John Bolton, then the national security adviser. At least one witness has testified that at that meeting, Sondland blurted out that the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, had promised an Oval Office invitation to the new Ukrainian president if the Ukrainians announced the sought-after investigations. That would appear to draw Mulvaney into the scandal.
Questioned repeatedly on that point, Sondland said that he did not think he ever secured such a guarantee from Mulvaney and that he did not remember saying that in the meeting.
— Sharon LaFraniere
After the July call, Volker learned the U.S. had never formally requested that Ukraine open an inquiry into possible interference in the 2016 election.
Volker transcript, Page 197: “Q: Did you speak with anyone at D.O.J. about whether the U.S. had requested an official investigation?
A: No, I did not. I did ask — I did ask our Charge to also check. And I later understood that we never had. And because of that was another factor in my advising the Ukrainians then don’t put it in now.
Q: You told the Ukrainians don’t put it in the specific investigation?
A: Yes, yes.
Q: Did you speak with the Ukrainians about whether or not the U.S. had ever requested an official investigation?
A: It came up in this conversation with Andriy about the statement, and he asked whether we ever had. I didn’t know the answer. That’s why I wanted to go back and find out. As I found out the answer that we had not, I said, ‘Well, let’s just not go there.’ ”
When Trump and Zelenskiy spoke on 25 July, Trump said he wanted Attorney General William P Barr to talk to Zelenskiy or someone on his staff about investigating Ukraine’s involvement in trying to influence the 2016 presidential election to benefit the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, a far-right theory that has never been corroborated. When Volker was working on a draft statement with one of Zelenskiy’s aides a couple of weeks later, Volker learned that the Justice Department never made a formal request to Ukraine to do such an investigation, which is the standard protocol.
Both Volker and Zelenskiy’s aide, Yermak, agreed that because there was no official request from the Justice Department, it was best to leave out of any statement Zelenskiy would make about Ukrainian relations with the United States, further underscoring the separate foreign policy campaign Giuliani was trying to advance on behalf of Trump. — Eileen Sullivan
Days before the 25 July call, Volker warned Giuliani that the Biden-Ukraine narrative was not credible.
Volker transcript, Page 203: “And I said to Rudy in that breakfast the first time we sat down to talk that it is simply not credible to me that Joe Biden would be influenced in his duties as vice president by money or things for his son or anything like that. I’ve known him a long time, he’s a person of integrity, and that’s not credible.”
According to Volker, he had breakfast with Giuliani and Giuliani’s associate Lev Parnas at the Trump Hotel six days before the phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy. During their meeting, Volker tried to convince Giuliani that the allegations against Biden and his younger son, Hunter Biden, were not credible. Volker said he tried to explain to Giuliani that if Ukraine wanted to investigate possible corruption in one of its companies, Burisma Holdings, that was one thing, but Volker said he tried to warn Giuliani not to tie it to the Bidens because it would be seen as political. — Eileen Sullivan
In early July, Volker and Zelenskiy suggested that Giuliani’s involvement in Ukraine affairs was a problem.
Volker transcript, Page 138: “The negative narrative about Ukraine which Mr. Giuliani was furthering was the problem. It was, in my view, it was impeding our ability to build the relationship the way we should be doing.”
Volker and Zelenskiy met in Toronto on July 3, a few weeks before the phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy that is at the center of the impeachment inquiry. By Volker’s account, he and Zelenskiy discussed the problem that Giuliani was causing by pushing a negative narrative about Ukraine’s corruption as Zelenskiy was working to introduce his reform agenda. This shows that during the 25 July phone call, when Trump suggested that Zelenskiy work with Giuliani, Zelenskiy was well-aware of what the president’s personal lawyer was doing. — Eileen Sullivan
The top US diplomat in Kyiv hesitated about taking the job partly because of the influence of Giuliani.
Volker transcript, in text messages released with his testimony, Page 386: “I am still struggling with the decision whether to go. Can anyone hope to succeed with the Giuliani/Biden issue swirling for the next 18 months?” Mr. Taylor said in text messages.
Later Taylor asked, “Do I want to enter this non-normal world?”
William B Taylor Jr., now the top American diplomat in Kyiv, sent this message to Volker on 26 May, before agreeing to succeed Marie L Yovanovitch, who was ousted as the American ambassador to Ukraine. He specifically mentioned Giuliani in the context of “Biden.” This appears to be a reference to Giuliani’s claims, echoed by Trump, that as vice president, Joe Biden tried to squash a criminal inquiry of a Ukrainian company that had hired Biden’s son as a board member. No evidence has surfaced to support those claims. Taylor was also worried about the lack of a normal chain of command. — Sharon LaFraniere
The 25 July phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy was scheduled after Giuliani got on board.
Volker testimony, Page 276: “Orchestrated a great phone call with Rudy and Yermak,” Mr. Volker texted another diplomat on July 22. “Rudy is now advocating for a phone call.”
This appears to show how, for the Ukrainians, the route to Trump ran through Giuliani. Some of Trump’s official advisers, including Bolton, were against scheduling a July call between Trump and Zelenskiy.
Bolton specifically warned it could be “a disaster,” according to another congressional witness. Volker and other aides had been pushing for it. After he connected Giuliani and Yermak, a top aide to Zelenskiy, Giuliani agreed to the call, Volker said. It took place three days later. — Sharon LaFraniere
White House lawyers called Sondland hours before whistleblower report was made public.
Sondland transcript, Page 38: “I had a brief conversation with the White House Counsel’s Office when the whistleblower’s report came out mentioning my name, and the White House Counsel’s Office reached me, I was in New York at the United Nation Trans-Atlantic dinner. I stepped out of the meeting to take the call.”
Sondland told House investigators that the White House Counsel’s Office gave him a head’s up a few hours before the public release of the whistleblower’s report about Trump’s telephone call with the president of Ukraine. Michael Purpura, a White House lawyer, reached him by phone a few hours later, asking Sondland to come in for an interview since his name was mentioned in the document. Sondland told investigators that he did not agree to the interview with White House lawyers. — Michael D. Shear
A top national security adviser was ‘shaking’ in anger over what she saw as dysfunction at the White House.
Sondland transcript, Page 266: “And she (Fiona Hill) was pretty upset about her role in the administration, about her superiors, about the president. She was sort of shaking. She was pretty mad.”
Sondland transcript, Page 267: “She’s usually pretty calm, collected, straightforward, but she was pretty emotional.”
Fiona Hill, a Russia scholar, was a top foreign policy adviser to Trump before she resigned on July 19 — days before the telephone call between the president and Zelenskiy. Over a cup of coffee with Sondland a few days before she left, Hill specifically criticized Trump and Bolton.
Sondland recounted to House investigators that Hill said the National Security Council was not well run, and said she described disorder and communications problems in the Trump administration. He described a cordial working relationship with Hill and said their 15-to-20 minute meeting ended with a hug.
Hill has told investigators that she believed Sondland was too inexperienced for his post as ambassador to the European Union, and therefore was a counterintelligence risk. — Lara Jakes
Sondland claimed to be oblivious to Giuliani’s real goals.
Sondland transcript, Page 70: “I became aware of his interest in Burisma sometime in the intervening period, but I never made the connection between Burisma and the Bidens until the very end. That is my testimony. I heard the word ‘Burisma,’ but I didn’t understand that Biden and Burisma were connected.”
In a tense exchange with House investigators during his interview, Sondland repeatedly insisted that he had no idea Giuliani’s real interest in pressing Ukraine for an investigation of Joe Biden and his family, including Burisma, the energy company that had put Hunter Biden on its board.
In the transcript of his interview, investigators appeared to grow increasingly incredulous as they presented Sondland with news media appearances and social media posts by Giuliani in which he described his intentions. At one point, the lawyer questioning Sondland asked, “You were completely oblivious to Rudy Giuliani’s interest in Burisma because it involved the Bidens?”
“I never made the connection between Burisma and the Bidens until the very end,” Sondland replied. “That is my testimony.”
— Michael D. Shear
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Updated Date: Nov 06, 2019 12:21:53 IST