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Sondland testimony may prove a turning point in Trump impeachment probe

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, U.S. Ambassador to the Belgium Ronald Gidwitz and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland listen on as President Donald J. Trump addresses Tri- Mission Brussels during a meet-and-greet in Brussels, Belgium on July 11, 2018. (U.S. State Department)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a key figure in President Donald Trump’s alleged effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival, is set to testify in the ongoing impeachment inquiry in Washington.

Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and major Trump donor, will appear at the inquiry on November 20 to answer questions about what Trump told him directly with regard to Ukraine and whether aid to the country was linked to an investigation of Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son.

Given his close relationship to Trump, which the president has denied, Sondland’s appearance at the hearing could be a turning point as the historic impeachment inquiry moves closer to Trump.

Sondland will face tough questions given his proximity to Trump and the fact that his accounts of the White House’s dealings with Kyiv have changed over recent weeks.

Last week, State Department official David Holmes revealed to impeachment investigators a previously unknown phone call between Trump and Sondland that Holmes said touched upon an investigation of Biden.

Trump has recently tried to suggest that he barely knows his hand-picked ambassador, but Sondland has said he has spoken several times with the president and was acting on his direction.

Members of the Democrat-led House of Representatives are probing whether Trump abused the power of his office and whether he tried to elicit help from a foreign government to investigate Biden, a potential electoral opponent.

Volker ‘Refreshes’ Account

At the heart of the inquiry is a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during which Kyiv was asked to investigate the Democrats regarding the 2016 presidential election, along with former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Trump has repeatedly said he did nothing wrong and variously described the impeachment inquiry as a “hoax” and “witch-hunt,” and described the congressional hearings as “a kangaroo court.”

During the public hearing on November 19, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker appeared to alter certain portions of previous testimony he has given.

In particular, he said that only recently did he realize that the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma was linked to Hunter Biden, whom Trump had prodded Zelenskiy into investigating, in addition to his father.

Volker drew a distinction between an investigation into the Burisma Group, which he said would be “appropriate and unremarkable,” and into the Bidens, which he said would be “unacceptable.”

He furthermore said it was a “conspiracy theory” that Biden was corrupt in his dealings with Ukraine while serving as vice president. “I have known Vice President Biden for 24 years. He is an honorable man and I hold him in high regard,” Volker said.

His testimony was in reference to a July 19 meeting with Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, when they discussed Joe Biden’s role as vice president when his son had been a hired board member of Burisma.

When asked about the nearly $400 million in military aid that Trump had withheld from Ukraine leading up to the July 25 call with Zelenskiy, Volker said he opposed any hold on security assistance.

And he said, “I did not understand that others believed that any investigation of the Ukrainian company, Burisma, which had a history of accusations of corruption, was tantamount to investigating Vice President Biden. I drew a distinction between the two.”

Later in his testimony, Volker said that thanks to hindsight and the testimony of other witnesses, that Trump was using the aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden and his role on the company’s board.

Volker also “refreshed” his account of a July 10 meeting at the White House attended by a handful of Ukrainian and U.S. officials. During the discussions, former national-security adviser John Bolton reportedly adjourned the meeting prematurely when U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland made “a generic comment about investigations,” which “all of us thought was inappropriate.”

Volker mentioned advising Zelenskiy’s top officials and aides against investigating former President Petro Poroshenko, who lost his reelection bid earlier in the year to the political novice.

“What, you mean like asking us to investigate [former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary] Clinton and Biden?” quipped Andriy Yermak, a top Zelenskiy aide.

Hiding Transcript

In his testimony, Morrison said there was nothing “concerning” that anything illegal was discussed in the Trump-Zelenskiy call. However, he said he sought to restrict access to the transcript of the phone call over concerns of “how its disclosure would play in Washington’s political climate.”

“My fears have been realized,” Morrison then said.

The transcript, though, was mistakenly placed in a highly secure location, he said. The public learned of the transcript’s lockdown from a government whistle-blower’s complaint of the July 25 call.

Morrison testified in a previous closed-door testimony that he witnessed a September conversation between Sondland and a Ukrainian official in Warsaw during which it was said that military aid might be freed if the country’s prosecutor-general “would go to the mike [microphone] and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation.”

When Representative Devin Nunes (Republican-California) asked both witnesses if they had ever been asked to “bribe or extort anyone” in their roles in the administration, both Volker and Morrison responded in the negative.

Morrison said he twice reported to White House lawyers regarding his interactions with Sondland related to getting the aid to Ukraine unfrozen: “I was concerned about what Ambassador Sondland was saying were requirements, yes.”