By Miriam Raftery
Photo, left: President Donald Trump with Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who donated a million dollars to Trump's campaign but provided damning testimony implicating Trump and top officials in illegal activities.
November 22, 2019 (Washington D.C.) – The second week of impeachment hearings before the House Intelligence Committee brought drama and surprises. Below are highlights of key witness testimony and summation statements from the Committee's top Democrat and Republican Senators.
Ambassador Sondland: “Was there a quid pro quo?...The answer is yes…Everyone was in the loop.”
Video excerpt of Sondland’s testimony on C-Span: https://cs.pn/2Odalb0
Perhaps the most startling testimony came from Ambassador Gordon Sondland, a Republican who donated over a million dollars to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign before being appointed Ambassador to the European Union. He stated flatly, “Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.” Sondland further states, "Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret. Everyone was informed via email on July 19th, days before the presidential call."
That loop included Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff, according to Sondland.
Unlike prior witnesses whom Republican committee members attacked for “hearsay” evidence, Sondland had direct knowledge of the key facts and could not be disparaged for any partisan motive. His testimony directly contradicts the repeated claim by President Trump that there was “no quid pro quo” (a favor granted in exchange for something in return). According to Sondland and several prior witnesses, Trump wanted Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, a key Trump rival in the 2020 election. Hunter Biden worked for a Ukrainian company and was paid $50,000 a month while Biden was Vice President, though Ukraine’s prosecutor has previously found no corruption involving Biden.
Damning if true, Sondland shot down Trump’s contention that he was seeking a broader investigation into corruption in the Ukraine, not merely an investigation into his political rival’s son. Sondland told legislators that as regards to investigating Biden, Trump required as a condition to getting the military aid promised to the Ukraine by Congress that Zelensky “announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.” In other words, Zelensky merely had to smear Biden by announcing an investigation – not actually conduct any investigation of Biden, let alone a deeper probe into corruption involving anyone else.
Trump withheld military aid promised to Ukraine to fight Russian military aggression, an action that put lives at stake in the Ukraine, an action that surprised and troubled senior diplomats. If done for personal or political gain, that would violate U.S. campaign finance laws and could potentially be construed as bribery, one of two “high crimes” specifically mentioned in the Constitution as impeachable offenses.
Equally startling, Sondland also said he told Vice President Pence of his concern that Ukraine military aide appeared conditioned on political investigations, just before Pence met with Zelensky. Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short later denied that the conversation occurred, in comments to the Washington Post not made under oath.
Three officials who heard the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky testify
Lawmakers heard from three officials Tuesday who listened in on the call. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert, said he was shocked by how the call played out. Jennifer Williams, an aide in Vice President Mike Pence’s office, told the impeachment panel that she found the call “unusual and inappropriate.” Tim Morrison, then director of Europe and Eurasia on the National Security Council, was more measured, calling concern over Trump pushing for a political favor “hypothetical.”
Volker revises his testimony
Kurt Volker, former U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine, acknowledged that Sondland did raise the issue of “ “investigations” during a meeting at the White House between U.S. and Ukrainian officials. Volker had previously denied that the issue had come up but indicated his memory was refreshed by notes taken by other present, the accuracy of which he did not dispute. Volker also said he was unaware before the July 25 call that Biden’s son worked at Burisma, and that if he had realized that talk of Burisma meant investigating Biden, he would have objected.
Ukrainian officials knew military aid was frozen before Zelensky-Trump call
Laura Cooper, the top Pentagon expert on Russia and Ukraine, testified Wednesday that Ukrainian officials asked the Defense Department on July 25 about the status of the frozen military aid, the same day Trump and Zelensky spoke by phone. Both Trump and Zelensky have claimed nothing inappropriate occurred. However Cooper’s statement casts doubt on Republican claims that the Ukraine’s leader was unaware of the military freeze, since his key officials were aware. Some House Republicans questioning has suggested that even if Trump did push for a Biden investigation by withholding military aide, it would not amount to extortion if Zelensky was unaware of the freeze. Attempted extortion is, however, also a crime.
Fiona Hill, lead Trump advisor on Russia: Ukraine election meddling “fiction”
Fiona Hill, former director of Europe and Eurasia for the National Security Council who left the post last summer voluntarily, delivered a strong rebuttal of a discredited conspiracy theory about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election, the other issue that Trump asked Zelensky to pursue.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” Hill testified in her opening statements on Thursday.
View highlights of Hill and Holmes testimony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBEPVcqUd3c
David Holmes, U.S. Ukrainian diplomat
David Holmes, U.S. diplomat in Kyiv, testified about Sondland’s conversation with Trump on July 26, the day after Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Holmes said he overheard Trump and Sondland talking about investigations.
“While Ambassador Sondland’s phone was not on speakerphone, I could hear the president’s voice through the earpiece of the phone,” Holmes said. “The president’s voice was very loud and recognizable, and Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume.” Holmes said Sondland later told him that Trump didn’t care about Ukraine, but only about the investigations he was seeking.
Trump later tweeted in an effort to discredit Holmes’ assertion. ““I have been watching people making phone calls my entire life. My hearing is, and has been, great,” Trump stated. “Never have I been watching a person making a call, which was not on speakerphone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation. I’ve even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!”
Republicans shift strategy, accuse Democrats of plotting impeachment for past two years
Video of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California) closing statement: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4832793/devin-nunes-closing-statement-hill-holmes-hearing
The White House has prohibited some key insiders who might have provided eyewitness accounts from testifying, though National Security Advisor John Bolton has asked a court to determine whether he must follow that presidential order or not.
Absent any eyewitnesses who might refute the growing evidence provided by witnesses to date suggesting presidential abuse of power, including prominent Republican loyalists, Republican House members focused largely on attacking Democrats’ motives.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California) accused Democrats of waging a campaign of accusing Trump of being a “Russian agent”, leaking the Steele dossier, engaging in “dirty tricks” and plotting impeachment on various grounds from early in Trump’s term, before the Zelensky call.
Nunes denounced a “tyranny of the majority” referring to House Democrats.
Democratic Committee Chair faults Republicans who “cower” and “smear” witnesses
Video of Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) closing statement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4ssrr2OsQ0
House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff criticized Republican colleagues who “cower” rather than question the President’s actions benefitting Russia including a “debacle in Helsinki when the President stood alongside Vladimir Putin and questioned his own intelligence agencies” He faulted Republicans for “silence” back then then. “They will show indignation today, but they will cower when they hear the President questioning the very conclusions that our intelligence agencies have reached.”
He also faulted the Trump administration and GOP committee membres for trying to “smear” reputations of Lt.. Col. Vindman, a Purple Heart veteran and of nonpartisan career diplomats. “They don’t question the facts,” he indicated, noting that Ukraine is at war with Russia, while Trump reportedly cared only about investigating the Bidens.
“What do we care about?” Schiff asked. He likened the situation to Watergate, but characterized Trump’s “withholding aid from an ally at war” as “worse than anything that Nixon did.” By seeking foreign intervention in a U.S. election a second time, Schiff said Trump considers himself above the law.
He concluded, “What is our duty here? That’s what we need to be asking.”