White House official says he heard U.S. envoy push for investigation of Bidens
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An official on the White House's National Security Council said he heard the U.S. ambassador to the European Union press Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe Biden and his son, according to a transcript released on Friday by Democrats leading the impeachment probe of President Donald Trump.
Alexander Vindman, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and Ukraine expert on the NSC, said Ambassador Gordon Sondland made it clear in a July 10 meeting at the White House that the investigations of the Bidens and Ukrainian gas company Burisma would have to be opened for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to get an Oval Office meeting with Trump.
"He was calling for something, calling for an investigation that didn’t exist into the Bidens and Burisma," Vindman said. "My visceral reaction to what was being called for suggested that it was explicit. There was no ambiguity."
His comments could give Democrats further ammunition in their push to determine whether Trump misused U.S. foreign policy to pressure Ukraine into carrying out a corruption probe into Democrat Joe Biden, a potential rival in the 2020 presidential election. The inquiry enters a critical phase next week when House committees hold impeachment hearings in public.
Fiona Hill, the former senior director for European and Russian affairs on Trump's NSC, testified she heard Sondland bring up Burisma at the same July 10 meeting, according to a separate transcript of her testimony released on Friday.
Vindman's testimony, in particular, highlighted fresh discrepancies of what occurred as recounted by Sondland, who told investigators he did not remember taking part in any effort to investigate the Bidens.
Sondland, a Trump donor-turned-diplomat, acknowledged he encouraged Ukraine to investigate Burisma but said he did not know that Hunter Biden had served on the company's board.
Vindman also testified that Sondland told the July gathering he coordinated the request with acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who is Trump's top aide as well as the director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget.
Mulvaney was subpoenaed on Thursday night to testify but did not show up on Friday. His outside legal counsel informed investigators that his client had been directed by the White House not to comply with the subpoena and asserted "absolute immunity," a congressional aide said.
Mark Sandy, associate director for national security programs at OMB, also was called to testify and did not show up.
The White House previously has said it would not cooperate with the congressional investigation, which was triggered by a whistleblower complaint about a phone call on July 25 telephone between Trump and Zelenskiy.
Lawmakers wanted to question the two officials about their knowledge of OMB's decision last summer to block, without explanation to Congress, nearly $400 million in security aid for Ukraine that had been approved by lawmakers.
Trump's defenders say there is no evidence of him and the Ukrainian president engaging in a quid pro quo - or 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 Ukraine involvement in the 2016 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.
TRUMP NOT CONCERNED
Earlier on Friday, Trump said he was unconcerned about the impeachment inquiry and dismissed the release of transcripts of testimony by U.S. diplomats and others. He also criticized House Democrats for moving their inquiry into the public eye with open, televised hearings next week.
"They shouldn't be having public hearings; this is a hoax," Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing, told reporters.
Trump accused Democrats of looking for people who hated him to testify in the probe and said he was not familiar with most of the witnesses, who include a number of top U.S. State Department officials.
"I'm not concerned about anything. The testimony has all been fine. I mean, for the most part, I never even heard of these people. I have no idea who they are," he said.
The three House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry are wrapping up the closed-door phase of their investigation before open hearings start next Wednesday with testimony from two diplomats who have been interviewed behind closed doors: William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent.
Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was abruptly recalled by Trump in May, will testify on Nov. 15.
The public hearings are likely to be a prelude to articles of impeachment - formal charges - against Trump being brought to a vote in the House.
If the Democratic-controlled House votes to impeach Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate would then hold a trial on whether to remove him from office. Senate Republicans have so far shown little appetite for ousting the president.
The impeachment battle could crowd out other issues like the economy and immigration as voters turn their minds to the November 2020 election.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced that Representative Jim Jordan, a Republican and an aggressive Trump defender, had been assigned to the House Intelligence Committee.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Susan Cornwell, Makini Brice, Alexandra Alper and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Eric Beech and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Alistair Bell)
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