Impeachment inquiry witnesses turn up heat on Donald Trump

This week’s public hearings shone an unflattering light on president’s Ukraine role

US envoy to the EU, Gordon Sondland, has told an impeachment inquiry that the White House conditioned a meeting with Ukraine's president on that nation opening up investigations into one of Donald Trump's political rivals.

 

Donald Trump’s troubles have deepened after the impeachment inquiry against the US president this week heard some of the most damning evidence yet that he directed a politically motivated pressure campaign against Ukraine – the key focus of the investigation launched by the Democrats in September.

On Wednesday morning, as America’s ambassador to the European Union strode into Room 1100 of the Longworth Building on Capitol Hill to face the House intelligence committee leading the inquiry, it became clear that he was not prepared to become the fall guy in the deepening scandal surrounding the Trump administration’s activities in Ukraine.

Unlike the previous witnesses, who were all career foreign service officials, Gordon Sondland was a private citizen and hotelier before he was tapped by Trump to become America’s man in Brussels, after donating $1 million to the Trump election campaign.

Sondland exuded an air of breezy confidence as he took his seat, shunning the demeanour of earnest objectivity that the previous witnesses embraced. As he read from his 23-page prepared testimony – the longest opening statement by far to date – it quickly became clear that he was prepared to incriminate Trump, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and others in the efforts to encourage Ukraine to open investigations into former vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, and into unproven allegations that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election.

“Everyone was in the loop,” he declared in one of the memorable soundbites that peppered his testimony.

“We followed the president’s orders,” was another.

As he set out the narrative surrounding the Trump administration’s policy in Ukraine, he testified that Trump had told him and others to follow the lead of Rudy Giuliani, the president’ personal lawyer, who was pressuring Ukraine to carry out the investigations. They agreed.

Sondland was a far from perfect witness – his testimony left many questions unanswered and he appeared less sure of himself as the day progressed. Most glaring was his admission that he had not kept notes during the period in question and his failure to remember key moments and conversations when probed.

Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union, during Wednesday’s impeachment hearing. Photograph: Samuel Corum/The New York Times
Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union, during Wednesday’s impeachment hearing. Photograph: Samuel Corum/The New York Times

On Thursday, former White House adviser Fiona Hill also described her frustration with Sondland’s activities in Ukraine. Nonetheless, the ambassador gifted Democrats their strongest testimony yet.

White House meeting

Crucially, Sondland argued that Trump had expressly conditioned a meeting at the White House with Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelenskiy on a public announcement by the Ukrainians that they were opening an investigation into the Bidens. Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma while he was vice-president.

A tweet by the president on Thursday morning suggested he is growing increasingly concerned about the impeachment inquiry, despite his displays of bravado

In a small comfort to Trump, Sondland said that he was never told by the president that nearly $400 million in promised military aid to Ukraine, which had been delayed, was also dependent on the investigations, though he said he gradually began to believe that was the case.

On Wednesday, the White House, Trump and Fox News seized on a key moment from the testimony in which Sondland recounted a phone call with Trump in which he asked the president what he wanted. Trump replied: “I want nothing . . . No quid pro quo.”

President Donald Trump speaking to the media about Gordon Sondland’s testimony on the White House lawn on Wednesday. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA
President Donald Trump speaking to the media about Gordon Sondland’s testimony on the White House lawn on Wednesday. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

But Democrats quickly pointed out that this conversation took place in September, after the whistleblower had lodged his complaint about the Trump-Zelenskiy July 25th phone call that is central to the impeachment inquiry – and at a time when Trump was well aware that his dealings with Ukraine were now under widespread scrutiny.

A tweet by the president on Thursday morning suggested he is growing increasingly concerned about the impeachment inquiry, despite his displays of bravado.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought my name would in any way be associated with the ugly word, Impeachment! The calls (Transcripts) were PERFECT, there was NOTHING said that was wrong. No pressure on Ukraine. Great corruption & dishonesty by Schiff on the other side!”

Fiona Hill

Thursday’s testimony by Fiona Hill served to switch the focus of the testimony to the bigger picture, as the former National Security Council Russia expert bluntly warned members of Congress against buying into the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, and not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US election.

That an official like Hill had to publicly remind the Republican Party – for so long a party with a healthy scepticism of Russia – that they were falling for conspiracy theories was an indication of how far the GOP has moved from its foreign policy roots.

Not only was that theory a “fictional narrative”, she said, it was a narrative “perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves”, noting that Vladimir Putin and Russia deploy “millions of dollars to weaponise our own political opposition research and false narratives”.

Her comments were a direct rebuke to Republicans such as Devin Nunes, who has suggested a link between Democrats and the Ukrainians in the run-up to the 2016 election, even if – as if in anticipation of Hill’s testimony – he qualified his stance slightly on Thursday by stating it was possible that both Russia and Ukraine had meddled in the election. 

Her comments could also be read as an astonishing reproach of the president himself. Several witnesses have testified that Trump believed the widely debunked theory of a link between Democrats and Ukrainians before the election, and also that a server linked to the DNC was stored in Ukraine – in clear breach of the findings of his own intelligence services. Trump suggested as much in his phone call with Zelenskiy on July 25th.

That an official like Hill had to publicly remind the Republican Party – for so long a party with a healthy scepticism of Russia – that they were falling for conspiracy theories was an indication of how far the GOP has moved from its foreign policy roots.

Democratic House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes, the senior Republican on the committee, during Thursday’s impeachment inquiry hearing. Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Pool via Reuters
Democratic House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes, the senior Republican on the committee, during Thursday’s impeachment inquiry hearing. Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Pool via Reuters

In further damaging testimony for the president, Hill also said she had come to realise that, in his dealings in Ukraine with Giuliani, Sondland had been involved “in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy and those two things had just diverged”.

Pompeo and Bolton

Both Hill and Sondland’s testimonies raised questions about other figures in the Trump administration. Sondland implicated Mike Pompeo, displaying emails he sent directly to the secretary of state.

Hill was probed in detail about incidents involving John Bolton, the former national security adviser who left the Trump administration in September. Even though Bolton is no longer a White House employee, he has so far refused to testify, claiming through his lawyer that he is waiting for the outcome a case taken by another official.

Charles Kupperman, a long-standing ally of Bolton, has asked a federal court to determine whether he must obey the White House order not to comply with subpoena requests from Congress, or follow Congress’s directions to testify. With the outcome of that case uncertain, House speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated this week that Democrats are not prepared to wait for court rulings, which would then likely be appealed.

As Congress breaks until December 3rd to mark the Thanksgiving holiday, all indications are that Democrats believe they have enough evidence to move forward with the impeachment process, without the input of figures like Bolton or White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

It is now expected that the process will move to the House judiciary committee after the Thanksgiving break. That committee is legally obliged to draw up articles of impeachment if it makes an assessment that the president should be impeached.

The House of Representatives would then hold a vote on whether to impeach Trump, most likely by the end of the year. Given the Democratic majority in the 435-member House, the president will very likely be impeached. However, the impeachment trial would then take place in the Senate, where Republicans are in the majority.

With the GOP showing no sign so far of breaking with the president, it is probable that Trump will not be convicted. There were reports this week too, that Senate Republicans discussed with White House officials the possibility of limiting an impeachment trial to two weeks. 

Whatever the next steps, the coming weeks in American politics will not lack drama.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.