Mike Pence aide testifies that Trump’s Ukraine call was ‘inappropriate’

Jennifer Williams tells impeachment inquiry the July 25th phone call seemed ‘unusual’

Jennifer Williams, an aide to  US vice-president Mike Pence, arrives at the Capitol in Washington, DC, on November 7th for a closed-door deposition in the House impeachment inquiry. Photograph: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Jennifer Williams, an aide to US vice-president Mike Pence, arrives at the Capitol in Washington, DC, on November 7th for a closed-door deposition in the House impeachment inquiry. Photograph: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

 

The phone call between US president Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart at the centre of Congress’s impeachment investigation was “inappropriate”, an aide to vice-president Mike Pence told politicians, according to a transcript released over the weekend.

Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy aide to Mr Pence who was listening to the call on July 25th, testified to the impeachment inquiry that Mr Trump’s insistence that Ukraine carry out politically sensitive investigations “struck me as unusual and inappropriate”.

She said the discussion was “more political in nature” than phone calls with other foreign leaders, and included what she viewed as specific references to the president’s “personal political agenda”.

Mr Trump’s call is at the heart of the Democratic-led inquiry into whether the Republican president misused US foreign policy to undermine former vice-president Joe Biden, one of his potential opponents in the 2020 presidential election.

The House of Representatives on Saturday also released a transcript of an earlier closed-door deposition by Tim Morrison, a former White House aide with the National Security Council focusing on Europe and Russia policy, who was also on the call.

Morrison, who resigned a day before his deposition last month, and Williams both expressed concerns about Mr Trump’s remarks to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the call. Ms Williams and Mr Morrison are scheduled to testify publicly next week.

“I was not comfortable with any idea that president Zelenskiy should allow himself to be involved in our politics,” Mr Morrison told politicians. He also said he found Mr Zelenskiy’s tone in the call with Mr Trump to be “obsequious”.

Mr Morrison declined to say he thought the call was illegal or improper, stressing instead that he thought it would leak, thus damaging relations with Ukraine. He said he only learned later that aid to Ukraine was conditioned on the investigations.

In the first public hearing in the investigation last week, acting ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor pointed to Mr Trump’s keen interest in getting the eastern European ally to investigate Mr Biden and reiterated his understanding that $391 million (about €354 million) in US security aid was withheld from Kiev unless it co-operated.

Mr Morrison said he had reviewed Mr Taylor’s testimony and did not dispute it on any significant points.

Political appointees

House investigators on Saturday also heard closed-door testimony from a White House budget official about the hold-up of military aid to Ukraine. Mark Sandy, a career official of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), was the first person from the OMB to testify before the inquiry after three political appointees defied congressional subpoenas to appear.

Mr Sandy spoke about how unusual it was to have a political appointee come in and place a hold on military aid to Ukraine, CNN quoted a source familiar with the testimony as saying.

Democratic representative Jamie Raskin, a member of the judiciary and oversight committees, said Mr Sandy was brought in to shed light on whether military aid was held up for political reasons.

“This is a technical part of our investigation,” Mr Raskin told reporters outside the interview room.

“We want to know exactly how the president translated his political objective to shake down the Ukrainian government for the favours he wanted [into] the budget process.”

On Friday, Mr Trump used Twitter to criticise a former US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, while she was testifying to an impeachment hearing, an extraordinary moment that Democrats said amounted to witness intimidation.

Mr Trump defended his attack on Ms Yovanovitch, saying he had the right to free speech.

Ms Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, testified on the second day of televised impeachment hearings.

More consequential

While Ms Yovanovitch’s testimony dominated headlines on Friday, a closed-door deposition later in the day with David Holmes, a US embassy official in Kiev, could prove more consequential.

Mr Holmes told politicians he overheard a phone call between Mr Trump and Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, in which the president inquired about Ukraine’s willingness to carry out investigations of Mr Biden and his son.

The phone call occurred on July 26th, one day after the now-infamous phone conversation between Mr Trump and Mr Zelenskiy.

“So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Mr Trump asked Mr Sondland, referring to Mr Zelenskiy, according to Mr Holmes’s testimony.

“He’s gonna do it,” replied Mr Sondland, adding that the Ukrainian president would do “anything you ask him to”, according to Mr Holmes.

The testimony by Mr Holmes, an aide to Mr Taylor, ties Mr Trump more directly to a pressure campaign in Ukraine to investigate the Bidens led by Mr Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Mr Holmes’s statement appears to contradict Mr Sondland’s previous sworn testimony about his interactions with Mr Trump, in which he did not mention his July 26th phone call with the president.

Mr Sondland, who has already revised his testimony once, is scheduled to testify publicly on Wednesday.

Mr Morrison said he understood that Mr Sondland and Mr Trump had spoken “half a dozen times” between mid-July and mid-September, adding that he, National Security Adviser John Bolton and other officials viewed Mr Sondland’s involvement as “a problem”. – Reuters