Impeachment: What five witnesses told House panel last week about Trump-Ukraine

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Ambassador Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, center, appears before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.

As the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump continues, five witnesses testified last week before the House Intelligence Committee. 

The witnesses come from different backgrounds and held different positions in government. But their testimony pieces together different moments in a months-long effort by the Trump administration, specifically the president and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden — a leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidate — in exchange for a White House meeting and phone call. 

A few important facts to note:

• Burisma is an energy company in Ukraine. Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, served on the company's board of directors from 2014 until this year. Many of the witnesses who have testified in the impeachment inquiry agree there was a perception of a conflict of interest when Hunter Biden served on Burisma's board. But Ukrainian officials and others agree that there is no evidence that Hunter Biden was engaged in any illegal activity during his time as a board member. 

• There are references by witnesses to investigations of 2016 election interference. Despite the Intelligence Community's findings that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and engaged in election interference, Trump and others are pushing a far-right conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that engaged in these illicit activities. Just last week, Trump falsely claimed that Crowdstrike, the U.S.-based cybersecurity firm that helped in the DNC hacking investigation, is a Ukrainian company. 

• It's true, as Republicans assert, that the aid to Ukraine was released. This was done in September — after news outlets reported on the U.S. suspending aid to Ukraine. But that assertion is the sort of skip-to-the-ending approach that overlooks months of activity even Gordon Sondland, Trump's choice to serve as U.S. ambassador to the European Union, acknowledged in his opening statement and subsequent testimony. In Sondland's view, the demand for Ukraine to initiate investigations into the Bidens, Burisma and 2016 election meddling in exchange for a Trump-Zelenskyy meeting at the White House amounted to a quid pro quo. 

Gordon Sondland

Title: U.S. Ambassador to the European Union (he was nominated by Trump in March 2018 and confirmed by the Senate in June 2018)

Highlights from his testimony: Sondland said he joined Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Ambassador Kurt Volker — the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations until September — to work on Ukraine matters with Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney. Sondland told the committee that he, Perry and Volker didn't want to work with Giuliani and he did not believe, at the time, that Giuliani's role was improper. But he also wasn't aware Giuliani was working with individuals who have since been charged in federal court. 

Sondland told the committee that Giuliani's requests "were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelenskyy." Giuliani, Sondland said, demanded Ukraine announce investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma. "Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States," Sondland said, "and we knew these investigations were important to the president." 

Sondland learned that aid to Ukraine was suspended in July or August and he opposed the suspension of the aid because "Ukrainians needed those funds to fight against Russian aggression." He wasn't told why the aid was suspended, but later believed that the aid wouldn't resume until Ukraine made a public statement about the investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election. He said he shared his concerns about the potential quid pro quo with his Ukrainian counterparts and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican. 

On May 23, Sondland briefed Trump and asked for a phone call between the president and Zelenskyy. But Trump was skeptical, Sondland recalled. Trump told him that the Ukrainian government wasn't serious about reform. "He even mentioned that Ukraine tried to take him down in the last election," Sondland said. That's a reference to the conspiracy theory circulated by those on the far-right that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016. Sondland and others attempted to change Trump's view, but he insisted they "talk with Rudy," Sondland said. Sondland said they opted to talk to Giuliani because "it was the only constructive path open to us" to possibly schedule a White House meeting between Trump and Zelenskyy. 

Sondland said he first spoke to Giuliani in early August. Giuliani told him that Trump wanted a statement from Zelenskyy pledging that Ukraine would investigate corruption, specifically the 2016 election and the Bidens/Burisma. 

Sondland was present for the July 10 White House meeting between John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser at the time, and Ukrainian national security officials. He remembers mentioning "the pre-requisite of investigations before any White House call or meeting" between Trump and Zelenskyy. 

Sondland learned Giuliani was communicating with Ukrainians, including Lutsenko, without their knowledge. He wasn't on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskyy, and considers it "very odd" that he didn't receive a read-out of the call that contained the references to Biden. 

On July 26, Sondland, Volker and Ambassador Bill Taylor met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv. On that same day, Sondland had a phone conversation with Trump. He said he knew the topic of investigations was important to Trump because of Giuliani's demands. 

Main takeaway: From Sondland's opening statement: "I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a 'quid pro quo'? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes." He reiterated that Giuliani told Perry, Volker and others what Trump wanted: A statement from Zelenskyy regarding the opening of investigations into Burisma and the 2016 election. Sondland remembers telling Zelenskyy that "assurances to run a fully transparent investigation and turn over every stone were necessary in his call with President Trump." After learning of the hold on security aid, Sondland believed it was due to the lack of a statement from the Ukrainians about the investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election.

Jennifer Williams

Title: Special advisor for Europe and Russia to Vice President Mike Pence

Highlights from her testimony: She learned on July 3 that the Office of Management and Budget, which is led by White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, placed a hold on security assistance for Ukraine. She testified that the hold was placed so OMB could review whether the assistance "aligned with the administration's policies." At meetings, this hold on security aid for Ukraine was discussed and representatives from the defense and state departments advocated for the hold to be lifted. But Williams said OMB officials told them Mulvaney "directed that the hold should remain in place." She was present for Vice President Pence's meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy when Zelenskyy mentioned news articles about the hold on security assistance to Ukraine. Pence, Williams recalled, said he would relay their conversation to Trump. She learned on Sept. 11 the hold was lifted, but doesn't know what led to that decision. 

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Main takeaway: She was on the July 25 call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. She testified that she found the call to be "unusual" because it involved the discussion of "what appeared to be a domestic political matter." 

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman

Title: Director for European Affairs, National Security Council

Highlights from his testimony: Vindman learned in spring 2019 that "disruptive actors," including former Ukraine Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko and Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney, were "promoting false information that undermined the United States' Ukraine policy." Vindman testified that the National Security Council, State Department and others were concerned about how the false information would affect the United States' ability to "achieve our national security objectives." Vindman was one of the aides who listened on Trump's first call with Zelenskyy in April 2019 shortly after Zelenskyy was elected president of Ukraine. Vindman also attended Zelenskyy's inauguration in Ukraine. 

Main takeaway: Vindman was present for two significant events relevant to the impeachment probe: A July 10 meeting with Oleksandr Danylyuk, Ukraine's national security adviser; and the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskyy. The July 10 meeting featured Danylyuk and John Bolton, who was Trump's national security adviser at the time. Vindman testified that Bolton ended the meeting when Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, "started to speak about the requirement that Ukraine deliver specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with President Trump." Vindman also testified that after the meeting, there was a continued conversation during which Sondland highlighted the importance of Ukraine commencing the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma. Vindman recalled telling Sondland the request was "inappropriate and had nothing to do with national security." Vindman reported the incident to John Eisenberg, lead counsel of the National Security Council.

Vindman was in the White House Situation Room to listen to the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskyy. He testified that he was "concerned by the call" because what he heard was "improper." He reported his concerns to Eisenberg. 

"It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent," Vindman said. He added that if Ukraine launched investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma, "it would be interpreted as a partisan play" and would cause Ukraine to lose the bipartisan support it has in Congress. He also noted the investigations would undermine U.S. national security and "advance Russias strategic objectives in the region." Vindman said he reported his concerns about Sondland's statements and the July 25 call "out of a sense of duty." 

Dr. Fiona Hill

Title: Former senior director for Europe and Russia, National Security Council (she left that post one week before the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskyy)

Highlights from her testimony: Because she left a week before the call, she learned of its contents from reading the memo released by the White House. She testified that she was "shocked and saddened" by the call because of the issues raised during the conversation. She said she, along with Bolton, opposed having a call "unless it was very well prepared and that we were confident that the issues that Ukraine and the United States were most generally together interested in were going to be raised, and I saw in this call that this was not the case." 

During her final months with the National Security Council, Hill said it became clear that the proposed White House meeting between Trump and Zelenskyy was "being predicated on other issues, namely investigations and the questions about the election interference in 2016." 

Main takeaway: Hill was at the July 10 White House meeting with Bolton and his Ukrainian counterparts. The topic of the White House meeting was mentioned by a Ukrainian official. Bolton tried to change the subject, but Sondland intervened. Hill testified that Sondland told the Ukrainians that "we have an agreement that there will be a meeting, and the specific investigations are put underway." Hill noticed a change in Bolton's posture — "unmistakable body language," she described it. Sondland later said he had an agreement with Mulvaney that the meeting between Trump and Zelensky at the White House would get scheduled in return for the Ukrainians opening investigations. When asked about the specific investigations Sondland was referring to in the meeting, Hill responded: "He said the investigations in Burisma." Bolton told her to go to Eisenberg, the senior counsel for the National Security Council. "You tell Eisenberg, Ambassador Bolton told me, that I am not part of whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up," Hill recalled Bolton saying.

David Holmes

Title: Political counselor, U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine

Highlights from his testimony: Holmes said he noticed a change at the embassy in March 2019 because their priorities were being overshadowed by "a political agenda being promoted by (Giuliani) and a cadre of officials operating with a direct channel to the White House." 

The White House visit was important for Zelenskyy, Holmes explained, because he "needed to show U.S. at the highest levels in order to demonstrate to Russian President Putin that he had U.S. backing, as well as to advance his ambitious anti-corruption reforms at home." 

Holmes shared that the embassy worked on matters they felt would help convince Trump to schedule the White House meeting with Zelenskyy. Sondland informed Taylor, who shared the details of the call with Holmes, that Zelenskyy "needed to make clear to Trump that Zelenskyy was not standing in the way of investigations." Holmes believed this was a reference to investigations into the Bidens, Burisma and the 2016 election. 

On July 18, Holmes learned of the hold on aid to Ukraine. An Office of Management and Budget official informed them on a video conference call that the order came from the president and was relayed to the office by Mulvaney. A week later, Trump and Zelensky spoke. The embassy didn't receive a readout of the call, Holmes said. He noted this was "contrary to standard procedure." After reading the memo summarizing the call, he was "deeply disappointed to see that the president raised none of what I understood to be our inter-agency agreed-upon foreign policy priorities in Ukraine and instead raised the Biden/Burisma investigation and referred to the theory about Crowdstrike, and it's supposed connection to Ukraine and the 2016 election." 

Main takeaway: Holmes overheard the call between Sondland and Trump after the U.S. delegation's meeting with Zelenskyy. Holmes could clearly hear Trump, who was speaking loudly to Sondland, and he heard Trump ask Sondland, "So he's gonna do the investigation?" Sondland told Trump, "He's gonna do it." 

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