WASHINGTON - A high-ranking U.S. State Department official is testifying Wednesday before the impeachment inquiry targeting President Donald Trump, possibly shedding light on the ouster of the country's ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.
A career diplomat, Yovanovitch, was viewed by some Trump aides as an impediment to getting Kyiv to open investigations to help Trump politically. She was abruptly recalled from Kyiv earlier this year and dismissed from her posting months ahead of the scheduled end of her tour.
Trump, in a late July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, described her as "bad news," but State Department officials had told her that she had not done anything wrong and, before her dismissal, had requested she extend her tour into 2020.
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Trump's personal lawyer overseeing U.S. relations with Ukraine, had pressed for Yovanovitch's ouster and for Ukraine to investigate one of Trump's top 2020 Democratic challengers, former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden's work for a Ukrainian natural gas company, and any Ukraine links to the 2016 presidential U.S. election that Trump won.
Former Ambassador Says she was Warned to 'Watch my Back' Testimony from Yovanovitch, released on Monday, offered a first word-for-word look at the closed-door House impeachment hearings
David Hale, the third-ranking State Department official, arrived at the Capitol for closed-door questioning, with the Associated Press reporting that he was expected to tell impeachment investigators that political considerations were behind the refusal of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to issue a robust defense of Yovanovitch. Other Pompeo aides, including his former senior aide, Michael McKinley, have told impeachment investigators that they urged him to defend Yovanovitch, to no avail.
Hale is set to tell investigators that Pompeo decided that to defend Yovanovitch would hinder the release of $391 million in U.S. military aid that Kyiv wanted. Trump temporarily held up the assistance as he asked Zelenskiy for "a favor," the investigations of the Bidens and whether Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election, not Russia, as the U.S. intelligence community concluded.
While Hale testifies, three other Trump administration officials - Energy Secretary Rick Perry, acting White House budget chief Russell Vought and another State Department aide, Ulrich Brechtbuhl - plan to defy congressional demands that they testify Wednesday before the impeachment inquiry led by the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees in the House of Representatives.
Trump has been somewhat successful in getting key officials to defy subpoenas and not testify in the rapidly expanding impeachment inquiry. But several national security and diplomatic officials, including some still on the government payroll, have told the Democratic-controlled impeachment panels that Trump was at the center of efforts pressing for the Ukraine investigations to help him politically.
It is against U.S. campaign finance laws to ask a foreign government for help in an American election.
Trump's demands of Ukraine are at the center of the House impeachment inquiry, whether he violated U.S. national security in trying to help himself. Lawmakers already have heard weeks of closed-door testimony about Trump's relations with the eastern European country in advance of public hearings that could start later this month.
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The Democratic-controlled House could in the coming weeks cast a simple-majority vote to impeach Trump, a Republican, leading to a trial in the Republican-majority Senate. His conviction in the Senate by a two-thirds vote would oust him from office, but his removal remains unlikely since the votes of at least 20 Republicans would be needed for a conviction.
Senate Majority Mitch McConnell is predicting that Trump will be acquitted.
The leaders of the impeachment inquiry are expected on Wednesday to release more transcripts of testimony they heard in recent weeks.
In revised testimony released Tuesday, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a major donor to Trump's 2017 inauguration celebration, said that he warned an aide to Zelenskiy at a Sept. 1 meeting in Warsaw that the military aid to Ukraine would not be released unless Kyiv publicly stated it would launch investigations to help Trump politically.
Trump has for weeks denied there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine - military assistance in exchange for political investigations - but Sondland's testimony about his conversation with Zelenskiy aide Andriy Yermak in the Polish capital was sharply at odds with Trump's contention. Nonetheless, after withholding the military assistance for weeks,Trump released it, which Kyiv wanted to help fight pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and described his call with Zelenskiy as "perfect." Republican lawmakers defending Trump say the fact that the military aid was released to Ukraine proves there was no reciprocal agreement with Ukraine.
US Envoy: Ukraine Aid Would Not Be Released Without Investigations to Help Trump Gordon Sondland, in testimony to impeachment panels, described a quid pro quo deal that US leader has denied
A transcript of Sondland's closed-door testimony was released along with that of another key U.S. diplomat, Kurt Volker, a former U.S. envoy to Kyiv.
In testimony already revealed at the time he appeared before the impeachment investigators, Sondland said that Trump had delegated U.S. foreign policy oversight on Ukraine to Giuliani, an edict with which he disagreed but nonetheless complied.
Sondland said officials were "disappointed by the president's direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani. Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the president's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine."
Volker also depicted Giuliani as the major force to get Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens.
Volker said he was "never asked to do anything" he thought was wrong, including by Trump, but said he feared the U.S. relationship with Ukraine was "getting sucked into a domestic political debate."
In releasing the Sondland and Volker transcripts, the leaders of the impeachment committees said that as early as last May, Trump directed U.S. diplomats to work with Giuliani on Ukraine policy and get Zelenskiy to publicly state that the Bidens were being investigated.
"It is clear from their testimony that, in exchange for the statement, President Trump would award the Ukrainian president with a highly coveted White House meeting and, later, with millions of dollars in critical military aid being withheld," said the impeachment leaders, Congressmen Adam Schiff and Eliot Engel and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.
The Sondland and Volker accounts came after the release Monday of testimony from Yovanovitch and McKinley. They both told investigators they did not feel supported by the State Department in their dealings with Ukraine or in their relations with Trump and his aides..
McKinley quit last month, telling the impeachment investigators he left the State Department for two reasons: "The failure, in my view, of the State Department to offer support to Foreign Service employees caught up in the impeachment inquiry, and second, by what appears to be the utilization of our ambassadors overseas to advance domestic political objectives."