Closest witnesses kicking off big Trump impeachment week
WASHINGTON (AP) — Nine witnesses. Five hearings. Three days.
The Trump impeachment inquiry is charging into a crucial week as Americans hear from some of the most important witnesses closest to the White House in back-to-back-to-back live sessions.
Among them, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the wealthy donor whose routine boasting about his proximity to Donald Trump is now bringing the investigation to the president’s doorstep.
The witnesses all are testifying under penalty of perjury, and Sondland already has had to amend his earlier account amid contradicting testimony from other current and former U.S. officials. White House insiders, including an Army officer and National Security Council aide, will launch the week’s hearings Tuesday.
It’s a pivotal time as the House’s historic inquiry accelerates and deepens. Democrats say Trump demanded that Ukraine investigate his Democratic rivals in return for U.S. military aid it needed to resist Russian aggression and that may be grounds for removing the 45th president. Trump says he did no such thing and the Democrats are just out to get him any way they can.
On Monday, Trump said he was considering an invitation from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to provide his own account to the House, possibly by submitting written testimony. That would be an unprecedented moment in this constitutional showdown between the two branches of U.S. government.
Trump tweeted: “Even though I did nothing wrong, and don’t like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!”
A ninth witness, David Holmes, a State Department official who overheard Trump talking about the investigations on a phone call with Sondland while the ambassador was at a restaurant in Kyiv, was a late addition Monday. He is scheduled to close out the week Thursday.
Tuesday’s sessions at the House Intelligence Committee will start with Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer at the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, his counterpart at Vice President Mike Pence’s office.
Both are foreign policy experts who listened with concern as Trump spoke on July 25 with the newly elected Ukraine president. A government whistleblower’s complaint about that call led the House to launch the impeachment investigation.
Vindman and Williams say they were uneasy as Trump talked to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy about investigations of potential 2020 political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Vindman reported the call to NSC lawyers. Williams found it “unusual” and inserted the White House’s readout of it in Pence’s briefing book.
“I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen,” said Vindman, a wounded Iraq War veteran. He said there was “no doubt” what Trump wanted.
Pence’s role remains unclear. “I just don’t know if he read it,” Williams testified in a closed-door House interview.
Vindman also lodged concerns about Sondland. He relayed details from an explosive July 10 meeting at the White House when the ambassador pushed visiting Ukraine officials for the investigations Trump wanted.
“He was talking about the 2016 elections and an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma,” Vindman testified, referring to the gas company in Ukraine where Hunter Biden served on the board.
Burisma is what Tim Morrison, a former official at the National Security Council, who will testify later Tuesday referred to as a “bucket of issues” -- the Bidens, Democrats, investigations -- he had tried to “stay away” from.
Along with former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, their accounts further complicate Sondland’s testimony and characterize Trump as more central to the action.
Sondland met with a Zelenskiy aide on the sidelines of a Sept. 1 gathering in Warsaw, and Morrison, who was watching the encounter from across the room, testified that the ambassador told him moments later he pushed the Ukrainian for the Burisma investigation as a way for Ukraine to gain access to the military funds.
Volker provided investigators with a package of text messages with Sondland and another diplomat, William Taylor, the charge d’affaires in Ukraine, who grew alarmed at the linkage of the investigations to the aid.
Taylor, who testified publicly last week, called that “crazy.”
Republicans are certain to mount a more aggressive attack on all the witnesses as the inquiry reaches closer into the White House and they try to protect Trump.
The president wants to see a robust defense by his GOP allies on Capitol Hill, but so far they have offered a changing strategy as the fast-moving probe spills into public view.
Republicans first complained the witnesses were offering only hearsay, without firsthand knowledge of Trump’s actions. But as more witnesses come forward bringing testimony closer to Trump, they now say the president is innocent because the military money was eventually released.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, during an appearance Monday in Louisville, Kentucky, acknowledged the House will likely vote to impeach the president.
But the GOP leader said he “can’t imagine” a scenario where there is enough support in the Senate -- a supermajority 67 votes -- to remove Trump from office.
McConnell said House Democrats “are seized with ‘Trump derangement syndrome,’” a catch-phrase used by the president’s supporters. He said the inquiry seems “particularly ridiculous since we’re going into the presidential election and the American people will have an opportunity in the very near future to decide who they want the next president to be.”
GOP senators are increasingly being drawn into the inquiry
House Republicans asked to hear from Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who has firsthand knowledge of some of the meetings. GOP Sen. Rob Portman disputed an account from Morrison that he attended a Sept. 11 White House meeting urging Trump to release the Ukraine military aid. Portman’s office said the senator phoned in to the session.
Pelosi said the president could speak for himself.
“If he has information that is exculpatory, that means ex, taking away, culpable, blame, then we look forward to seeing it,” she said in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS. Trump “could come right before the committee and talk, speak all the truth that he wants if he wants,” she said.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Trump “should come to the committee and testify under oath. And he should allow all those around him to come to the committee and testify under oath.” He said the White House’s insistence on blocking witnesses from cooperating raises the question: “What is he hiding?”
The White House has instructed officials not to appear, and most have received congressional subpoenas to compel their testimony.
Those appearing in public have already giving closed-door interviews to investigators, and transcripts from those depositions have largely been released.
Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, is to appear Wednesday.
The wealthy hotelier, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, is the only person interviewed to date who had direct conversations with the president about the Ukraine situation.
Morrison said Sondland and Trump had spoken about five times between July 15 and Sept. 11 — the weeks that $391 million in U.S. assistance was withheld from Ukraine before it was released.
Trump has said he barely knew Sondland.
Besides Sondland, the committee will hear on Wednesday from Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, and David Hale, a State Department official. On Thursday, Fiona Hill, a former top NSC staff member for Europe and Russia, will appear.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Hope Yen in Washington and Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed.