U.S. lawmakers conducting an impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump are set for a busy second week of hearings with key witnesses set to testify about how Trump pushed Ukraine to investigate one of his chief 2020 Democratic challengers, former Vice President Joe Biden, while temporarily withholding military aid Kyiv wanted.
Eight more current and former government officials will appear before the House Intelligence Committee for nationally televised sessions, with a central figure, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, scheduled to appear Wednesday.
In amended behind-closed-doors testimony, Sondland, a million-dollar Trump political donor before being tapped by Trump for the EU posting in Brussels, said that he had warned an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in early September that it would not get the U.S. military assistance it wanted unless the Kyiv leader publicly committed to opening the investigation of Biden.
It was a reciprocal, quid pro quo deal that Trump has denied occurred but is central to the efforts of Democratic lawmakers to impeach the country's 45th president. Trump has denied any wrongdoing and ridiculed the impeachment effort as a sham proceeding. Trump eventually released the $391 million in military aid on Sept. 11 without Ukraine launching a Biden investigation.
Other figures linked to the impeachment inquiry have corroborated Sondland's testimony. In a transcript of private testimony released Saturday, Tim Morrison, a White House national security aide, said late last month that Sondland had spoken with Trump about a half dozen times in recent months and had talked with a top Ukraine official about winning release of the military assistance Kyiv wanted to help fight pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country in exchange for investigations that benefited Trump politically.
“His mandate from the president was to go make deals,” Morrison said of Sondland.
Morrison is set to testify publicly before the impeachment panel on Tuesday, alongside Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine who, as others have, testified that Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer named by him to oversee Ukraine affairs, was the driving force to get Kyiv to open the politically tinged investigation to help the U.S. leader.
Late last week, David Holmes, an aide to William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv, told impeachment investigations in private testimony that he overheard a July 26 cell phone conversation between Trump and Sondland at a Kyiv restaurant in which the president inquired whether Zelenskiy was going to pursue the investigations of Biden, his son Hunter Biden's work for a Ukrainian natural gas company and a debunked theory that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election that Trump won. The U.S. intelligence community concluded Russia was behind the election meddling.
Holmes said Sondland in the cell phone call assured Trump that Zelenskiy "loves your ass.”
"So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Holmes quoted Trump as asking. Sondland, according to Holmes, replied, "He's gonna do it," while adding that Zelenskiy will do “anything you ask him to.”
Holmes said he later asked Sondland if Trump cared about Ukraine, with the envoy replying that Trump did not “give a s**t about Ukraine.”
“I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about ‘big stuff,’” Holmes testified, according to a transcript posted by CNN. “I noted that there was ‘big stuff’ going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia, and Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant ‘big stuff’ that benefits the president, like the ‘Biden investigation.”’
Before Sondland revised his testimony to say there had been a quid pro quo — the military aid for the Biden investigation — Trump had called Sondland a "great American." But after Sondland changed his testimony, Trump said, "I hardly know the gentleman."
On Tuesday, the House Intelligence panel is also set to hear from Jennifer Williams, a foreign affairs aide to Vice President Mike Pence, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, director for European affairs at the National Security Council. Both of them listened in on Trump's July 25 call with Zelenskiy asking the Ukrainian leader for "a favor," the investigations of the Bidens.
Both Williams and Vindman have voiced concerns about Trump's request. It is against U.S. campaign finance law to solicit foreign assistance for help in a U.S. election.
Aside from Sondland, the Intelligence panel is also hearing Wednesday from Laura Cooper, a Defense Department official, and David Hale, the undersecretary of State for political affairs. Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia, is testifying Thursday.
Political analysts in Washington say the Trump impeachment drama could last for several months. If Trump is impeached by a simple majority in the House, perhaps by the end of the year as appears possible, a trial would be held in January in the Republican-majority Senate, where a two-thirds vote would be needed for his conviction and removal from office.
The time frame could bump up against the first Democratic party presidential nominating contests starting in February, when voters will begin casting ballots on who they want to oppose Trump when he seeks a second four-year term in the November 2020 national election. Six Democratic senators are among those running for the party's presidential nomination, but could be forced to stay in Washington to sit as jurors in the 100-member Senate as it decides Trump's fate, rather than campaign full-time for the presidency.
Trump's removal from office remains unlikely, with at least 20 Republicans needed to turn against him and vote for his conviction.
To date, while a small number of Republicans have criticized Trump for his actions on Ukraine, no Republican senator has called for his removal from office through impeachment, a drastic action that has never occurred in U.S. history.