House impeachment transcripts show an internal White House struggle over Ukraine policy, with National Security Council staffers taking aim at President Trump and his political appointees.
Fiona Hill, a Russia specialist brought to the NSC in 2018 from the Brookings Institution, went to war against Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union. A new diplomat, Mr. Sondland was a generous Trump campaign contributor and, like the president, is a gregarious hotelier.
Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Pentagon detailee as the NSC’s Ukraine specialist, also targeted Mr. Sondland, accusing him of promoting a quid pro quo on Ukraine at a crucial July 10 White House meeting. The ambassador denies this.
At the White House, Col. Vindman was the first to file a complaint against Mr. Trump for his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The Iraq war veteran said that in filing the same-day action he was not trying to be “overtly critical of the president.”
One issue that seemed to unify the White House opposition is Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney. The president assigned him to investigate Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and son Hunter Biden’s involvement in Burisma Holdings, an oligarch-run Ukrainian natural gas firm.
In a series of TV appearances, Mr. Giuliani laid out his corruption case against the Bidens, based on his interviews with Ukrainian officials. He pushed behind the scenes for Ukrainian investigations at a time when the Trump administration had suspended military aid to Kyiv.
Some Trump aides, including then-National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, saw the former New York mayor as a loose cannon blowing up sound diplomacy.
“Ambassador Bolton made it very clear that nobody should be talking to Rudy Giuliani, on our team or anybody else should be,” Ms. Hill told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and two other joint impeachment committees.
“Giuliani was the one that had to be satisfied,” Mr. Sondland testified.
House intelligence committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, has been releasing witness transcripts over the past two weeks. He is refusing to allow Republican-called witnesses, such as Hunter Biden, to explore why Mr. Trump focused on Ukraine’s years of rampant corruption.
Democrats argue that Mr. Trump executed a quid pro quo — foreign aid in exchange for a Biden investigation — and should be impeached. Mr. Trump denies this and says the White House-released transcript of the Zelensky call exonerates him.
Two weeks before the call, Ukraine’s then-defense chief, Oleksandr Danylyuk, came to Washington to huddle with Trump people about a U.S. course with Mr. Zelensky and a new parliament.
Ms. Hill griped that Mr. Sondland had made her life more difficult by giving her cellphone number to foreign officials and telling them to stop by the White House unscheduled. On one occasion, Mr. Sondland told her that Mr. Trump had made him the point man on Ukraine, outranking the in-country ambassador.
“Ambassador Sondland, I’m afraid, you know, I felt, you know, as I mentioned before, he was driving along on the road,” Ms. Hill testified. “You know, he’d just gone off the road. No guardrails. No GPS.
“I could just go on and on,” she added.
Ms. Hill described Mr. Sondland’s approach to Brussels-based diplomacy: “He was new to the experience. I mean, he was clearly, you know, a savvy guy. He’s charming. He’s funny. He was well-meaning. I mean, a lot of the stories that have been in the press about him paying for things, actually, I think, he was doing that out of generosity. He was truly trying to build up morale in his embassy. His embassy loved, you know, the kind of treats and things that he would get for them. He was trying to create happy hours.”
She characterized Ukraine policy as being isolated in a closed group of two: Mr. Sondland and White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
“Sondland said repeatedly he was meeting with Chief of Staff Mulvaney,” she said. “And that was it. It was not going down to the rest of the staff.”
‘He’s my commander in chief’
Ms. Hill described the July 10 West Wing meeting as a disaster. Mr. Sondland brought up the need for investigations. Mr. Bolton abruptly left. The meeting broke up and reconvened downstairs near the ultrasensitive Situation Room.
Col. Vindman told the committees on Oct. 29 that Mr. Sondland specifically brought up the Bidens’ names that day.
“Ambassador Sondland emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigation into the 2016 elections, the Bidens and Burisma,” Col. Vindman testified. “I stated to Ambassador Sondland that the statements, that his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate the Bidens and his son had nothing to do with national security and that such investigations were not something that the NSC was going to get involved in.”
Mr. Sondland said he was mystified by the way other witnesses and the news media depicted the July 10 meeting. He testified that he had no memory of bringing up the Bidens or an investigation.
“Dr. Hill’s testimony was, so at least as it was reported, was so contrary to any recollection I had, I thought I must have slept through something and missed something,” he told the committees. “If someone said that a meeting was abruptly terminated and that angry words were used, when, in fact, we had a great meeting, we all tweeted about it afterwards, and that was that.”
Asked by Mr. Schiff whether he brought up the Bidens or an investigation, Mr. Sondland said, “I don’t remember that. No.”
Mr. Sondland said that contrary to Ms. Hill’s narration, he rarely spoke with Mr. Mulvaney. “I’ve had very, very few conversations with Mr. Mulvaney.”
Col. Vindman said that immediately after the July 25 call, he bypassed his boss, the director of European affairs, and went to NSC Counsel John A. Eisenberg to file a complaint against Mr. Trump for mentioning a need for an investigation.
“I mean, he’s my commander in chief,” he testified. “I’m not trying to, you know, be overly critical of the president. What I was trying to do, in speaking to Mr. Eisenberg, was express my concerns about something that I viewed to be problematic.”
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, told Col. Vindman that Ukraine is riven with corruption. He said Mr. Trump had every right to bring up the need for investigations to comply with the Defense Authorization Act. It requires the administration to certify that Ukraine is taking steps to combat theft of public funds and bribery before U.S. money can be released.
“If the president brings up corruption in his phone call, which I think he’s and certainly as the commander in chief should do, and when Congress has these requirements. I guess I’m not quite understanding why that’s inappropriate,” Mr. McCaul said.
Col. Vindman said, “I think it’s the — what I had, I guess, difficulty with is the fact that he was calling for an investigation, not the continuation of an investigation, but starting a new investigation because there was not an active one.”
Mr. McCaul said Attorney General William P. Barr last spring appointed a special investigator to look into the origins of the 2016 FBI Trump-Russia probe. Republicans have accused Ukrainian officials of intervening in the 2016 election by helping Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.