- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2019

House Democrats gained momentum Tuesday for the impeachment inquiry when a key figure revised his testimony, telling Congress that he believed U.S. military aid to Ukraine was linked to an agreement to investigate President Trump’s Democratic political rivals.

Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, made the revelation in a sworn update to testimony he gave last month in the House Democrats’ closed-door impeachment inquiry.

He previously testified that Mr. Trump was clear that there was no quid pro quo for releasing U.S. military aid. But in the update he sent to the committees Monday, Mr. Sondland said his memory had been refreshed and that he did tell Ukrainian officials that they likely needed to give Mr. Trump what he wanted to get U.S. funds flowing.

“I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would not likely occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Mr. Sondland said.

Andriy Yermak is a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The revised testimony went to the question that is the crux of the impeachment inquiry: Did Mr. Trump condition U.S. military aid for Ukraine on Kyiv’s investigation of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, a top 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful?

House Democrats also released a transcript of testimony by former envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who contradicted Mr. Sondland’s latest account.

The dueling transcripts provided ammunition for both sides of the impeachment battle.

A statement from Mr. Biden’s campaign slammed the president for sinking to “appalling depths” to avoid running against the former vice president.

Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican and one of the president’s top defenders on Capitol Hill, said this public phase of the inquiry won’t bode well for Democrats.

“The Volker/Sondland transcripts lay it out: Donald Trump wanted to clean up corruption in Ukraine and ensure taxpayer-funded aid wasn’t going to corrupt causes,” Mr. Meadows tweeted. “Only D.C. Democrats could spin protecting taxpayer money into an impeachable offense. Blatant partisanship.”

One version of the Ukraine anti-corruption statement, according to text messages released by the impeachment inquiry, would have specifically committed Kyiv to investigate Mr. Biden’s son Hunter, who received a lucrative job with a Ukrainian gas company while his father was vice president despite having no apparent qualifications or experience in the energy field.

The statement was also supposed to commit to investigating suspected attempts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election.

Mr. Volker said two diplomats advised against making such specific references, despite the wishes of the president’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, to avoid an appearance that Ukraine was attempting to intervene in the 2020 election. The statement was ultimately shelved and U.S. military aid flowed anyway.

Mr. Sondland, in his original testimony Oct. 17, said the opposite. He said his conversations with Mr. Trump made clear there was no explicit link.

“He said: I want nothing. I don’t want to give them anything, and I don’t want anything from them. I want Zelensky to do the right thing,” the ambassador said. “That’s what he kept repeating ‘no quid pro quo’ over and over again.”

Mr. Volker backed the recollection that there was no quid pro quo. “Gordon was repeating here what we all understood,” he said.

Furthermore, Mr. Volker told lawmakers that the idea of an anti-corruption statement was abandoned before the Ukrainians learned about the delayed aid in a Politico article published in late August.

Regarding the aid, Mr. Volker said, the delay was “not significant” because there was never an official reason for it and he never doubted it would get to the Ukrainians eventually.

Mr. Sondland, in his updated testimony, said his memory was refreshed by seeing news accounts of others’ understandings, including that of William Taylor, another top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine.

He said he is not sure who suspended the Ukraine money, and he isn’t sure how he learned that Mr. Zelensky needed to commit personally to the investigation.

Mr. Sondland said he was under the assumption in September that the aid was linked to Ukraine’s commitments to the investigations.

That assumption came after Mr. Giuliani made it a condition sometime around May 23.

“Ambassador Volker, [Energy Secretary Rick] Perry and I understood that satisfying Mr. Giuliani was a condition for scheduling the White House visit,” Mr. Sondland said.

The White House seized on that uncertainty, saying Mr. Sondland “presumed” there was a link but cannot say how or why.

“By contrast, Volker’s testimony confirms there could not have been a quid pro quo because the Ukrainians did not know about the military aid hold at the time,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said.

She said press reports were making too much of Mr. Sondland’s linking aid to the Biden investigation.

“No amount of salacious media-biased headlines, which are clearly designed to influence the narrative, change the fact that the president has done nothing wrong,” she said.

Democratic committee chairmen leading the impeachment inquiry disagreed. They said the revised testimony confirms their case against Mr. Trump.

“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. Ambassador Sondland called this changing U.S. policy toward Ukraine a ‘continuum’ that became ever more ‘insidious’ over time,” the chairmen of the Oversight and Reform Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said in a joint statement.

House Republicans have long complained that the inquiry was an unfair partisan operation. They accuse Democrats of selectively releasing the transcripts to support their narrative and generate headlines.

Indeed, Mr. Volker’s testimony gave a different view of events in Ukraine.

He told lawmakers that the idea to have Ukrainian leaders issue a statement about corruption and investigations was abandoned even before Politico revealed that the military aid had been delayed. The article was published on Aug. 29, which also was after Mr. Trump had his now-infamous phone call with Mr. Zelensky.

The impeachment inquiry stems from that July 25 phone call in which Mr. Trump asked Mr. Zelensky for the “favor” by looking into accusations of corruption involving Mr. Biden and others.

A rough transcript of the call does not show a quid pro quo, but Democrats argue that the threat to withhold aid was understood and part of an ongoing pressure campaign of “shadow” foreign policy conducted by Mr. Giuliani.

Republicans argue that U.S. law dictates a president must ensure that aid going to a foreign country isn’t diverted to corrupt officials, which they say justifies the president’s actions.

Public hearings are not expected for another few weeks, but the transcripts are returning public attention to claims of wrongdoing.

The transcripts were part of the Democrats’ moves to open up what has been a secretive impeachment inquiry. They simultaneously have scheduled more closed-door depositions, though administration officials have defied subpoenas this week.

White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said, “Past Democrat and Republican administrations would not be inclined to permit senior advisers to the president to participate in such a ridiculous, partisan, illegitimate proceeding — and neither is this one.”

Democrats also sought to add acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to the crowded deposition schedule this week as a firsthand witness to Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Giuliani’s efforts.

At least three more officials are slated to testify this week — Office of Management and Budget official Russell Vought, top State Department lawyer T. Ulrich Brechbuhl and former National Security Adviser John R. Bolton — none of whom is expected to show up.

• Dave Boyer and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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