As the presidential impeachment investigation continues, US diplomat Gordon Sondland has confirmed what Democrats contend was a clear link between Donald Trump's demand for information about his political opponent, Joe Biden, and the supply of military aid to Ukraine.
In an addendum to his earlier sworn testimony, the former US Ambassador to the European Union said that military assistance to the east European ally was being withheld until Ukraine's new president agreed to release a statement about fighting corruption as demanded by Trump.
Sondland said he was the one who carried the message to a Ukrainian official on the sidelines of a conference in Warsaw attended by US Vice President Mike Pence.
The three-page update, tucked beneath hundreds of pages of sworn testimony from Sondland and former Ukraine Special Envoy Kurt Volker, was released by House investigators as opposition Democrats prepared to push the closed-door sessions to public hearings as soon as next week.
Trump remains adamant that he did nothing wrong
Trump has denied that any deal was struck, but Democrats say there is a singular narrative developing since the president's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy when he first asked for "a favor". That request, which sparked the impeachment inquiry, included a public investigation into Ukrainian activities by Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, and Trump's allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election.
On Wednesday, the State Department's third-ranking official is expected to tell Congress that political considerations were behind the agency's refusal to deliver a robust defense of the former US ambassador to Ukraine.
People familiar with the matter say David Hale plans to tell congressional impeachment investigators on Wednesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior officials determined that defending Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch would hurt the effort to free up US military assistance to Ukraine. The people familiar with the matter were not authorised to discuss Hale's appearance publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Republican Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said the House panels conducting the inquiry are releasing the word-by-word transcripts of the closed-door hearings so the American public can decide for themselves.
"This is about more than just one call," Schiff wrote Tuesday in an op-ed in USA Today. "We now know that the call was just one piece of a larger operation to redirect our foreign policy to benefit Donald Trump's personal and political interests, not the national interest."
Back-dealings became more insidious
In the transcripts and accompanying cache of text messages, US diplomats are shown trying to accomodate the demands of Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who they soon learn is running a back-channel US foreign policy on Ukraine.
"It kept getting more insidious," Sondland told investigators, as the "timeline went on."
Sondland testified that he spoke with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Giuliani, "and Pompeo rolled his eyes and said: 'Yes, it's something we have to deal with'."
The ambassador initially testified on October 17 that he did not "recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens." He told investigators he didn't know that the Ukraine firm Burisma, which Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate, was linked to Joe Biden's son Hunter.
But in the weeks since a May visit to Kiev for Zelenskiy's inauguration, Sondland and the other diplomats had been heavily involved in Ukraine policy and in text messages about what Trump wanted as they came to realize that military assistance was being withheld.
Pressed by investigators, Sondland testified that it would be improper for the US to prompt Ukraine to investigate the Biden family. "It doesn't sound good."
The statement was never issued, because Ukraine rejected it.
Trump's inner circle will be called to testify
As House investigators released more transcripts on Tuesday, they also announced they want to hear from Trump's acting chief of staff and a top aide to Pence, reaching to the highest levels of the White House.
Trump considers the probe to be illegitimate and the administration has resumed its efforts to block the inquiry as two more White House officials, an energy adviser and a budget official, declined to appear before investigators, even after one received a subpoena.
Meanwhile, investigators said they wanted to hear on Friday from Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. They contend his news conference last month amounted to "nothing less than a televised confession" of Trump's efforts to have Ukraine investigate Democrats and Biden as the White House blocked military funding.
White House instructed not to cooperate
The White House has instructed its officials not to comply with the impeachment inquiry being led by House Democrats. Mulvaney is not expected to appear.
Republicans have been unable to deliver a unified argument against the impeachment probe, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he's "pretty sure" how it all will end.
McConnell said he believes Trump will stay in the White House.
A top Trump ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, told reporters he doesn't plan to read the transcripts, calling the whole inquiry "bunch of B.S."
Sondland closed his addendum to the House investigators saying he may have had a second call with Trump, but has been unable to obtain phone records and "cannot specifically recall" if that was the case.