Trump-Blocked Witnesses Loom Large in Impeachment Drama

Nick Wadhams

(Bloomberg) -- Gordon Sondland testified that “everyone was in the loop” about his months-long push for a quid pro quo from Ukraine. Democrats must now decide if they’ve gathered enough evidence to justify impeaching President Donald Trump quickly or press for more.

In more than six hours of testimony on Wednesday, the hotelier-turned-envoy to the European Union said he informed Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and other top officials that he was relaying a demand that he believed came directly from the president: Ukrainian aid and an Oval Office meeting required a corruption probe tied to former Vice President Joe Biden’s family.

Sondland said Pompeo, one of Trump’s closest advisers, told him to “keep banging away.” But more broadly, he emphasized that everyone in a position of authority in the administration, including the president, knew of and approved his work with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer.

“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland testified. “Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Everyone Knew of ‘Quid Pro Quo’: Sondland Testimony Takeaways

Democrats will soon face a choice in what has been a fast-moving inquiry: Draw up articles of impeachment based on what they’ve heard so far, or chase more evidence and testimony from high-profile witnesses like Pompeo and Giuliani who have so far refused to cooperate. That would likely require months of court battles, pushing hearings well into the presidential primary calendar next year.

Thursday will feature the last scheduled public hearing at the end of a dramatic week, with two witnesses expected to further underscore the confusion around Trump’s Ukraine policy. One of them, Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council director on Russia and Eastern Europe, worked directly with ex-National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Republicans challenged Sondland’s testimony Wednesday, arguing that he never got a direct nod from the president and flagged his comments that he didn’t initially equate demands for a probe into Burisma, the gas company on whose board Biden’s son served, as a bid to undermine the former vice president.

Sondland, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration and said he likes the president, didn’t disagree: “I don’t recall President Trump ever talking to me about any security assistance, ever,” he said.

Highlighting just how much could still be revealed, testimony from a Wednesday evening witness upended Republicans’ claim that Ukraine only learned about a U.S. hold on security aid in late August, days before the money was eventually released.

Laura Cooper, the Defense Department’s top official on Russia and Ukraine, testified she was alerted to emails from her staff showing that officials at Ukraine’s Embassy in Washington may have been aware of the freeze on critical military aid as early as July 25, the same day Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and asked him for a “favor.”

Despite continuing revelations, Democrats have been frustrated that senior officials including Trump, the Office of Management and Budget and the State Department have refused to hand over key documents linked to the investigation. In his testimony, Sondland said the process has been “less than fair” because he hasn’t been given crucial records.

Pompeo, speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, declined to recuse himself from decisions on releasing documents to the panel and refused to comment on Sondland’s allegations about his involvement in the Ukraine dealings.

Who’s Who: The Americans at the Center of Trump-Ukraine Uproar

Later, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that Sondland “never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the president was linking aid to investigations of political opponents. Any suggestion to the contrary is flat-out false.”

Other allies of the president also jumped in. Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, disputed that Sondland had ever discussed the stalled security aid with the vice president. Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s office said Sondland “misrepresented” key events in his testimony.

As the week’s hearings wind down, Democrats appear to believe they have heard enough to accuse Trump of wrongdoing in articles of impeachment. They also indicated signaled that the lack of cooperation could allow them to charge the president with obstructing justice.

The picture painted in the open hearings has been one of a president who held off on approving aid and meeting Ukraine’s new leader until the government in Kyiv publicly committed to “corruption” inquiries that were shorthand for an investigation into Burisma and the Bidens. If carried out, that effort could have hamstrung the former vice president heading into the 2020 election.

‘Big Stuff’

Thursday’s witnesses could shed more light on that effort. Besides Hill, the other witness is David Holmes, a Foreign Service officer serving in Ukraine. He earlier testified that Sondland told him at a restaurant in Kyiv that Trump only cares about “big stuff” including investigations involving Biden -- and not Ukraine’s conflict with Russia-backed forces.

Hill has emerged as a potentially pivotal witness as well. Earlier she told the impeachment panel that her old boss, Bolton, called Giuliani a “hand grenade that is going to blow everyone up.”

But without a more damaging piece of evidence: a voice recording, an email or a direct witness account to prove Trump was trying to extort Ukraine, Republicans who have so far stood with the president are unlikely to back his impeachment or removal.

The president, for one, exuded confidence by day’s end on Wednesday. “Not only did we win today, it’s over,” he told reporters after Sondland’s testimony. Later in the evening, Trump tweeted: “If this were a prizefight, they’d stop it!”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nick Wadhams in Washington at nwadhams@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net, John Harney

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