CAPITOL HILL - The U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry hearings picked up steam this week, as nine current and former U.S. officials testified about President Donald Trump's controversial dealings with the Ukrainian government.
The historic impeachment inquiry was triggered by a whistleblower complaint about a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which Trump prodded Zelenskiy to undertake investigations that would help Trump politically, while the administration held up nearly $400 million of military aid to Ukraine.
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland delivered blockbuster testimony Wednesday, linking Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other senior officials to what he came to believe was a quid pro quo arrangement between the administration and Ukraine.
Three officials were on the July 25 call
Lawmakers heard from three officials Tuesday who listened in on the call and corroborated a White House transcript of the conversation. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council's top Ukraine expert, said he was shocked by how the call played out. Jennifer Williams, an aide in Vice President Mike Pence's office, said she found the call "unusual and inappropriate." Tim Morrison, who briefly served as director of Europe and Eurasia on the National Security Council, would only concede that "as a hypothetical," the call would not be appropriate.
Transcript of the July 25 call
The whistleblower complaint alleged that White House officials were so worried about what had transpired during the call that they moved to lock down a transcript in an electronic system reserved for sensitive classified information. Vindman and Morrison, however, said they didn't think there was anything nefarious about the move.
Vindman's contact with an intelligence officer
Vindman disclosed that he discussed the July 25 phone call with a member of the intelligence community. House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes pressed Vindman to identify the officer, suggesting that Vindman might have been in contact with the whistleblower. Committee Chairman Adam Schiff interjected, saying he wanted to protect the whistleblower's identity.
Volker revises his testimony
Also testifying Tuesday, Kurt Volker, the former U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine, acknowledged that Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had brought up the question of "investigations" during a key White House meeting between U.S. and Ukrainian officials. Volker had previously denied that the issue had come up, but he told lawmakers that Sondland made a generic comment about investigations which "all of us thought was inappropriate."
Volker and Sondland contended they did not understand the connection between Burisma, the Ukrainian company where Hunter Biden was a director, and the push to investigate the Bidens until late this summer. Other witnesses have testified that most everyone involved in Ukraine policy was aware of the link well before the July 25 call. Volker said that had he learned that Burisma amounted to Biden, he would have raised objections.
Sondland links top officials to campaign
The most closely watched witness of the week, Sondland testified that everyone in the administration - Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney - was "in the loop."
"The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false," he testified.
Ukrainians inquired about the aid
Laura Cooper, the top Pentagon expert on Russia and Ukraine, testified Wednesday that Ukrainian officials asked the Defense Department on July 25 about the status of the frozen military aid, the same day Trump and Zelenskiy spoke by phone. While she couldn't say whether the Ukrainians were aware of a hold on the aid package, the revelation could undermine a Republican claim that Trump couldn't have "extorted" the Ukrainian leader if he wasn't aware of the freeze.
Ukraine conspiracy theory
In a swipe at some Republicans on the committee, Fiona Hill, former director of Europe and Eurasia for the National Security Council, delivered a strong rebuttal of a discredited conspiracy theory about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election, one of two issues Trump asked Zelenskiy to pursue.
"This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves," Hill testified Thursday.