US envoy to EU testifies in Trump impeachment inquiry

WASHINGTON: US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland has testified to House committees over their ongoing impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, saying he and other American diplomats were “disappointed” by the President’s directive to work with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters.

In his opening statement for the closed-door testimony, Sondland on Thursday criticized the President’s handling of US foreign policy towards Kiev on a number of fronts, including the July 25 phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky requesting to probe Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son Hunter, Xinhua news agency reported.

Trump had halted nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine days before that call, according to the envoy. “Based on the President’s direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening US-Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held US foreign policy goals in the region; or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Giuliani to address the President’s concerns,” Sondland said in his testimony.

“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani. “Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong. Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong,” he added.

Sondland however, said that he had once asked Trump about what he wanted from Ukraine, and the President responded, “Nothing. There is no quid pro quo”. The Ambassador also said that he didn’t understand until months later that Giuliani was working to push Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Sondland’s testimony comes after Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia adviser, testified on Monday for about nine hours before three House panels as part of the impeachment inquiry.

Hill told House Committees that she and other White House officials grew so alarmed about the administration’s efforts to push Ukraine to open certain investigations that they raised their concerns with a White House lawyer. The impeachment inquiry was launched by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on September 24 over the President’s conduct during the controversial July 25 phone call with Zelensky.

The impeachment inquiry was prompted by a whistleblower complaint filed in late August alleging that Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden, whom Trump accused of involvement in a corruption case in Ukraine. Pelosi and three House committees leading the impeachment inquiry — Intelligence, Oversight and Reform and Foreign Affairs — believe Trump’s conversation with Zelensky, as well as administration officials’ interactions with the Ukrainian authorities before and after the call, manifested “efforts to pressure foreign powers to intervene in the 2020 elections”.

Trump has denied wrongdoing, insisting that the call was “perfect” and calling the impeachment inquiry “another witch hunt” against him. The White House also considers the impeachment proceedings illegitimate, citing the absence of a full House vote.

A Fox News Poll released last week saw over half of US respondents support impeachment, a noticeable increase from 42 per cent in July. IANS