Diplomat testifies in Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry, claims to have warned Ukrainians ‘to steer clear of American politics’
Washington: The former special US envoy to Ukraine testified Thursday of turmoil within the State Department over President Donald Trump’s push to investigate Joe Biden and his family, placing Rudy Giuliani at the centre of the effort.
Kurt Volker, a central figure in the House’s impeachment inquiry, appeared for nearly 10 hours behind closed doors. He told lawmakers he was never pressured by Trump or others around the administration to have Ukraine conduct the investigation of the Democratic rival, and in fact said he had warned Ukrainians to steer clear of American politics.
Yet Volker also recalled being told that plans for a meeting between Trump and the new Ukrainian president elected in the spring were being put on ice, according to one person familiar with the private meeting who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it.
The appearance by Volker is the first in what is expected to be a series of interviews with officials inside and outside the State Department. House investigators want to understand more about the Trump team’s search for damaging information about the former vice president, who is now a Democratic presidential contender and top Trump rival.
Republicans leaving the interview with Volker claimed it helped show there was no quid pro quo when the officials asked for a probe. But Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, a member of the House intelligence panel, disputed that. He described a text from one senior department official that read, “It’s crazy if we are trying to leverage US dollars in security assistance for help in a political campaign.”
Swalwell said after the meeting that Volker told them that “multiple people” in the State Department were worried there was a connection between US military aid that was being withheld from Ukraine amid the administration’s push for an investigation.
The daylong session left uncertainties. Volker denied any personal involvement in Trump’s push on Biden, yet reports late Thursday indicated he had knowledge of a draft statement, intended for new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, that would have committed Ukraine to conduct the investigations Trump was seeking.
Ukraine never issued the statement, and it’s unclear if it came up during Volker’s testimony.
The State Department said Volker has confirmed that he put a Zelenskiy adviser in contact with Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, at the Ukrainian adviser’s request. Giuliani has said he was in frequent contact with Volker.
Volker told investigators Thursday that he warned Giuliani not to rely on information coming from Ukraine’s former top prosecutor, Yuri Lutsenko. The former prosecutor-general reportedly had been in contact with Giuliani, the person said.
Swalwell said they had text messages from as early as May showing that officials were concerned about Giuliani, who has played a central role in Trump’s efforts to launch a Ukrainian corruption probe into the Bidens.
Volker was in office as the administration was holding back the $250 million for Ukraine. At the time, Trump was pressing Zelenskiy about the Bidens. Volker told the House investigators it was unusual for the US to withhold the aid, but he said he was given no explanation for it, the person said.
The former envoy spent hours behind closed doors as lawmakers and staff pored through dozens of pages of text messages, photos and other correspondence during the interview, according to those familiar with the meeting.
Volker resigned Friday after being asked to testify to Congress about the whistleblower complaint that describes how Trump repeatedly prodded Zelenskiy for an investigation of Biden and his son Hunter, while his administration delayed the release of military aid to help Ukraine fight Russia-backed separatists. The complaint says Volker met in Kyiv with Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian political figures a day after the call, and he provided advice about how to “navigate” Trump’s demands.
Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Although the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.
Volker agreed to a voluntary interview with lawmakers and congressional staff, led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff of California, and was said to be eager to appear and tell his side of the situation.
As the impeachment inquiry focuses on Ukraine, Trump doubled down Thursday by publicly calling on China to also investigate Biden and his family, potentially setting off more alarms in Congress.
“China should start an investigation into the Bidens,” Trump said outside the White House. Trump said he hadn’t directly asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to investigate, but it’s “certainly something we could start thinking about.”
The State Department’s role in Ukraine has become deeply entangled in the impeachment inquiry as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that he was also on Trump’s 25 July call with Zelenskiy.
Separately, The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that Volker met last year with a top official from the same Ukrainian energy firm that paid Hunter Biden to serve on its board. The meeting occurred even as Giuliani pressed Ukraine’s government to investigate the company and the Bidens’ involvement with it.
Pompeo accused the congressional investigators of trying to “bully” and “intimidate” State Department officials with subpoenas for documents and testimony, suggesting he would seek to prevent them from providing information. But the committee managed to schedule the deposition with Volker, as well as one next week with Marie Yovanovitch, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she was removed from the post last spring.