WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - United States President Donald Trump's former envoy to Ukraine said he wasn't initially aware of attempts to prod that country into investigating Mr Joe Biden but came to realise that the anti-corruption efforts being demanded by the administration meant probes involving the former vice-president.
Mr Kurt Volker, who until recently was the special US envoy to Ukraine, testified to the House committee conducting an impeachment inquiry that he wasn't involved in key discussions and meetings that touched on Mr Biden and his son's participation on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings.
"I did not know that President Trump or others had raised Vice-President Biden with the Ukrainians, or had conflated the investigation of possible Ukrainian corruption, with investigation of the former vice-president," Mr Volker said.
"In hindsight, I now understand that others saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company, Burisma, as equivalent to investigating former Vice-President Biden."
Mr Volker testified with former National Security Council official Timothy Morrison, who was on the July call that has become central to the investigation of the President being led by House Democrats.
Mr Morrison said Ukraine is on the front line facing Russian aggression and deserves the full, bipartisan support of the US. He said worried at the time of Mr Trump's July 25 call that a disclosure of its contents would have a negative effect in Washington and on support for Ukraine.
"My fears have been realised," Mr Morrison said.
Three days of hearings this week will provide lawmakers and the public with testimony from nine witnesses who have first-hand accounts of events surrounding the question of whether Mr Trump and his allies tried to leverage US aid and a White House visit for Mr Zelensky in exchange for Ukraine opening investigations involving Mr Biden, which would the benefit the President politically.
UNUSUAL PRESIDENTIAL CALL
Earlier on Tuesday (Nov 19), a decorated US Army officer who works at the White House and a State Department official both said Mr Trump's conversation with Ukraine's leader was an unusual and inappropriate attempt to get another nation to launch a politically motivated investigation.
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman said the Trump-Zelensky call so alarmed him that he reported it through the administration's legal channels.
"Without hesitation, I knew that I had to report this to the White House counsel," Lt Col Vindman testified.
Ms Jennifer Williams, a State Department employee assigned to Vice-President Mike Pence's office, said she found Mr Trump's conversation unusual "because, in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter".
Mr Volker is a crucial witness for both Democrats and Republicans in the impeachment inquiry. He's a career government foreign policy official who was recruited early in the Trump administration to handle Ukraine policy.
But he also became one of three officials - along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland - delegated by some in the White House to conduct a back-channel effort on Ukraine that also involved Mr Rudy Giuliani, the President's personal lawyer.
Mr Volker's testimony offered details for both sides to latch on to. Republicans will be encouraged that he said he had no knowledge of a quid pro quo of the idea of releasing aid in exchange for a promise to investigate the Biden family and the events of 2016.
Yet he also denied a central Republican talking point of the impeachment inquiry, arguing that there was no merit to claims that Mr Biden did anything wrong in relation to Ukraine and its former prosecutor.
"I've known former Vice-President Biden for some time," Mr Volker said. "I know how he respects the duties of higher office" and he would not operate outside of US interests.
He may provoke some incredulity though with his contention that he never drew a link between demands that Ukraine investigate Burisma and concerns about the Biden family, even though Mr Giuliani at one point mentioned the allegations against the former vice-president.
That came at a July 19 meeting, when Mr Volker said Mr Giuliani raised "the conspiracy theory that Vice-President Biden would have been influenced in his duties as Vice-President by money paid to his son". He said he rejected that notion.
He said he had been unaware that Mr Trump mentioned Mr Biden on his call with Mr Zelensky until the White House released a rough transcript of the call on Sept 25. During the call, Mr Trump instead made reference to a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election and asked Mr Zelensky to "look into" whether Mr Biden stopped anti-corruption investigation of Burisma.
Mr Morrison testified that he was disappointed by Mr Trump's conversation with Mr Zelensky, though not because he thought the President had done anything illegal.
Asking a foreign leader to investigating a domestic political rival is "not what we recommended to the President to discuss", Mr Morrison said. "I was hoping for a more full-throated statement of support from the President" for Ukraine.
He said he asked for the call record to be moved to a highly classified system, primarily because he was concerned about the political fall-out if it leaked.
He also indicated that there was a trade being sought by the administration in dealing with Ukraine.
He said Mr Sondland, a Trump donor who had a direct line to the President, told him on Sept 1 he had advised a Ukrainian official that the release of nearly US$400 million (S$544.6 million) in US military aid to Ukraine was being linked to an announcement by Ukraine of a commitment to investigate Mr Biden and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US elections.
Then, Mr Morrison said Mr Sondland told him on Sept 7 that Mr Trump had said that Mr Zelensky, specifically, would have to make that announcement himself.
Mr Sondland said "there was no quid pro quo but President Zelensky had to make the statement and he had to want to do it", said Mr Morrison.
The House inquiry so far hasn't caused any significant swing in public opinion about whether Mr Trump should be impeached and removed from office, nor has it so far broken a solid wall of support for the President among GOP lawmakers. Yet the live coverage and constant drumbeat of revelations could damage the President politically as he campaigns for re-election in 2020 with already low approval ratings.
Throughout the day, Republicans attacked the process and the witnesses as prejudiced against the President.
"The Democrats have called a parade of government officials who don't like President Trump's Ukraine policy, even though they all acknowledge he provided Ukraine with lethal military aid after the Obama administration refused to do so," Representative Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said.
"They don't seem to understand that the President alone is constitutionally vested with the authority to set the policy. The American people elect a president, not an inter-agency consensus," he said.