White House budget official testifies in Trump impeachment probe

VIDEO: REUTERS
President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington, Nov. 15, 2019.
President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington, Nov. 15, 2019.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A White House budget official testified on Saturday (Nov 16) about the holdup of military aid to Ukraine in a closed door session of the US House of Representatives impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, with public hearings set to resume next week.

Mark Sandy, a career official of the Office of Management and Budget, is the first person from OMB to testify before the inquiry after three political appointees defied congressional subpoenas to appear.

Sandy complied with a subpoena issued to compel his testimony, an official working on the impeachment inquiry said.

Later in the day, the House Intelligence Committee overseeing the inquiry released transcripts of depositions from former National Security Council official Tim Morrison and Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice-President Mike Pence.

Trump's pressure on Ukraine is at the heart of the Democratic-led inquiry into whether the Republican president misused US foreign policy to undermine former vice-president Joe Biden, one of his potential opponents in the 2020 election.

Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin, a member of the Judiciary and Oversight Committees, said Sandy was brought in to shed light on whether military aid was held up for political reasons.

"This is a technical part of our investigation," Raskin told reporters outside the interview room. "We want to know exactly how the president translated his political objective to shake down the Ukrainian government for the favours he wanted (into) the budget process."

On Friday, Trump launched a Twitter attack on a former US ambassador to Ukraine while she was testifying to an impeachment hearing in Congress, in an extraordinary moment that Democrats said amounted to witness intimidation.

Trump blasted Marie Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, as she explained on the second day of televised impeachment hearings how she had fought corruption in Ukraine and how the Trump administration abruptly removed her from her post earlier this year.

 
 
 
 

While Yovanovitch's testimony dominated headlines on Friday, a closed-door deposition lawmakers held later in the day with David Holmes, a US embassy official in Kiev, could prove more consequential.

Holmes told lawmakers he overheard a phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, in which the president inquired about Ukraine's willingness to carry out investigations of Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

The phone call occurred one day after the now-infamous July 25 phone conversation between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart at the heart of the impeachment probe.

"So, he's gonna do the investigation?" Trump asked Sondland, referring to Ukrainian president Volodmyr Zelenskiy, according to Holmes' testimony.

"He's gonna do it," replied Sondland, adding the Ukrainian president would do "anything you ask him to," according to Holmes.

The testimony by Holmes, an aide to top US diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor, ties Trump more directly to a pressure campaign in Ukraine to investigate the Bidens led by Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Holmes' statement appears to contradict Sondland's previous sworn testimony about his interactions with Trump, in which he did not mention the July 26 phone call with the president.

Sondland, who has already revised his testimony once, is scheduled to testify publicly on Wednesday.

Representative Eric Swalwell, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Saturday that House leaders were considering bringing Holmes in for a public hearing.

"In that (Holmes) statement that was released there was a lot to be concerned about, particularly that more witnesses described the president's obsession with investigating his political opponents," Swalwell said.