Jennifer Williams, special adviser for Europe and Russia in the Office of Vice-President Mike Pence arrives on Capitol Hill for a closed-door hearing in Washington, the US, November 7 2019. Picture: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER
Jennifer Williams, special adviser for Europe and Russia in the Office of Vice-President Mike Pence arrives on Capitol Hill for a closed-door hearing in Washington, the US, November 7 2019. Picture: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER

Washington — The phone call between US President Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart at the centre of the impeachment investigation was “inappropriate”, an aide to vice-president Mike Pence told legislators, according to a transcript released on Saturday.

Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy aide to Pence who was listening to the call on July 25, testified that Trump’s insistence that Ukraine carry out politically sensitive investigations “struck me as unusual and inappropriate”.

She said the discussion was “more political in nature” than phone calls with other foreign leaders, and included what she viewed as specific references to the president’s “personal political agenda”.

Trump’s call 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.

The House of Representatives also released a transcript on Saturday of an earlier closed-door deposition by Tim Morrison, a former White House aide with the National Security Council focusing on Europe and Russia policy, who was also on the call.

Morrison, who resigned a day before his deposition last month, and Williams both expressed concerns about Trump’s remarks to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Williams and Morrison are scheduled to testify publicly next week.

Damaging relations

“I was not comfortable with any idea that President Zelensky should allow himself to be involved in our politics,” Morrison told legislators. He said he found Zelensky’s tone in the call with Trump to be “obsequious”.

Morrison declined to say he thought the call was illegal or improper, stressing instead that he thought it would leak, damaging relations with Ukraine. He said he only learnt later that the aid to Ukraine was conditioned on the investigations.

In the first public hearing last week, acting ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor pointed to Trump’s keen interest in getting the eastern European ally to investigate Biden and reiterated his understanding that $391m (R5.75bn) in US security aid was withheld from Kiev unless it co-operated.

Morrison said he has reviewed Taylor’s testimony and does not dispute it on any significant points.

House investigators also heard on Saturday closed-door testimony from a White House budget official about the holdup of military aid to Ukraine. Mark Sandy, a career official of the office of management and budget, was the first person from the office to testify before the inquiry after three political appointees defied congressional subpoenas to appear.

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
Jamie Raskin, Democratic member of the judiciary and oversight committees

Sandy spoke about how unusual it was to have a political appointee place a hold on military aid to Ukraine, CNN quoted a source familiar with the testimony as saying.

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 used Twitter to criticise a former US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, while she was testifying to an impeachment hearing, an extraordinary moment that Democrats said amounted to witness intimidation.

Trump defended his attack on Yovanovitch, saying he had the right to free speech.

More consequential

Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, testified on the second day of televised impeachment hearings, which will resume next week.

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

Holmes told legislators he overheard a phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, in which the president inquired about Ukraine’s willingness to carry out investigations of Biden and his son.

The phone call occurred on July 26, one day after the now-infamous phone conversation between Trump and Zelensky.

“So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Trump asked Sondland, referring to Zelensky, according to Holmes’s 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 Taylor, ties Trump more directly to a pressure campaign in Ukraine to investigate the Bidens led by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Revised testimony

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

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

Morrison said he understands that Sondland and Trump had spoken “half-a-dozen times” between mid-July and mid-September, adding that he, national security adviser John Bolton and other officials view Sondland’s involvement as “a problem”.

Representative Eric Swalwell, a Democrat on the house intelligence committee, told reporters on Saturday that house leaders are considering bringing Holmes in for a public hearing.

Reuters