Officials raised alarm over White House Ukraine talks in early July: Testimony

AFP Washington, United States Nov 09, 2019, 02.50 PM(IST)

US President Donald Trump (File photo) Photograph:( Reuters )

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Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman told House investigators that on July 10, they reported concerns to White House attorney John Eisenberg over top Trump allies pressuring Kiev for political help for the US leader. 

Two White House national security officials sounded alarms about improper pressure on Ukraine in early July, well before President Donald Trump's bombshell phone call with Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelensky, according to impeachment testimony released Friday.

Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman told House investigators that on July 10, they reported concerns to White House attorney John Eisenberg over top Trump allies pressuring Kiev for political help for the US leader. That was two weeks before Trump spoke to Zelensky.

Hill said she did so at the instruction of then-national security advisor John Bolton, who was adamantly opposed to the efforts to seek dirt from Ukraine on Trump's Democratic rivals.

She and Vindman both said acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Trump-appointed Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland were behind the pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden.

They said Sondland specifically pushed Ukrainian officials in July 10 meetings for a Biden-focused investigation in exchange for a high-profile meeting between Trump and Zelensky.

Bolton was furious over the effort and halted the initial meeting that day, Hill said.

But Sondland continued in a second meeting, saying it was policy stipulated by Mulvaney, Trump's top aide in the Oval Office.

"You go and tell Eisenberg that I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this," Hill said Bolton told her.

"You go and tell him what you've heard and what I've said."

Nevertheless, on July 25 Trump delivered the same message to Zelensky -- that cooperation, including a meeting and military aid, could be contingent on Ukraine opening the investigations the White House sought.

That phone call, after it was exposed by an intelligence community whistleblower, sparked the Congressional investigation that now has Trump facing impeachment for abuse of office.  

Sondland drove 'Burisma' probe

Hill, who was the National Security Council's senior director for Europe and Russia at the time, and Vindman, a Ukraine expert who worked under her, said they took part in a July 10 meeting with Ukraine officials in Bolton's office in the White House. 

Sondland and US Energy Secretary Rick Perry were also in the meeting.

"The meeting proceeded well until the Ukrainians broached the subject of a meeting between the two presidents," Vindman recounted.

Sondland "said that he had had a conversation with Mr Mulvaney, and this is what was required in order to get a meeting," Vindman said.

At that point, Bolton curtly ended the meeting, both Hill and Vindman said.

But minutes later in another White House room, Sondland continued to press the investigations requirement with the Ukrainians, further alarming the two officials.

Hill said Sondland specifically mentioned Burisma, the Ukraine energy company where Biden's son Hunter had been a director. 

Trump has repeatedly accused the Bidens of unspecified "corruption" due to that relationship.

Separately, Hill and Vindman went to Eisenberg, the White House attorney in charge of national security matters, with their concerns.

Their reports made clear that senior officials in the White House were aware of the impropriety and possible illegality of the Ukraine machinations well before Trump and Zelensky spoke on July 25.

In the period in between, other witnesses have said, Mulvaney abruptly froze $391 million in military aid already approved for Ukraine.

After the July 25 call, Vindman again reported his concerns to Eisenberg.

Vindman had listened to the call and said "there was no doubt" Trump was pressuring Ukraine for investigations that could help his 2020 reelection campaign.

But Eisenberg, according to Vindman and other witnesses, hid an abbreviated official transcript of the call in a highly classified computer filing system not normally used for such records, as if to prevent others from ever seeing it.