House impeachment investigators will hear on Thursday from two key witnesses who grew alarmed by how President Donald Trump and others in his orbit were conducting foreign policy in Ukraine, capping an intense week in the historic inquiry.
David Holmes, a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, says he was having lunch with Ambassador Gordon Sondland this summer when he heard Trump on the phone asking the envoy about the investigations he wanted from the Ukraine president. The colorful exchange was like nothing he had ever seen, Holmes said in an earlier closed-door deposition.
Fiona Hill said her National Security Council boss, John Bolton, cut short a meeting with visiting Ukrainians at the White House when Sondland started asking them about "investigations."
The two witnesses set to appear Thursday are the last scheduled for public hearings in an inquiry that brought hours of testimony from a roster of current and former U.S. government officials defying Trump's orders not to appear.
The impeachment inquiry focuses on allegations that Trump sought investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son — and the discredited idea that Ukraine rather than Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election — in return for the badly needed military aid and a White House visit the new Ukrainian president wanted to show his backing from the West.
Those testifying publicly this week previously appeared for private depositions, most having received subpoenas compelling their testimony.
Holmes has told investigators the call he overheard "was so remarkable that I remember it vividly."
He said he heard Trump ask, "So he's going to do the investigation?" According to Holmes, Sondland replied that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy "will, quote, 'do anything you ask him to.'"
Hill said Bolton told her he didn't want to be involved in any "drug deal" Sondland and Trump's acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were cooking up over the Ukrainian investigations Trump wanted.
Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and donor to Trump's inauguration, appeared before lawmakers Wednesday in a marathon session.
He declared that Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani explicitly sought a "quid pro quo" with Ukraine, leveraging an Oval Office visit for political investigations of Democrats. But he also came to believe the trade involved much more.
Sondland testified it was his understanding the president was holding up nearly $400 million in military aid, which Ukraine badly needs with an aggressive Russia on its border, in exchange for the country's announcement of the investigations.
Sondland conceded that Trump never told him directly the security assistance was blocked for the probes, a gap in his account that Republicans and the White House seized on as evidence the president did nothing wrong. But the ambassador said his dealings with Giuliani, as well as administration officials, left him with the clear understanding of what was at stake.
"Was there a 'quid pro quo'?" Sondland testified in opening remarks. "With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes."
The rest, he said, was obvious: "Two plus two equals four."
Later Wednesday, another witness undercut a main Republican argument — that Ukraine didn't even realize the money was being held up. The Defense Department's Laura Cooper testified that Ukrainian officials started asking about it on July 25, which was the day of Trump's phone call with Zelenskiy, when he first asked for a "favor."
Sondland was the most highly anticipated witness in the House's impeachment inquiry into the 45th president of the United States.
In often-stunning testimony, he painted a picture of a Ukraine pressure campaign that was prompted by Trump himself, orchestrated by Giuliani and well-known to other senior officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Sondland said he raised his concerns about a quid pro quo for military aid with Vice President Mike Pence — a conversation Pence said he didn't recall.
However, Sondland said: "Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret."
The ambassador said he and Trump spoke directly about desired investigations, including a colorful cellphone call this summer overheard by others at a restaurant in Kyiv.
Trump himself insists daily that he did nothing wrong and the Democrats are just trying to drum him out of office.
As the hearing proceeded, he spoke to reporters outside the White House. Reading from notes written with a black marker, Trump quoted Sondland quoting Trump to say the president wanted nothing from the Ukrainians and did not seek a quid pro quo. He also distanced himself from his hand-picked ambassador, saying he didn't know him "very well."
Trump concluded, "It's all over" for the impeachment proceedings.
In Moscow on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was pleased that the "political battles" in Washington had overtaken the Russia allegations, which are supported by the U.S. intelligence agencies.
"Thank God," Putin said, "no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they're accusing Ukraine."
Veteran New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney was elected Wednesday lead the powerful House Oversight and Reform Committee, the first woman to hold the job in the panel's 92-year history.
Maloney defeated Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly by a 133-86 vote in a secret ballot among the full Democratic caucus. She succeeds the late Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who died last month.
As Oversight chief, Maloney, 73, will play a key role in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.
The committee has a broad portfolio, including oversight of the Trump administration's handling of the census and immigration matters, as well as investigations into Trump's business dealings and security clearances granted to White House officials.
Oversight is among the committees handling the impeachment inquiry, although the most visible one is the House Intelligence Committee, whose chairman is Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
Maloney, who lost out to Cummings as the committee's top Democrat nearly a decade ago, is the panel's longest-serving Democrat, having joined the committee in 1993. She has led the committee on an acting basis for the past month.
In a statement Wednesday, Maloney said she is "deeply humbled and grateful to my colleagues for entrusting me with the chairmanship.''
She pledged to do her best to "follow the honorable example that Chairman Cummings left for us all. There's much work to be done, and I can't wait to get started.''
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Maloney "a deeply respected and battle-tested leader" who has been a force for progress for decades.
"She brings outstanding legislative experience and knowledge of the workings of Congress that will strengthen the Oversight Committee's work at this critical time in our nation's history,'' Pelosi said, adding that she is confident Maloney's leadership "will help ensure that Congress can function as our founders intended, as a co-equal branch acting as a check and balance on the others.''
Maloney is in her 14th term representing a district that includes much of Manhattan, including Trump Tower. She is best known for her years of advocacy for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and famously wore a New York firefighter's jacket at the Capitol and even at the Met Gala until she could secure permanent authorization for a victims' fund. A measure making the 9/11 fund permanent was a rare example of a bipartisan bill signed into law earlier this year.
Maloney has promised to continue the robust oversight agenda begun by Cummings after Democrats assumed the majority this year. In a letter to colleagues, she touted her work helping to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 census, promote the Equal Rights Amendment and to introduce bills to guarantee paid family leave for federal employees.
Connolly, 69, congratulated Maloney on her election, noting in a statement that Oversight "has a consequential responsibility in the next year to bring transparency and accountability to the Trump administration for the American people.'' He said Maloney has his full support.
Maloney also serves on the House Financial Services Committee, reflecting the importance of the financial industry in her district. She agreed to give up her role leading a subcommittee on investor protection and capital markets if elected to head Oversight.
Gordan Sondland couldn't always get President Donald Trump on the phone. Trump now says he barely knows the guy. But for a time, when they did talk, they spoke in naughty words and explicitly discussed pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations.
Was there a quid pro quo?
"Yes," Sondland, the central figure in the House's impeachment inquiry, told the world in his testimony Wednesday. What's more, Sondland said repeatedly, "Everyone was in the loop."
With that, the president's "Gordon problem" became a bombshell that sprayed the president, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, current and former national security leaders and Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani amid the House's drive to impeach the 45th president.
Sondland's sworn testimony in public and private left some questions unanswered, but he was crystal clear about one thing: If he's going to be blamed for what happened in Ukraine, he's not going quietly.
"It wasn't a secret," Sondland said of the president's push to get Ukraine to announce it was investigating the 2016 U.S. election and a gas company linked to Joe Biden. "The leadership at the State Department, the National Security Council and the White House were all informed about the Ukraine efforts."
It was a notable case of transactional Washington relationships going bust under the pressure of scandal.
"I don't know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well," Trump told reporters at the White House. Sondland has served as ambassador since July 2018.
Trump did recall one thing, though, about Sondland: The Oregon hotelier supported other Republicans for president before he donated $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee and became a "VVIP" for the events.
"He actually supported other candidates. Not me. He came in late," Trump said, as Sondland's testimony stretched across seven hours.
Back on Capitol Hill, Sondland confirmed that the two are not tight.
"It really depends on what you mean by 'know well,'" Sondland said. "We are not close friends, no. We have a professional, cordial working relationship."
Still true or not, Sondland revealed some of the ways their relationship worked amid Trump's pressure campaign on Ukraine.
Trump, he noted, was sometimes in a "bad mood." The president at times told him to "talk to Rudy" about Ukraine. Ultimately, Sondland told a State Department official, the president didn't really care about Ukraine or the millions of dollars in military aid that were being withheld from the U.S. ally on the border with Russia. He cared about a discredited theory that Ukraine, and not Russia, meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
"Mr. Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelenskiy," Sondland said. Knowing that resistance was futile, Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and then-special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker worked with Giuliani to pressure Ukraine "at the express direction of the president of the United States."
On June 26, Sondland called Trump from his cell phone from a restaurant in Kyiv. According to the testimony of other witnesses, Sondland held the phone out for others to hear. Yes, he reassured Trump, the Ukrainian president was willing to do what the U.S. president asked.
"Putting it in Trump-speak by saying 'he loves your ass, he'll do whatever you want,' meant that he would really work with us on a whole host of issues," Sondland testified. At another point, Sondland said, "That's how President Trump and I communicate, a lot of four-letter words; in this case three letter."
It was one of as many as 20 times Sondland said he has spoken with Trump by telephone. Perhaps a half-dozen of those were about Ukraine, Sondland testified Wednesday. He and other witnesses said that they did not know at the time that Trump's demand to investigate Ukrainian gas company Burisma also meant investigating Biden's son Hunter, who sits on the board.
On one of those times, Sept. 9, Sondland said he picked up the phone and called Trump for what turned out to be a "very short, abrupt conversation."
"I said, 'What do you want from Ukraine?'" Sondland recalled. "He was not in a good mood. And he just said, 'I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelenskiy to do the right thing.'"
Sondland also was asked about an account in which presidential adviser Fiona Hill challenged him on his claim to be the one running Ukraine policy. When she asked who said so, he replied, "The president," she testified in closed session.
Actually, Sondland said, it wasn't Trump who gave him the assignment. Rather, then-national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney signed off.
"So, by extension, yes, if the national security adviser and the chief of staff approve your remit, it really is coming from the president," Sondland said.
Hill is scheduled to testify publicly Thursday.
As Hill navigated Sondland's moves, she at one point referred to the shadow Ukraine policy as Trump's "Gordon problem," according to a colleague.
"That's what my wife calls me. Maybe they're talking," Sondland quipped during the hearing. "Should I be worried?"
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday accused China of using coercion and intimidation against smaller Asian nations to impose its will in the South China Sea. He urged Vietnam and others in the region to push back.
"We will not accept attempts to assert unlawful maritime claims at the expense of law-abiding nations," Esper said in a speech to the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, a government university.
Vietnam is one of the region's most vocal critics of China's sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea and has accused Beijing of encroaching into its waters.
"The United States firmly opposes intimidation by any claimant to assert its territorial or maritime claims, and we call for an end to the bullying and unlawful activities," Esper said.
Later, in remarks at Vietnam's Communist Party headquarters, Esper said, "We strongly oppose violations of international law by China and excessive claims in the South China Sea."
As part of a long-term effort to forge closer relations with Vietnam, Esper announced that the U.S. will provide Vietnam's coast guard with a surplus American ship. He said it would be provided next year, but he gave no details on payment or exact timing.
Esper met with several top government officials and paid a visit to the city's Hoa Lo prison, dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" by American servicemen held there during the Vietnam War. The late Sen. John McCain was held there after he was shot down in his Navy jet over Hanoi in 1967.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper says the United States is providing Vietnam with a surplus American ship for its coast guard.
Esper made the announcement during a speech Wednesday at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, a government university in Hanoi. He said it would be provided next year, but he gave no details on payment or exact timing.
Esper also was meeting in Hanoi with senior Vietnamese government officials. It is his first visit to the country since becoming defense secretary in July.
Vietnam is one of the most vocal critics of China's sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea and has accused Beijing of encroaching into its waters.