Key US diplomat underscores role of Trump lawyer Giuliani in Ukraine scandal

US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland arrives on Capitol Hill before testifying to congress behind closed doors, as part of the impeachment inquiry in Washington, US, October 17, 2019. — Reuters pic
US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland arrives on Capitol Hill before testifying to congress behind closed doors, as part of the impeachment inquiry in Washington, US, October 17, 2019. — Reuters pic

WASHINGTON, Oct 17 — President Donald Trump directed senior US officials to talk directly to his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, about US policy in Ukraine, stirring concern that the president was outsourcing foreign policy to a private citizen, the US ambassador to the European Union said today.

The envoy, Gordon Sondland, told lawmakers in the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry against Trump that he did not understand “until much later” that Giuliani’s agenda may have included a push for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

In a prepared testimony to the Democratic-led inquiry, Sondland said foreign policy should be the work of the State Department, and not the president’s personal lawyer.

Sondland, a former Trump political donor, also said that “inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming US election would be wrong.”

His testimony underscored the pivotal role of Giuliani in the Ukraine scandal. The impeachment inquiry centres on Trump’s request on a July telephone call that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy investigate Biden, a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination to face Trump. Before that request, Giuliani had been working to engineer such an investigation.

Democrats have accused Trump of pressing a vulnerable US ally to dig up dirt on a domestic political opponent, improperly inviting foreign interference in an American election.

The impeachment inquiry could lead to the House passing formal charges — known as articles of impeachment — which would prompt a trial in the Senate on whether to remove Trump from office. The Senate is controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, who have shown little inclination toward removing him.

Sondland said that on May 23, three days after Zelenskiy’s inauguration, US officials who had attended debriefed Trump and key aides at the White House.

The ambassador said the officials taking part in the meeting emphasised the strategic importance of Ukraine and the importance of the relationship with Zelenskiy, who he called a reformer planning to fight corruption.

“We asked the White House to arrange a working phone call from President Trump and a working Oval Office visit. However, President Trump was sceptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption, and he directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Mr Giuliani, his personal attorney, about his concerns,” he added.

“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the President’s mind on Ukraine was Mr Giuliani,” he said.

Sondland is the latest witness to speak to lawmakers about his knowledge of efforts by Trump to urge Ukraine to investigate Biden. Trump withheld US$391 million (RM1.6 billion) in military aid to Ukraine before making the request.

“Please know that I would not have recommended that Mr Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters,” Sondland said, but added that given Trump’s ‘explicit direction’ that “we agreed to do as President Trump directed.”

‘Excellent diplomat’

Sondland said Ukraine was part of his broader work since the time he took the post in June 2018. He said he was never part of a campaign to remove Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled from the post in May by Trump.

“I found her to be an excellent diplomat with a deep command of Ukrainian internal dynamics, the US-Ukraine relationship, and associated regional issues,” Sondland said.

Yovanovitch appeared before the impeachment inquiry last Friday, telling lawmakers that Trump ousted her based on “unfounded and false claims” after she had come under attack by Giuliani. Giuliani has accused Yovanovitch of blocking efforts to persuade Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who has served as a director for a Ukrainian energy company.

Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption related to Ukraine without offering evidence. The Bidens have denied any wrongdoing.

Sondland said he did not fully appreciate in late May what Giuliani’s intentions were regarding Ukraine.

“I did not understand, until much later, that Mr Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President’s 2020 reelection campaign,” Sondland said.

Sondland said he was not on the July 25 call between Trump and the Ukrainian leader, did not know about the president’s request regarding a Biden investigation — and did not see a transcript until two months later, when the White House made a summary of the call public.

“None of the brief and general call summaries I received contained any mention of Burisma or former Vice President Biden, nor even suggested that President Trump had made any kind of request of President Zelensky,” Sondland added.

Sondland said he recalls subsequently speaking with Giuliani “two or three times” by phone about Ukraine.

“In these short conversations, Mr Giuliani emphasised that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues,” Sondland said. “Mr Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the President.”

The “DNC server” issue refers to a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine and not Russia interfered in the 2016 US election and that a Democratic Party computer server was being held somewhere in Ukraine.

One of the lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry, Democratic US Representative Elijah Cummings, has died at age 68, his office said today. Cummings was the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. His office said the congressman died “due to complications concerning longstanding health challenges.” — Reuters

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