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House Impeachment Panels Publish Testimony From Volker And Sondland

Nov 6, 2019
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At this hour, State Department official David Hale is on Capitol Hill, testifying behind closed doors about the Trump administration's handling of military aid to Ukraine - this after a revelation yesterday that Ambassador Gordon Sondland amended his previous testimony to the House Intelligence Committee. Eighteen days after testifying before House investigators, Sondland submitted an addendum. In previous testimony, the ambassador said there had been no quid pro quo. Now he says he delivered it himself. The three pages include crucial information about a meeting that Sondland had with a top aide for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has been digging into hundreds of pages of transcripts released this week, and she joined us earlier. Hi, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hi there.

MARTIN: So Gordon Sondland - in his original testimony, he laid out this timeline of important events related to the House impeachment inquiry.

GRISALES: Right.

MARTIN: But he left out a key date - September 1. Explain why that's significant.

GRISALES: Yeah, that is a critical date now. He says it was on this day that he met with an aide to the president of Ukraine to let them know that military assistance was predicated on investigations of corruption. And so Sondland said he recalled he delivered this message. And he testified that he told this official, Andriy Yermak, quote, "I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks."

MARTIN: So this is a big omission because - and it stands in contrast to what he said in his original testimony. Why the change?

GRISALES: Right. So Sondland said his memory was jogged by witnesses who came after him and contradicted him. He said these witnesses' recollection of aid being held up refreshed his recollection. In his original testimony to House investigators, he said he had no idea there was a quid pro quo. But in this new testimony, he lays out what is the very definition of a quid pro quo, that the aid was held up for these investigations.

MARTIN: And how did Sondland understand these investigations? What did he think they were about?

GRISALES: So Sondland said he thought this was about a general corruption probe. He describes it as an insidious process. First, he didn't think there were conditions, and then there were. He failed to make the connection between Biden and Burisma Holdings, this energy company that's been a large focus where former Vice President Joe Biden's son worked. And in one exchange with investigators, he was asked, with all the media coverage, had he seen mention of Giuliani in the news? Had he watched...

MARTIN: Because Giuliani was talking incessantly about Burisma...

GRISALES: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...And Hunter Biden on cable.

GRISALES: Exactly. And so they were asking him, how did you miss this? Do you watch any of the news? Do you watch TV? And he said eventually, I do watch TV, but I watch HBO.

MARTIN: Ah, suggesting that he wasn't aware of that connection. So this wasn't the only transcript that was released. We also got a transcript of testimony from former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. What did we learn from that?

GRISALES: So Kurt Volker talked about a May 2019 meeting in the Oval Office that included him, Sondland and others. They had just returned from the inauguration of the Ukrainian president. They wanted to deliver a message that this new change in administration in that country would put a new focus on corruption. However, Trump was very resistant. And he said, quote, "they will take me down. They want to" - I'm sorry - "they will want to take me down." And so he was resistant. He said, talk to Rudy. And they had difficulties delivering this message, Volker said. So he prevented...

MARTIN: So just to be clear, the president was trying to shift the focus from Russia, which actually did interfere in the U.S. election...

GRISALES: Right.

MARTIN: ...Trying to put the blame on Ukraine. And Volker kind of poked a hole in that entire conspiracy theory, right?

GRISALES: Right, right. It was yet another illustration of this debunked theory that Ukraine played a role in the 2016 elections.

MARTIN: So what does all this information mean to the impeachment inquiry going forward, and more specifically, how does it change the Republican argument in defense of President Trump? I mean, what are Trump's allies saying right now?

GRISALES: Well, they have demanded more of this public transparency, more of these transcripts to be released. Now that they are, they're basically pushing off the developments and still passionately defending the president. However, it seems as we move further into this public phase of the inquiry, it's putting Republicans in a bigger and bigger bind.

MARTIN: And the White House itself has released a statement?

GRISALES: Yes, they have released a statement. They said that basically that this - these new developments show that the impeachment inquiry - rephrasing in their own words, that it remains a sham, and that it doesn't change their position that the president didn't engage in anything that was of concern.

MARTIN: And meanwhile there is this transition to a more public phase. As part of that, House investigators have subpoenaed - no, they have invited, I should clarify - they have invited acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to come testify, correct?

GRISALES: Right. They've invited - sometimes what will happen is we'll see these committees issue a subpoena right before they are due to show for these investigations.

MARTIN: NPR's Claudia Grisales, thank you.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.