Washington, DC – The impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump expanded this week as senior White House and State Department officials defied the president’s attempts to block their testimony to Congress.
Adding to the president’s troubles, his acting White House chief of staff confirmed Trump held up US military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a promise from President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the 2016 US elections.
Amid the widening scandal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confronted Trump at a dramatic White House meeting on Turkey and Syria about his foreign policy favours for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And new details emerged in testimony taken behind closed doors about the role of Ukrainian operatives in feeding “false information” and “conspiracy theories” to Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Since September 24, the Democrat-led House has been pursuing an impeachment inquiry of Trump. The inquiry is being led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat. It was sparked by a US intelligence officer’s whistle-blower report that alleged the Trump and Giuliani pressured Ukraine to help his 2020 election campaign.
Here are eight key developments from this week.
1. Mulvaney admits Ukraine aid was ‘held up’
Trump’s acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged that Trump’s decision to hold up military aid to Ukraine was linked to the demand for an investigation into what happened in the 2016 US election.
At a rare on-camera briefing for reporters at the White House on Thursday, Mulvaney said the president’s desire for an investigation into the 2016 election was the reason why the aid was delayed.
“Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely,” Mulvaney said. “But that’s it. That’s why we held up the money.”
Mulvaney was referring to a now-debunked conspiracy theory that hacked DNC servers were in Ukraine.
“The look back to what happened in 2016 was certainly part of what he was worried about with respect to corruption in that country,” he said.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney answers questions from reporters during a news briefing at the White House in Washington, DC Leah Millis/Reuters
At Trump’s direction, Mulvaney had instructed US agencies in early July to suspend all security assistance to Ukraine including nearly $400m in military funding approved by Congress months earlier, according to the whistle-blower’s report.
Mulvaney defended the action, saying it is standard practice for US presidents to hold up aid to achieve specific goals.
“I would say to everybody, get over it,” Mulvaney said. “There is going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
Later on Thursday, Mulvaney accused the media of misconstruing his comments during the briefing.
He said there was “no quid pro quo” (Latin for “favour for a favour”) and that Trump had not directed him to withhold money from Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into the 2016 election.
2. Ambassador Sondland breaks with Trump on Ukraine
US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland defied previous orders from the State Department not to speak to House impeachment investigators and appeared behind closed doors for a sworn interview on Thursday.
Sondland told investigators that Trump directed State Department diplomats to work with Giuliani on Ukraine.
In a White House meeting on May 23, with Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and State diplomats who had attended Zelensky’s inauguration, Trump was asked to do a working phone call with Zelensky and arrange an Oval Office visit.
Trump was “sceptical” about the visit and directed the group to talk to Giuliani, Sondland told investigators.
“It was obvious to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr Giuliani,” Sondland said in opening remarks to House members as reported by US media.
US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, centre, arrives for a joint interview with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and House Committee on Oversight and Reform Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
Sondland said he and others were disappointed by Trump’s direction but that he didn’t learn until 10 weeks later what Giuliani’s agenda was in Ukraine.
Giuliani told Sondland in August that Trump wanted a public statement from Zelensky announcing investigations of whether hacked DNC servers from 2016 were in Ukraine and of the gas company Burisma. Sondland said that to the best of his recollection, Giuliani did not mention the Bidens. Giuliani had been on a campaign to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who served on Burisma’s board.
Sondland, however, denied involvement in Trump’s scheme to withhold military aid and condition a White House meeting for Zelenksy on the announcement of investigations. But he faulted the president for the alleged actions.
“Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming US election would be wrong,” Sondland told investigators. The military aid was “vital” and “should not have been delayed for any reason”.
3. ‘A meltdown’: Pelosi confronts Trump
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confronted Trump over his foreign policy decision-making in the first face-to-face meeting between the two since the House formally began its impeachment inquiry on September 24.
“Yesterday at the White House, I pointed out to the president that I had concerns that all roads seem to lead to Putin,” Pelosi explained at a news conference on Thursday.
The topic of the meeting, attended by more than a dozen administration officials and congressional leaders, was Turkey’s military operation in Syria.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stands and speaks to US President Donald Trump during an October 16 meeting about Syria Handout/Shealah Craighhead/The White House
“The Russians have been trying to get a foothold in the Middle East for a very long time unsuccessfully and now the president has given them the opportunity with the Kurds reaching out to them for support in Syria,” Pelosi said.
“The Russians were the beneficiaries of any withholding of assistance or encouragement to the Ukraine, again Putin benefits,” she said.
“The Russians benefitted, Putin did, when the president placed some doubt about our commitment to NATO right from the start of his administration.”
Trump hurled insults at Pelosi at the meeting, calling her a “third-grade politician”, Democrat leaders who attended the meeting told reporters.
Pelosi then excused herself from the meeting and walked out.
4. Republican leader forecasts Senate trial
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Republican senators on Wednesday they should be prepared for an impeachment trial by late November that would carry through to the end of the year.
“Under the impeachment rules of the Senate we will have to take the matter up,” McConnell told reporters after Republicans’ regular weekly caucus meeting on Wednesday.
Under US constitutional procedures, if the House passes articles of impeachment against the president, the Senate must conduct a trial presided over by the chief justice of the US Supreme Court. A two-thirds vote of the Senate, or 67 of 100 Senators would then be required to remove the president from office.
“The chief justice will be in the chair. We will have to convene every day after, six days out of seven,” McConnell said. “We intend to do our constitutional responsibility.”
Asked whether she concurred with McConnell’s expectation an impeachment trial would be wrapped up before 2020 – a US election year – Speaker Pelosi deferred.
“Impeachment is about the truth and the Constitution of the United States,” Pelosi told reporters on Thursday.
“We don’t know where this path will take us,” Pelosi said of the Ukraine inquiry. “The timeline will depend on truth line.”
5. Energy Secretary Perry to step down
Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Thursday informed Trump of his intention to resign as questions mount about his role in the US’s dealings with Ukraine.
At Trump’s direction, Perry took a leading role in coordinating US policy on Ukraine with Giuliani that Democrats say was a “shadow” campaign to pressure Zelensky into investigating the Bidens.
US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry speaks during a news conference File: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Perry called Giuliani to find out what the president’s concerns with Ukraine were, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.
“And as I recall the conversation, he said ‘Look, the president is really concerned that there are people in Ukraine that tried to beat him during this presidential election,'” Perry told the Journal.
Giuliani told Perry that Trump blamed “corrupt” people in Ukraine for the “Steele dossier” of opposition research that alleged Trump coordinated with Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign, the newspaper reported.
Trump believed someone in Ukraine had possession of hacked computer servers owned by the Democratic Party and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Giuliani told Perry according to the account.
Trump also thought Ukraine was the source of evidence used by federal prosecutors to send his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, to jail. Manafort is presently serving a seven-and-half year sentence for fraud, Perry told the Journal.
6. Senior officials talk to House investigators
Michael McKinley, a 37-year career State Department official who resigned a week ago as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s top staff aide, testified behind closed doors to House impeachment investigators on Wednesday.
McKinley told House members he resigned in protest over how Trump and Giuliani side-lined State Department diplomats in the handling of Ukraine policy, according to excerpts of this statement obtained by US media.
“I was disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents,” McKinley reportedly said to investigators.
“I could no longer look the other way,” he said.
George Kent, who is the deputy assistant secretary of state for Eastern Europe, described for House members the White House meeting in May when Trump directed Perry, Sondland and Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker to take direction from Giuliani.
“It was very powerful testimony,” Representative Gerry Connolly told reporters afterwards.
“Here is a senior State Department official responsible for six countries – one of which was Ukraine – who found himself outside of a parallel process that he felt was undermining 28 years of US policy in promoting the rule of law in Ukraine,” Connolly, a Democrat, said.
Kent detailed for House investigators how Trump and Giuliani took up “false information” and “conspiracy theories” that were being generated by discredited Ukrainian sources, Connolly said.
Perry, Sondland and Volker called themselves the “Three Amigos” as they wrested control of Ukraine policy from career officials, Kent told the House according to Connolly.
Fiona Hill, top Russia expert at White House National Security Council, told House investigators that she feared Ambassador Sondland was a security risk and that foreign operatives may have been involved in Trump’s Ukraine scheme, according to the New York Times.
Hill’s boss, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, thought Giuliani’s activities in Ukraine were illegal, she told House investigators according to the Times.
“I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton instructed Hill to tell White House lawyers, she said, according to the report.
Some Democrats are calling for Bolton to appear before impeachment investigators.
7. 2020 Democrats united in call for impeachment
Twelve Democratic presidential hopefuls defended the impeachment inquiry during the fourth debate earlier this week.
Former Vice President and frontrunner for the nomination Joe Biden said on stage that the focus needs to be on Trump.
“Giuliani, the president and his thugs have already proven the fact that they are flat lying,” Biden said.
He added that his son, Hunter, “did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, another frontrunner, said that “impeachment is the way that we establish that this man will not be permitted to break the law over and over without consequences”.
8. Republican John Kasich supports impeachment
A day after the Mulvaney news briefing, John Kasich, the former Ohio governor who ran against Trump in 2016 for the Republican presidential nomination, said on Friday he supported the impeachment of the president.
“The last 24 hours has really forced me to review all of this,” Kasich told CNN, adding that Mulvaney’s comments a day earlier were the “final straw”.