Sondland said Trump 'cares more' about Biden investigation than Ukraine, Taylor says
WASHINGTON – A new revelation in public testimony from Ambassador Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, was that one of his aides overheard a phone call July 26 between President Donald Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in which the president inquired about "the investigations."
Trump had requested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky investigate former Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that had been under investigation, as well as alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election. U.S. intelligence has found no evidence of Ukrainian meddling in 2016.
Taylor testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that his staffer asked Sondland what the president thought about Ukraine after the phone call, which came a day after Trump's conversation with Zelensky, which is the focus of the impeachment inquiry. Sondland said, "President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden," than U.S. policies on Ukraine, according to Taylor.
In a news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump denied that he had a phone conversation with Sondland in which he asked the ambassador about whether Ukraine would proceed with investigations.
"I know nothing about that," Trump said. "First time I've heard it. ... I don’t recall. Not at all. Not even a little bit."
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Taylor delivered an opening statement that largely echoed his closed-door testimony at hearings Oct. 22. He said he arrived in Kyiv on July 17 and discovered two diplomatic tracks that provided “a weird combination of encouraging, confusing and ultimately alarming circumstances.” The channels of the official State Department and a back channel guided by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani quickly began diverging, he said.
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The ambassador shed more light on the Trump administration's decision to freeze $400 million in security aid for Ukraine over the summer, including attempts by senior administration officials to convince Trump to release the military assistance. Taylor said CIA Director Gina Haspel was among senior administration officials who tried to persuade Trump to lift the hold on Ukraine's military aid.
"My understanding was that the secretaries of defense and state, the CIA director, and the national security adviser sought a joint meeting with the president to convince him to release the hold, but such a meeting was hard to schedule, and the hold lasted well into September," Taylor said.
Also Wednesday, House Democrats scheduled two closed-door depositions in the impeachment inquiry for Friday and Saturday, including from the Taylor aide who overheard Sondland's call with Trump.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., confirmed after the hearing that the aide is David Holmes, counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, who is scheduled to appear Nov. 15. Mark Sandy, an official in the Office of Management and Budget who failed to show up for a closed-door deposition last week, is scheduled for Nov. 16.
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Contributing: Nicholas Wu