The former special envoy to Ukraine testified Tuesday he should have realized – as many of his colleagues did – that President Donald Trump was holding up military aid to Ukraine to pressure the country to investigate political rival Joe Biden.
In public testimony before the House impeachment inquiry, Kurt Volker said he understands now, thanks to hindsight and the testimony of other witnesses, that Trump was using the aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden’s son, Hunter, and his role on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma.
But Volker insisted he did not know of the push at the time, despite his deep involvement with Ukrainian officials on a statement – never released – that would have committed the country to investigating Burisma and the 2016 U.S. election. Nor did he make the connection after Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, mentioned the allegations against Joe Biden during a July 19 breakfast, Volker said.
“In retrospect I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections,” Volker said Tuesday in his opening statement.
Volker was testifying alongside former White House national security official Tim Morrison in the second hearing of the day in the House’s impeachment inquiry, the fourth in history against a U.S. president. Both witnesses were requested by Republicans.
Democrats say there may be grounds for impeachment in Trump’s push for Ukraine’s new leadership to investigate his Democratic rival and the 2016 U.S. election as he withheld critical U.S. military assistance.
Trump says he did no such thing and the Democrats just want him gone. He dismissed the hearings as a “kangaroo court.”
Morrison, who stepped down from the National Security Council shortly before he appeared behind closed doors last month, has said he is not concerned that anything illegal was discussed on Trump’s July 25 call, something Republicans have repeatedly highlighted.
“As I stated during my deposition, I feared at the time of the call on July 25th how its disclosure would play in Washington’s political climate,” he said Tuesday. “My fears have been realized.”
Volker, meanwhile, was the first person to come behind closed doors in the inquiry that started in September, resigning his position shortly before he did so.
Since then, a parade of witnesses have testified publicly and privately about what they recalled about the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s new leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Many of those statements cast doubt on Volker’s account that he didn’t know Burisma was tied to Biden, and that he wasn’t aware of a possible quid pro quo. Volker was not on the call.
On Tuesday, Volker said he opposed any hold on security assistance. And he said he didn’t understand there was a link between Hunter Biden and Burisma.
“I did not understand that others believed that any investigation of the Ukrainian company, Burisma, which had a history of accusations of corruption, was tantamount to investigating Vice-President Biden,” he said. “I drew a distinction between the two.”
Morrison, however, confirmed to investigators that he witnessed a key September conversation in Warsaw between Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and a Ukrainian official. Sondland told the official that U.S. aid might be freed up if the country’s top prosecutor “would go to the mike and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation,” Morrison said in previous closed-door testimony.
A series of text messages Volker provided to lawmakers showed conversations between him, Sondland and Ambassador Bill Taylor, and other messages between Ukrainian officials. The messages discuss the need for Ukraine to launch investigations, including into Burisma.
Volker said he had one in-person meeting with Giuliani, in which Giuliani “raised, and I rejected, the conspiracy theory that Vice-President Biden would have been influenced in his duties as Vice-President by money paid to his son.”
He said he has known Biden for more than two decades and believes him to be an honourable man.
An earlier witness, Defence Department official Laura Cooper, told investigators Volker had told her in August that there was a “statement” that the Ukrainian government could make about investigation to get the security assistance flowing from the United States.
She said it was the first she had heard of a “quid pro quo” – the allegation central to the impeachment inquiry, that the U.S. would release the aid only if Ukraine announced an investigation.
Volker also said a senior aide to Zelenskiy approached him last summer to ask to be connected to Giuliani. He said he made clear to the Zelenskiy aide, Andrey Yermak, that Giuliani was a private citizen and not a representative of the U.S. government.
“Likewise, in my conversations with Mayor Giuliani, I never considered him to be speaking on the President’s behalf or giving `instructions.’ Rather, the information flow was the other way – from Ukraine to Mayor Giuliani in the hopes this would clear up the information reaching President Trump,” Volker said.
Volker himself requested a meeting in July with Giuliani. He said Giuliani mentioned the accusations about the Bidens, as well as a discredited theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Volker said he stressed that no one in the new team governing Ukraine had anything to do with the 2016 election, and that it was not credible to him that Biden would have been influenced in any way by personal or financial motivations.
Associated Press Writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Matthew Daly, Alan Fram, Lisa Mascaro and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.