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Impeachment Probe Turns to Trump Ally at Heart of Ukraine Storm

Ryan Teague Beckwith and Billy House

(Bloomberg) -- After weeks of Republican complaints that the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry relied on secondhand information, the centerpiece of this week’s public hearings is testimony from a man with a direct line to President Donald Trump.

The political peril for Trump, who was dealt a series of setbacks last week, will be heightened as the House investigation accelerates with three days of public hearings starting Tuesday.

No witness is more central than Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, a Trump donor and a confederate with Rudy Giuliani in back-channel diplomatic efforts for the president in Ukraine.

Sondland, scheduled to testify Wednesday, has already amended his previous closed-door testimony once because of discrepancies with other witnesses. And now there will be new questions for him to answer about Trump’s pressure on the government in Kyiv to launch a probe entangling former Vice President Joe Biden and other political foes of the president.

David Holmes, a member of the embassy staff in Kyiv, came forward last week to tell impeachment investigators that following a phone conversation between Sondland and Trump, the EU envoy told him the president “didn’t give a s--- about Ukraine” and that the president only cares about the “big stuff” that benefits him “like the Biden investigation” that Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, was promoting.

Testimony from Tuesday through Thursday will come from a disparate cast of witnesses, some of whom could prove pivotal to the impeachment inquiry, including officials from the State Department, the White House national security teams, and Vice President Mike Pence’s office.

The hearings follow a rough week for Trump. Three career diplomats offered accounts that portrayed him as fixated on squeezing a political favor from Ukraine. Meanwhile, one-time confidant Roger Stone was convicted of lying to Congress and new details emerged about a federal investigation of Giuliani. Trump has lashed out at some of the witnesses, which Democrats said amounted to witness intimidation. Through it all, however, Republican lawmakers stood firmly behind the president.

Here’s a look at this week’s key witnesses:

Gordon Sondland: Trump’s Envoy

Having already amended his recollection of events, Sondland could prove unpredictable, for Trump and for Democrats.

A wealthy hotel chain owner and major inauguration donor, Sondland was an outsider to the diplomatic corps when Trump nominated him as ambassador to the European Union.

Democrats are certain to press him on Wednesday morning about his role as one of the “three amigos” who worked on the shadow Ukraine policy -- along with then-special Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry -- and especially his interactions with Trump.

Republicans may attempt to undercut him by noting that he’s been inconsistent: first testifying he never thought there were any conditions on delivering aid to Ukraine and then revising that later.

Democrats will focus on potential contradictions between his earlier testimony and statements by others. Sondland previously said he didn’t realize that Biden’s son, Hunter, was on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings and that a Trump demand for the company to be investigated might have political ramifications.

“Everybody’s going to be trying to get their soundbite from Ambassador Sondland, and if it goes long enough, I think everyone is going to be able to declare victory,” said Representative Mark Meadows, a Republican who sat-in on Sondland’s closed-door testimony.

Several other points are almost sure to come up: a May 23 meeting in which Trump urged him and Volker to talk to Giuliani about Ukraine; text messages he exchanged with acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, who expressed concern about the military aid being tied to a political favor; and a conversation he had with Perry after his initial testimony that he said was to refresh his memory.

But the biggest issue will be his July 26 call with Trump, which was overheard by Holmes, political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. According to a copy of his statement obtained by CNN, Holmes testified that during the call that he could hear Trump ask, “So, he’s going to do the investigations?” It was a reference to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Holmes said Sondland told him that when it comes to Ukraine, Trump only cared about investigations involving Biden.

“Sondland is important,” said Representative Peter Welch of Vermont, a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. “He was the ambassador for Trump in his effort to get Ukraine to do his dirty work on the Bidens.”

Alexander Vindman: NSC Specialist

As the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, Vindman is expected to speak Tuesday morning about several key moments he witnessed first-hand, including the April 21 and July 25 phone calls between Trump and Zelenskiy and a July 10 meeting in Washington with visiting Ukrainian officials.

Vindman will also testify about his concerns over the shadow Ukraine policy, including his unsuccessful attempt to correct omissions in the July 25 call summary, a memo he wrote urging Trump to release the aid and his advice to Ukrainian officials that they steer clear of U.S. domestic politics to protect their bipartisan support.

Vindman went to the NSC’s legal counsel with concerns about a July 10 meeting with Sondland, Perry, Volker, then-national security adviser John Bolton and Ukrainian officials. During the session, according to Vindman, Sondland demanded that Ukrainian leaders deliver “specific investigations” to secure a meeting between Zelenskiy and Trump.

The NSC expert says he was told about that meeting directly by Sondland immediately afterward, and Sondland emphasized the importance of the Ukraine probes into the 2016 election, as well as Biden.

Vindman said he told Sondland his statements were “inappropriate,” and that others believes so, too.

A Soviet refugee and Purple Heart recipient, Vindman is another witness whose credibility will be hard to impugn, especially since attacks from conservative pundits on his Ukrainian background after his closed-door testimony in October backfired.

Jennifer Williams: Pence Aide

A longtime State Department employee, Williams was on the July 25 phone call as an adviser to Vice President Mike Pence. She testifies Tuesday morning alongside Vindman, and over the weekend was the subject of a pre-emptive attack by the president describing her as a “Never Trumper.”

In her closed-door testimony on Nov. 7, she said that she found some of discussion on a July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy to be “unusual and inappropriate.”

Williams kept notes and told investigators the energy company was mentioned. “My notes did reflect that the word Burisma had come up in the call, that the president had mentioned Burisma,” she testified, her recall more in line with Vindman, than Morrison.

She also said she felt “the mention of these specific investigations” into the Bidens and the 2016 election went to the president’s “personal political agenda, as opposed to a broader foreign policy objective of the United States.”

Kurt Volker: Special Envoy

Appointed by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Volker is expected to undercut Trump’s claim that Biden pressed for a top Ukrainian prosecutor to be fired in order to protect his son. He testifies Tuesday afternoon.

As one of the “three amigos” on Ukraine, Volker is also expected to testify that Trump told him to talk to Giuliani during a May 23 meeting and that Trump was obsessed with a conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.

At the same time, Volker -- a witness who Republicans also requested -- has testified that he wasn’t aware of any link between an Oval Office visit for Zelenskiy and a promise to conduct the investigations Trump wanted. He’s said that he also did not see the delay in the U.S. security assistance as significant or unprecedented.

Timothy Morrison: Russia Specialist

The former top Russia adviser on the National Security Council, Morrison is the next official who listened to the July 25 phone call to testify. When he appears Tuesday afternoon, Republicans will likely home in on his past statement that he heard nothing illegal in the call. However he’s added that he was concerned about how it would look if leaked.

Morrison also told House impeachment committees during closed door testimony on Oct. 31 that a memo of the call later released by the White House was “accurate and complete.”

That contradicts testimony by Vindman, who said the summary left out some phrases, including a mention of Burisma Holdings, the energy company where Biden’s son served on the board.

Morrison also has said that NSC lawyer John Eisenberg told him the transcript of that call was not intended to end up in a highly classified system. “It was a mistake,” Morrison said Eisenberg claimed.

Democrats will focus on testimony from Morrison that Sondland told him how he had informed a high-ranking Ukrainian official on Sept. 1 that release of $400 million in the U.S. military aid was being linked to the investigations.

Morrison testified behind closed doors that Sondland later claimed such a statement from Ukraine’s prosecutor general wouldn’t do, because Trump had told him “there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelenskiy had to do it and he should want to do it.” He added: “Sondland believed and at least related to me that the president was giving him instruction.”

Officials also said Republicans could ask him questions -- as they did during his closed-door deposition -- about who may have talked and provided information to the whistle-blower whose complaint triggered the impeachment probe.

Laura Cooper: Pentagon Official

The Pentagon’s top official on Russia and Ukraine, Cooper is expected to testify Wednesday afternoon about the delay in military aid and how Volker told her it was tied to a public statement of an investigation into the Bidens.

She also is expected to say that Ukrainian officials were aware that the aid was being held up. A key defense offered by Trump’s allies is that Ukraine wasn’t aware of the hold up, which would undercut the contention that it was a quid pro quo. Republicans will likely press her on how she knows this.

David Hale: Senior State Department Official

The third-ranking official at the State Department, Hale is expected to testify Wednesday afternoon about the agency’s internal response to the recall of ousted Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, especially its concerns about how any public defense of her might be received by Giuliani.

His public testimony was also requested by Republicans. An official familiar with his previous closed-door testimony said it includes some differences in interpretations or recollections of events from other witnesses.

Fiona Hill: Ex-NSC Official

A former White House adviser on Russia, Hill is expected Thursday morning to discuss the views of her boss, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who is seeking a court ruling on whether he can testify to Congress. Hill is expected to describe Bolton referring to the shadow Ukraine policy as a “drug deal” and Giuliani as a “hand grenade.”

As someone who worked closely with Trump, she is expected to support several parts of the Democrats’ case, including the idea that military aid to Ukraine was tied to the Biden investigations, concern about Sondland and Giuliani and the president’s interest in a conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.

She is also expected to tell a dramatic story about the July 10 meeting, in which Bolton sent her racing through the White House to stop Sondland from pressuring a group of visiting Ukrainians into investigating Biden.

--With assistance from Steven T. Dennis and Daniel Flatley.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ryan Teague Beckwith in New York at rbeckwith3@bloomberg.net;Billy House in Washington at bhouse5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at kwhitelaw@bloomberg.net, Joe Sobczyk

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