Officials: Trump worked to secure Ukraine probe

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Fiona Hill, former White House adviser on Russia, arrives for a closed door meeting as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill.

WASHINGTON -- There was no hinting around, it was a straight-out trade, two key White House officials told impeachment investigators. If Ukraine's new leader wanted an Oval Office welcome from Donald Trump -- and he did -- he would have to open a public probe into the president's Democratic foe Joe Biden and his son.

"There was no ambiguity," said Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer assigned to the National Security Council, recounting an extraordinary day of meetings at the White House last summer.

According to transcripts released Friday in the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry, Vindman and Fiona Hill, a former White House Russia adviser, both gave firsthand descriptions of scenes central to the congressional probe.

Vindman testified that Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor serving as ambassador to the European Union, told the visiting officials that if they hoped to win that coveted face-to-face meeting, "the Ukrainians would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens."

The Bidens? the House questioners pressed. In the White House Ward Room he mentioned the word "Bidens?"

"To the best of my recollection, yes," Vindman testified. "My visceral reaction to what was being called for suggested that it was explicit."

In another episode that day at the White House, Hill testified that Trump's national security adviser John Bolton "immediately stiffened" as Sondland "blurted out" that he had worked out with Trump's acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney just that trade -- the Ukrainians' probe for an Oval Office welcome.

"Well, we have an agreement with the chief of staff for a meeting if these investigations in the energy sector start," Hill recalled -- a reference to the firm, Burisma, where Biden's son was on the board.

Then Bolton then abruptly ended the meeting.

Pressed on how it came to be that Sondland, a wealthy businessman who has become a key figure in the impeachment probe played such a pivotal role in Ukraine policy, Hill testified she was dismayed by the idea.

"He said he was in charge of Ukraine," Hill recalled.

She testified that she challenged the new ambassador to the point of being admittedly "rude" to him. "Who says you're in charge of Ukraine?" she said.

"The president," he replied.

The hundreds of pages of transcripts showed the investigation's deep reach into the White House ahead of next week's public hearings.

Vindman alerted superiors about the meeting he described and also after he listened to the July phone call in which Trump personally appealed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and an outlier theory of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Both officials are among nearly a dozen who have testified behind closed doors so far, and both said they were not the whistleblower.

Trump insisted earlier Friday he has not been damaged by testimony, and he and fellow Republicans complain the witnesses generally are relying on secondhand accounts of central events.

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