(BBC) – A US diplomat has told the presidential impeachment inquiry that he followed Donald Trump’s orders to put pressure on Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.
The US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, said Mr Trump had told him to work with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine policy.
The hearings are looking into allegations that Mr Trump tried to get Ukraine to investigate political rival Mr Biden in exchange for military aid.
Mr Trump says the inquiry is a “hoax”.
Mr Sondland told the latest hearing in the US House of Representatives that Mr Giuliani had sought a public statement from Ukraine announcing a probe into “corruption issues”.
Mr Giuliani specifically mentioned the company Burisma – which counted the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Hunter, as a board member – and issues surrounding the 2016 US presidential election.
The hearings are a Democratic Party-led effort to find out if President Trump – a Republican – held back military aid to Ukraine to pressure the country’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, into announcing a corruption inquiry into Mr Biden, one of the leading Democratic candidates for the US presidential election next year.
If found guilty in a majority vote in the House, Mr Trump will face an impeachment trial in the Senate. But two-thirds of members of that Republican-controlled chamber would then need to vote for Mr Trump to be removed from office.
What exactly did Sondland say?
In his opening statement, Mr Sondland confirmed that the president had sought an investigation in exchange for a White House visit for Mr Zelensky – a quid pro quo, meaning a favour in return for a favour.
“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
The US diplomat said he was “adamantly opposed” to the suspension of military aid to Ukraine, and was never told why it was withheld.
But he came to believe it was linked with Ukraine announcing corruption investigations.
Mr Sondland said he later told an aide to the Ukrainian president: “I believed that the resumption of US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on the public statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
Moreover, the EU ambassador insisted that this was not a secret plan, as some critics have suggested, instead arguing it was transparent and that his superiors were “fully supportive”.
“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Mr Sondland said.
Who knew about the Ukraine plan?
Specifically, Mr Sondland said the leaders of the state department, National Security Council and White House were informed, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He does not remember any objections from his superiors to the policy.
In his testimony, the ambassador said he even discussed the fact military aid had been withheld with Vice President Mike Pence on a visit to Warsaw in September.
The chief of staff for Mr Pence has however denied that the vice president ever spoke to Mr Sondland “about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations”.
“This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened,” a statement said.
Mr Sondland, a wealthy hotelier, donated to Mr Trump’s 2016 election campaign and was appointed to his position by the president in July 2018.
Mr Trump has already responded to the testimony. Brandishing a copy of Mr Sondland’s opening statement on the White House South Lawn, he read out a transcript of a phone conversation the pair had, in which the president said: “I want nothing. That’s what I want from Ukraine.”
He also told reporters he didn’t know the EU ambassador “very well”, but said he “seems like a nice guy”.
Mr Giuliani has also denied Mr Sondland’s testimony, tweeting that he “never met him and had very few calls with him”.