House Committees Release More Transcripts From Impeachment Inquiry Depositions

Nov 5, 2019
Originally published on November 5, 2019 10:53 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

House committees have released more transcripts from the depositions in the impeachment inquiry, and there's one footnote from today's batch that has everyone's attention. President Trump's ambassador to the European Union changed his testimony on whether there was a quid pro quo. Gordon Sondland now says that he told a Ukrainian official that the continuation of U.S. aid would likely not happen until Ukraine made a statement about investigations that Trump sought. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us from the State Department to walk us through this new information.

Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

CHANG: So I just want to back up first and go back to the previous testimony. What were both Sondland and Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, saying about Trump's approach to Ukraine policy?

KELEMEN: Well, again, this testimony kind of highlights this disconnect between what U.S. policy was - that is, helping Ukraine push back against Russian aggression - versus the interests of Trump's private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who seemed to have Trump's ear on Ukraine.

Volker and Sondland both describe a White House meeting in May. Volker says that the president talked about how corrupt Ukrainians are. They tried to take me down, he's - he quoted the president as saying. And Sondland says that Trump kept saying, talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy.

Rudy Giuliani, meanwhile, was looking into whether it was Ukraine rather than Russia that meddled in the 2016 election. And he's been pushing Ukraine to investigate the energy company that had former Vice President Joe Biden's son on the board. Volker says he tried to warn Giuliani that some of these allegations he was hearing was coming from people who were just not credible.

CHANG: OK. So let's get to this idea of the potential quid pro quo. What did Volker and Sondland say about whether U.S. aid was conditional on anything?

KELEMEN: Well, Volker says that he became aware in July of what he called an unusual hold on security assistance. He said everyone he spoke with at the Pentagon, the State Department, National Security Council - they all thought it was important to release the aid. But he says Trump and Giuliani wanted the Ukrainians to release a statement announcing investigations, specifically mentioning 2016 and that energy company Burisma.

Sondland initially said that he didn't remember telling people that these two things were linked, but he says his memory was refreshed by others who have testified. And he now writes in an addendum that he presumed the aid suspension was linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement.

CHANG: OK. I want to shift the focus now a bit to Volker and Sondland's boss, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo has said very little in public about the impeachment inquiry. He often deflects questions about the probe. He calls it noise. And then he said this in a recent interview on Fox.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: This is the administration that provided defensive weapons systems to Ukraine. The previous administration...

MARTHA MACCALLUM: That's true.

POMPEO: I couldn't tell you why. I couldn't answer if it's because of Hunter Biden that Barack Obama and Vice President Biden didn't give defensive weapons systems to Ukraine. They'll have to answer for that.

CHANG: All right. There is no evidence to support what he is suggesting there. What do you make of his remarks?

KELEMEN: Right. I even asked his spokespeople whether he had any evidence to back up that insinuation, and there was no answer. You know, he often uses any chance he can get to criticize the Obama administration. But this was particularly striking to hear from America's top diplomat, especially since the Obama administration, you know, right or wrong, made the case when it did not provide weapons that it was - it didn't do it because it didn't want to fuel the conflict.

But, you know, Pompeo is quite partisan. That's tough for a lot of diplomats to watch. The foreign service prides itself in being nonpartisan. One of his top aides recently quit after he tried but failed to get Pompeo to issue a statement of support for the former ambassador to Ukraine, who was withdrawn amid a smear campaign led by Giuliani.

CHANG: And what has Pompeo been saying about Rudy Giuliani's role in particular?

KELEMEN: Well, he hasn't taken any chance to distance himself from Giuliani. He seems eager not to show any daylight with the White House. But there is one point in Sondland's testimony when he says they talked about Giuliani's involvement. And he says Pompeo rolled his eyes and said, yes, this is something we have to deal with.

CHANG: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen at the State Department.

Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.