US diplomat: Trump pushed for Ukraine probe of firm linked to Biden son

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Washington (AFP)

A US diplomat told Congress Thursday that President Donald Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani injected US domestic electoral issues into talks with Ukraine, adding explosive fuel to Democrats' impeachment probe of Trump.

Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, testified that Trump ordered diplomats in May to involve his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in talks between Washington and the new administration of President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Giuliani, he said, sought to pressure Zelensky to investigate Trump's Democratic rival Joe Biden, and Biden' son, over ties to a Ukraine energy company, Burisma, as well as to find evidence for a popular but widely discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine helped Democrats in the 2016 election.

"Mr Giuliani emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anticorruption issues," Sondland said in a prepared statement.

"Mr Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the president," Sondland said.

"I did not understand, until much later, that Mr Giuliani's agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the president?s 2020 reelection campaign," he said.

- Evidence Trump abused powers -

The statement added evidence to allegations that Trump abused his office and violated election laws by seeking to involve a foreign country in US electoral politics.

Trump and Giuliani are accused of linking US military aid to Ukraine to Zelensky's agreeing to open an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter, who sat on the board of Burisma for five years until April this year.

Sondland, a businessman who was appointed ambassador after donating $1 million to Trump's inauguration festivities, sought to distance himself from the political storm enveloping the White House as Trump faces possible impeachment.

He said he was not initially aware of what Trump wanted in talks with Zelensky until a whistleblower complaint released last month. The complaint detailed a July 25 call between the two leaders, in which Trump allegedly pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden amid a discussion about military aid for the country.

Sondland said Giuliani was the principal messenger, and that he barely had any communications with him.

"My understanding was that the president directed Mr. Giuliani's participation, that Mr. Giuliani was expressing the concerns of the president," Sondland stated.

"We were also disappointed by the president's direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani," Sondland said.

"Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the president's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of US foreign policy towards Ukraine."

But critics have alleged that Sondland himself was involved in transmitting Trump's political demands to Ukraine.

Giuliani's activities were well-reported in US media already in May, and Giuliani told the Washington Post that he dealt primarily with Sondland and another diplomat, Kurt Volker.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Sondland frequently met Trump's White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and that Mulvaney arranged for Sondland to brief Trump just prior to the July 25 call.

- Eight witnesses -

Sondland was the eighth witness to testify to the three House committees leading the impeachment investigation, all defying White House efforts to block them from appearing.

On Tuesday the White House prevented Vice President Mike Pence, the US budget office, and the Defense Department from turning over documents on Ukraine to investigators, and Giuliani defied a subpoena for his documents.

Impeachment inquiry leader Adam Schiff said that defiance would only support an additional impeachment charge that the White House has obstructed the investigation.

Democrats appeared increasingly likely to unveil articles of impeachment -- formal charges -- before the end of the year. If approved by the Democrat-dominated House of Representatives, Trump would then go on trial for removal in the Senate, where Republicans have the majority.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi denied Thursday that the investigation was politically driven, and said there was no timeline.

"None of us came to Congress to impeach a president," she told reporters. "Any such actions are to be taken very solemnly, seriously and in my view prayerfully."

"The timeline will depend on the truth line and that's what we're looking for."