US diplomat: Trump pressure on Ukraine harmful to rule of law

Washington (AFP) –


A senior US diplomat saw President Donald Trump's pressure for Ukraine to investigate his Democratic rival as a threat to the rule of law in both countries, testimony released Thursday showed.

As Congress moved towards launching public hearings on impeaching Trump next week, testimony from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent showed both concern and resistance in the State Department to Trump's efforts to gain election support from Kiev.

His testimony, which also fingered Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani as central to those efforts, added to the evidence that Trump may have abused his office and violated election laws by seeking Ukraine's help for his re-election campaign.

Kent told House investigators on October 15 that he believed pressure coming from the White House on Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations that would implicate US Democrats in wrongdoing would undermine US policy toward Ukraine.

Kent's concerns in mid-August, after he learned of a linkage between US military aid to Ukraine and Zelensky doing what Trump wanted, were strong enough to file an official State Department memo showing his concerns.

"I wrote a note to the file saying that I had concerns that there was an effort to initiate politically motivated prosecutions that were injurious to the rule of law, both in Ukraine and the US," he told investigators.

Washington should not be making such demands, he said, "because that goes against everything that we are trying to promote in post-Soviet states for the last 28 years, which is the promotion of the rule of law."

- Open impeachment hearings loom -

Kent's testimony was the latest released in advance of the start of open hearings next Wednesday, which will give the American public their first view of the building impeachment threat to Trump's presidency.

Democrats are aiming to make Trump only the third president in US history to be impeached, which would see him go on trial for removal in the Republican-dominated Senate.

In a letter to fellow lawmakers Thursday, Congressman Adam Schiff, the leader of the inquiry, laid out three specific questions they seek to answer, signalling that he hoped to streamline the coming hearings:

-- Did Trump seek a foreign leader's and government's help for his personal political interests, including investigating his potential 2020 opponent?

-- Did Trump use the power of his office, including withholding aid, to pressure Zelensky to help advance Trump's personal political interests?

-- Has Trump sought to obstruct the Congressional investigation and suppress or cover up evidence about his behavior?

- Depositions continue -

Depositions of senior administration officials continued Thursday as Democrats built their case ahead of the open hearings, which will be televised.

Jennifer Williams, a national security aide to Vice President Mike Pence, spent much of the day answering questions behind closed doors.

According to reports, she told interviewers that Trump's controversial July 25 phone call with Zelensky, in which he sought the Ukraine leader's help in getting dirt on the Democrats and specifically possible 2020 opponent Joe Biden, was a political phone call, not a diplomatic one.

Democrats allege that Trump held up $391 million in military aid for Ukraine to force Zelensky to investigate Biden and also to look into what Trump believes -- with little evidence -- was Ukraine's support for Democrats in the 2016 election.

Trump has defended the July call as "perfect" despite a heavily edited transcript appearing to support the allegations against him.

More than one dozen witnesses so far appear to have supported the Democrats' allegations, which could lead to formal charges, or articles of impeachment, against Trump.

After Democrats met Thursday to discuss their agenda, CNN reported that they could be aiming for a vote by the end of the year, which would send the process to the Senate.

Trump continued to defend his Ukraine work Thursday, tweeting that people should "Read the Transcript" of the call.

He also defended himself against a Washington Post story that said he had asked Attorney General Bill Barr to come out in public and state that he did nothing wrong in the call with Zelensky.

Barr made no such statement, although the Justice Department decided in August that the whistleblower's complaint did not merit investigation.

"Bill Barr did not decline my request to talk about Ukraine. The story was a Fake Washington Post con job with an 'anonymous' source that doesn't exist," Trump tweeted.