WASHINGTON: A senior US diplomat directly implicated President Donald Trump on Wednesday (Nov 20) in a scheme to force Ukraine to probe a political rival, in bombshell testimony to a televised impeachment hearing.
Gordon Sondland, the US envoy to the European Union and a Trump ally, told lawmakers he followed Trump's orders in seeking a "quid pro quo" deal for Ukraine to probe Democrat Joe Biden in exchange for a White House summit.
The US leader, Sondland said, directed him and other diplomats to work with his personal lawyer Giuliani, who he said mounted a pressure campaign on the government of Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Giuliani's demands, he said, were for Kiev to investigate Biden and to probe a conspiracy theory, espoused by Trump, that Ukraine helped Democrats against him in 2016.
"Mr Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky," Sondland said.
Far from being a "rogue" operation outside normal US diplomatic channels, Sondland told the hearing top officials in the White House and State Department - including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo - were kept constantly informed.
"We followed the president's orders," in working with Giuliani, he testified before the House Intelligence Committee.
'WITCH HUNT MUST END NOW'
Democrats said Sondland's testimony strongly supported allegations of abuse of power that would justify Trump's impeachment.
"Today's testimony is among the most significant evidence to date," said Adam Schiff, the committee chairman leading the inquiry.
"It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery as well as other potential high crimes or misdemeanors," he said.
Tweeting as he headed to Texas on board Air Force One, Trump asserted on the contrary that Sondland had exonerated him, and demanded an immediate end to the impeachment probe.
"Impeachment Witch Hunt is now OVER!" Trump wrote. "This Witch Hunt must end NOW. So bad for our Country!"
"'What do you want from Ukraine?'" the president quoted Sondland as asking him, reading from large-print notes.
"Here is my answer: 'I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing,'" added the president.
"I would say that means it's all over."
Trump also sought to distance himself from Sondland - whose testimony was closely watched as a political appointee - saying he did "not know him very well."
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A hotel developer named ambassador after donating US$1 million to Trump's inauguration, Sondland was at the centre of efforts to convince Zelensky to do the US bidding on the investigations in order to obtain a meeting with Trump, and also to unlock US$391 million on aid put on hold in July.
Sondland told lawmakers a White House summit was explicitly tied to the investigations, meant to target Burisma, an Ukrainian energy company on which former vice president Biden's son Hunter had held a paid board position.
But he said he figured out himself that the unexplained, White House-ordered hold on security aid was also tied to the investigations - although he never discussed the issue with Trump.
"In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma, as Mr Giuliani had demanded," he said.
"I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement" of the investigations, he added.
Pressed on how much he knew of Trump's motivations and his discussions with other officials, Sondland frequently said he "could not remember" certain details.
But he stressed that all the top foreign affairs-related officials in the Trump administration were "in the loop" on his Ukraine activities.
He said Pompeo had directed the US pointman on Ukraine, Ambassador Kurt Volker, to also work with Giuliani.
Asked if Pompeo had been made aware that Trump wanted a Ukrainian investigation of Biden in exchange for a meeting and aid, Sondland replied: "Yes."
Pompeo has repeatedly denounced the impeachment inquiry and has drawn fire for failing to defend career employees caught up in the scandal.
Sondland's testimony firmed up the possibility the investigation could wrap up this week, with evidence then sent to the House Judiciary Committee to draw up articles of impeachment - formal charges against the president.
Trump's impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House would place him on trial in the Senate, where a Republican majority could protect him from removal.