Friday 6 December 2019

Trump spoke of 'investigations' into Bidens in phone call with US diplomat

Dump Trump: Protesters hold placards outside Longworth building during the impeachment hearing. Photo: Getty Images
Dump Trump: Protesters hold placards outside Longworth building during the impeachment hearing. Photo: Getty Images

Nick Allen

Donald Trump encouraged a plan for Ukraine to investigate his rival Joe Biden in a previously unknown private phone call with a US diplomat, a key witness told the start of a historic impeachment inquiry yesterday.

The incident happened the day after a July 25 call in which Mr Trump is accused of pressuring Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine's president, to announce a corruption inquiry into Mr Biden and his son Hunter, in exchange for US aid.

The claim was made during the first day of televised impeachment hearings.

Mr Trump has denied any wrongdoing and claimed not to be watching the "witch hunt" proceedings being held in Congress by the House intelligence committee.

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The first witness was William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, who said there had been a "regular" diplomatic channel, which he was part of, and an "irregular" one, directed by Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer.

Mr Taylor (72) also disclosed previously unknown information given to him by a member of his staff last Friday. The staff member said they had been in a restaurant in Kiev on July 26 with Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, an appointee of Mr Trump who was also a key figure in the "irregular" diplomatic channel.

Mr Trump was said to have been overheard on the phone asking Mr Sondland how "investigations" were going. Mr Taylor said "investigations" was a code word for getting Ukraine to announce inquiries into the Bidens, and into a conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia had interfered in the 2016 US election.

The proposed probe was to centre on Hunter Biden's role on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma. On the phone call, Mr Sondland told the president the "Ukrainians were ready to move forward," Mr Taylor said.

After the call, Mr Sondland was said to have described how Mr Trump "cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for" than about Ukraine itself.

Mr Taylor said an invitation for Mr Zelenskiy to meet Mr Trump and $392m (€355m) in US military assistance, was used as leverage to get the Ukrainians to investigate Mr Biden. On July 18, he was told the aid was on hold indefinitely at the direction of Mr Trump. Mr Taylor said: "I, and others, sat in astonishment. Ukrainians were fighting Russians and counted on US support."

Mr Taylor was then told about a White House meeting where Mr Sondland had raised the "investigations".

John Bolton, the national security adviser, abruptly ended the meeting, saying he did not want to be associated with a "drug deal", Mr Taylor said.

Even though he was the top US diplomat in Ukraine, Mr Taylor did not receive a readout of the July 25 call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelenskiy.

On September 1, Mr Sondland told him Mr Trump "wanted President Zelenskiy in a public box" making a statement about the "investigations".

Mr Trump was like a businessman signing a cheque and Ukraine had to "pay up", Mr Sondland was said to have told Mr Taylor. On September 11, Mr Taylor was told that the hold on the aid had been lifted.

Adam Schiff, the Democrat chairman of the committee, said the key question was whether the president used the power of his office for personal political gain.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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