WASHINGTON — Republicans decrying “hearsay” to dismiss damaging testimony against President Trump may want to try another defense.
Two new officials have come forward who literally overheard the president talking about such matters.
The day after his now-infamous July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump allegedly asked EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, in a phone call at a restaurant, about “the investigations” into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The call was loud enough for a pair of staff at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine to overhear it.
Acting U.S. Ambassador Bill Taylor introduced the explosive new allegations Wednesday, during his public testimony before Congress. The career diplomat said that one of his staffers came to him with the troubling information last Friday During Taylor’s testimony, The House Intelligence Committee announced State Department staffer David Holmes, the embassy’s political counselor, will appear Friday at a closed-door deposition. Holmes isn’t the only official who overheard the call: Suriya Jayanti, a foreign service officer based in Kiev, was also there, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
Those two could blow apart one of the Republicans’ loudest defenses of the president: that no one claiming Trump tried to extort Ukraine to do his political bidding actually heard the president do so.
“In the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv. The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’ Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward,” Taylor said Wednesday. “Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Trump attorney Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor said.
Holmes is the “staffer” Taylor is referring to here, and he’s scheduled to testify behind closed doors on Friday afternoon. Jayanti had been previously scheduled to testify, but her appearance was pushed back for the funeral of former House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), and it hasn’t been officially rescheduled yet.
Their emergence complicates a Republican defense that has recently hinged on writing off a pile of damaging testimony — including the public remarks from Taylor and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs — as “hearsay,” lacking in hard proof. But testimony from Jayanti and Holmes would change that, and only further bolster testimony from multiple officials who’ve all broadly described a similar pattern of Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine.
Sondland himself has also already admitted that he told Ukrainian officials they wouldn’t get military aid unless its leaders announced an "anti-corruption" investigations. He’s scheduled to testify publicly next Wednesday, and while he’s a reluctant witness who might not want to cooperate with investigators, multiple other witnesses have said he told them he was in frequent, direct talks with Trump about Ukraine.
The new Trump-Sondland phone call adds yet another layer to an increasingly problematic timeline for Trump and his backers:
At a White House meeting, EU Ambassador Sondland told Ukrainian officials that in order to secure a meeting between Trump and President Zelensky, they’d have to launch investigations, according to multiple witnesses who’ve testified. Those investigations largely centered on Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who sat on the board of Ukrainian energy giant Burisma, as well as a dubious conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election to hurt Trump.
An Office of Management and Budget official tells other agencies on a video conference call that the OMB has put a hold on $400 million in badly needed military aid to Ukraine. Multiple call participants have testified that she said the order came from OMB Director and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who held the aid at Trump’s behest.
Trump has his infamous call with Zelensky. Right after Zelensky thanks Trump for the U.S. providing Javelin missiles to Ukraine to fight off the Russian-backed separatists, Trump responds, “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” and asks him to “find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine,” referring to a conspiracy theory about its involvement in the 2016 elections. Zelensky promises that “all the investigations will be done openly and candidly.” Trump repeatedly tells him to talk to Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, who was pushing for investigations into the Bidens, and claims “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution [into Burisma], so if you can look into it... It sounds horrible to me.”
In an interview the next day, Sondland said, “I actually spoke with President Trump just a few minutes before he placed the call.”
Sondland travels to Ukraine to meet with Ukrainian officials, including President Zelensky.
U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Taylor also meet with Zelensky that same day, though it’s unclear whether they were in the company of Sondland.
After meeting with Ukrainian officials, according to Taylor's most recent bombshell, Sondland calls Trump to say they're “ready to move forward.”
Cover: President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump prepare to welcome Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan to the White House, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)