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'Everyone was in the loop' about Ukraine pressure campaign

Trump political donor, Sondland gave testimony on 4th day of public hearings in inquiry

Everyone was in the loop about Ukraine pressure campaign

WASHINGTON DC: A US diplomat said on Wednesday that "everyone was in the loop" about a Trump administration effort to get Ukraine to carry out investigations that might ultimately benefit U.S. President Donald Trump, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Testifying before the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland said he "followed the president's orders" to work with Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who in turn was pushing Ukraine to carry out two probes that could aid Trump's 2020 re-election campaign.

Sondland's appearance was significant in that it suggested that a wider array of top U.S. officials than previously known was aware of the pressure campaign against Ukraine, even though his comments prompted carefully worded denials.

A wealthy hotelier and Trump political donor, Sondland gave sworn testimony on the fourth day of public hearings in the inquiry.

The probe could lead the Democratic-led House of Representatives to approve formal charges against Trump - called articles of impeachment - that would be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial on whether to remove him from office. Few Republican senators have broken with Trump. While Democrats said the envoy's testimony had strengthened their case to impeach Trump, the White House and the president himself said it had exonerated him.

"I think it was fantastic. I think they have to end it now," Trump told reporters of the impeachment inquiry.

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said in a statement: "Though much of today's testimony by Ambassador Sondland was related to his presumptions and beliefs, rather than hard facts, he testified to the fact that President Trump never told him that a White House meeting or the aid to Ukraine was tied to receiving a public statement from (Ukrainian) President (Volodymyr) Zelenskiy,"

'IT WAS NO SECRET'

Sondland said he emailed officials including Pompeo, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Energy Secretary Rick Perry on July 19 that the new Ukrainian president was ready to assure Trump he would "run a fully transparent investigation" and "turn over every stone."

"Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret," Sondland said of the email he sent ahead of the July 25 telephone call between Trump and Zelenskiy that triggered the impeachment inquiry.

The inquiry is focusing on Trump's request in the call that Zelenskiy investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival; his son Hunter Biden, who had served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma; and an unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election that brought Trump to office.

It is also examining whether Trump may have withheld $391 million in security aid to help Ukraine fight Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine as a way of pressuring Kiev to undertake the investigations.

Federal law prohibits candidates from accepting foreign help in an election.

Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the November 2020 presidential election. Trump has accused Biden of corruption without offering evidence. Biden has denied any wrongdoing.

Democrats accuse Trump of abusing his power by using the security aid and an offer to Zelenskiy of a prestigious visit to the White House as leverage to pressure a vulnerable U.S. ally to dig up dirt on domestic political rivals.

Sondland portrayed himself as a reluctant participant in the pressure on Ukraine and argued that he had kept his superiors at the State Department and White House abreast of his efforts.

The envoy quoted from an Aug. 22 email to Pompeo about his effort to get Zelenskiy to commit to undertake investigations, suggesting that might be a way to break the "logjam" over security aid as well as a Zelenskiy-Trump meeting.

Describing a group meeting he attended with Pence before the latter's Sept. 1 meeting with Zelenskiy, Sondland said he had told Pence "that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations."

In his testimony, Sondland said Pence had listened to his comments and nodded but did not reply.

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