Trump impeachment inquiry: Ambassador Sondland agrees to testify, and more
Keeping track of the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Trump's attempts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Vice President Joe Biden is an exhausting task. There are new developments breaking in the story every single day, and the president is regularly trying to distract from the issue by, say, going on unhinged rants against refugees. If you're feeling out of the loop regarding the latest news in the impeachment saga, here are three new developments that broke this week that will get you up to speed.
1. Two men suspected of helping Rudy Giuliani's shadow operation in Ukraine were arrested in D.C.
On Wednesday, two associates of Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney, were arrested. Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were taken into custody at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and charged with campaign finance violations. The two were allegedly scheming to funnel foreign money to politicians in the United States, focusing much of their efforts on trying to influence relations between the U.S. and Ukraine.
Parnas and Fruman were reportedly involved in a plan, along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, to pressure the president of Ukraine to replace members of a natural gas company owned by the state with Americans and others more friendly to the industry. The two are also accused of donating money to a member of the House while attempting to get the congressman to remove the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from her post. (Perry, for his part, was hit with a subpoena Thursday from House Democrats seeking information about Trump's infamous July phone call with Zelensky.)
Why does all of this matter for the impeachment inquiry? Parnas and Fruman were business associates of Giuliani, who was working on Trump's behalf to encourage the Ukrainian government to open up an investigation into Biden's son Hunter. Giuliani has described the two men as "fixers" and said in an interview that they "helped me find people" when asked about his relationship with them. He also admitted to playing a role in the ouster of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch — a goal he apparently shared with Parnas and Fruman. Giuliani was not mentioned in the indictment against Parnas and Fruman, but The Washington Post reported that federal agents are looking into his dealings with the two alleged criminals.
2. Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testifies before the House.
Meanwhile, Yovanovitch testified to impeachment investigators Friday. She was abruptly removed from her post earlier this year, and during the closed-door session Friday, she reportedly told investigators that a State Department official said she had "done nothing wrong" and that her removal from her position was unwarranted. According to The New York Times, Yovanovitch testified that her ouster was “based, as far as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”
Yovanovitch served as the U.S. envoy to Ukraine from Aug. 29, 2016 until May 20, 2019 when she was suddenly asked to return to the U.S. — despite receiving a request from the State Department to extend her service through 2020. Her removal from the position apparently came because Trump "lost confidence" in her, though she told investigators that there had been “a concerted campaign against me, and that the department had been under pressure from [Trump] to remove me since the summer of 2018.”
While it took some time for Yovanovitch to be dismissed, the end of her time as ambassador was foreshadowed earlier this year, when in an interview Ukraine's then-Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko claimed that his country's government had cooperated with Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign in an effort to undermine Trump. Lutsenko, who is under investigation himself for possible abuses of power, alleged per The Hill that Yovanovitch was "interfering with his ability to prosecute corruption cases."
Yovanovitch denied ever being involved in efforts to hinder corruption investigations in Ukraine, a claim that State Department officials support. The agency has also called Lutsenko’s allegations against Yovanovitch “an outright fabrication.” The former ambassador also said she played no role in the withholding of American aid, which was destined for Ukraine before being frozen by Trump in an apparent effort to get the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens. Her indictment of the president and his foreign policy dealings could serve to fuel investigations into possible wrongdoings committed by Trump and his associates.
3. U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland agrees to face House investigators, defying White House.
Following Yovanovitch's testimony Friday, another ambassador has agreed to speak with impeachment investigators next week. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, has agreed to face members of the House next Thursday. Sondland became a person of interest in the Ukraine investigation following the release of text messages that show he exchanged messages with Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, regarding the Trump administration's desires in the country. Sondland is believed to have played a role in setting up the call between Zelensky and Trump.
Sondland's testimony is of particular interest because of the Trump administration's attempts to keep him from speaking to investigators. Earlier this week, the State Department ordered Sondland not to testify despite being served a subpoena. While Sondland will finally speak next week, he is still refusing to release documents requested by House investigators, claiming that they are property of the State Department. His communications with other diplomats may play a role in determining whether Trump attempted to withhold aid in a direct attempt to push a foreign government to investigate a political opponent in Biden.