Bolton ended Ukraine meeting over probe demand, officials say
National Security Adviser John Bolton cut short a July meeting between White House and Ukrainian officials after President Donald Trump’s envoy set out demands for investigations as the price of an Oval Office meeting for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, according to transcripts released Friday.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council staffer, and former NSC aide Fiona Hill both testified to House committees conducting an impeachment inquiry that Bolton ended the meeting after U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland began discussing the “deliverable” the White House wanted from Ukraine.
“When Ambassador Sondland started to speak about Ukraine delivering specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with the president, Ambassador Bolton cut the meeting short,” Vindman said, according to the transcripts.
Bolton, who left the White House in September after a series of policy disputes with Trump, was a central player in many of the events outlined by the two witnesses. Separately, Bolton’s lawyer said in a letter filed Friday in court that the former top Trump aide was involved in “many relevant meetings and conversations” about Ukraine that haven’t been discussed in testimony so far.
The attorney, Charles Cooper, didn’t elaborate on what other information Bolton has. Bolton didn’t show up for a scheduled deposition on Thursday. Cooper said Bolton and his top aide, Charles Kupperman, won’t testify unless a judge rules they should. The House withdrew a subpoena for Kupperman, saying it would wait for the conclusion of a separate lawsuit to compel former White House Counsel Don McGahn to testify.
Bolton had convened a discussion following the meeting with the Ukrainian officials, during which Sondland said he had been told by acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney “this is what was required in order to get a meeting,” Vindman testified.
“He was talking about the 2016 elections and an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma,” Vindman said. “There was no ambiguity, I guess, in my mind. He was calling for something, calling for an investigation that didn’t exist into the Bidens and Burisma.”
Trump has contended Joe Biden, a potential Trump 2020 challenger, as vice president pushed for the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor who wanted to investigate Burisma Holdings, where his son Hunter Biden had served on the board. He has also promoted an unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine was involved in the hacking of Democratic National Committee computers in 2016, which sparked an investigation into Russian election interference.
Vindman said he regarded a request for a foreign power to investigate a U.S. citizen as inappropriate and told Sondland so. Ultimately, he said he and Hill reported their concerns about the conversation to the National Security Council’s chief legal counsel.
July 10 Meeting
Hill also was present at the July 10 meeting, where Ukrainian officials were attempting to set up a face-to-face session for Zelenskiy with Trump, which she described as a matter of some importance in Ukraine.
Amid the discussions about issues that might be discussed, Hill said, “Ambassador Sondland blurted out: Well, we have an agreement with the chief of staff for a meeting if these investigations in the energy sector start.”
She said Bolton “immediately stiffened and ended the meeting.”
Vindman also testified about listening in on the July 25 Trump-Zelenskiy call. He said the official White House transcript of that call released later had some substantive omissions.
He said his notes of the call show Zelenskiy by then already was aware that Trump wanted an investigation into Burisma. Vindman said Zelenskiy actually used the word “Burisma” in the call. But he said the White House’s transcript replaces that word so that Zelenskiy is depicted as instead using the phrase, “the company you mentioned” to Trump.
”This was about getting a White House meeting. It was a demand for him to fulfill his – fulfill this particular prerequisite in order to get the meeting,” said Vindman.
Vindman also said another omission in the official transcript was a reference to Trump mentioning “recordings” of Biden, replaced by an ellipsis. That was not more fully explained in the transcript.
Vindman said he took his concerns about the call to NSC legal counsel John Eisenberg. The most troubling parts of the call, to him, were references to having Zelenskiy speak to Giuliani and the attorney general about conducting an investigation “that didn’t exist,” he said. Eisenberg has been called to testify to the impeachment panels but is among White House officials who have refused to appear.
Vindman and Hill also talked about their discomfort with the role Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had taken in directing the U.S. relationship with Ukraine and how they became aware of it.
Hill said Giuliani started popping up on Fox News last spring talking about Ukraine, and that neither Bolton nor State Department officials were aware of his role.
“He had been given some authority over matters related to Ukraine, and if that was the case, we hadn’t been informed about that,” Hill told lawmakers, according to the transcript.
“Everyone was completely unaware of any direct official role that Mr. Giuliani had been given on the Ukraine account,” she said. “And, at that particular juncture, no one that I had been in contact with had actually spoken to him.”
Vindman said about the same time a “narrative” about Ukraine and then-U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch began to develop.
“It became clear that it had to do with the 2016 elections and Ukrainian – - supposed Ukrainian involvement in partisan support of candidate Clinton and in opposition to President Trump,” he said, referring to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. It also came to include claims of corruption involving Hunter Biden’s association with Burisma and allegations of Yovanovitch’s opposition to Trump.
Yovanovitch was recalled from her post in May. Hill said that when she spoke about Yovanovitch’s ouster with Bolton, “His reaction was pained.”
“And he basically said – in fact, he directly said: Rudy Giuliani is a hand grenade that is going to blow everybody up,” Hill told lawmakers, adding that Bolton didn’t think there was anything he could do about the situation.
Vindman served as the director for European affairs and a Ukraine expert under Hill, another specialist on the region who reported to Bolton.
Hill left her job at the White House in July, a few days before Trump’s call with Zelenskiy that is at the center of the impeachment probe. Vindman is still assigned to the White House.