Congress’s impeachment investigation into U.S. President Donald Trump turns on Tuesday to the U.S. ambassador to the EU and the role he may have played in trying to get Ukraine to probe Trump’s political rival, Joseph Biden.
Gordon Sondland, who donated one million dollars to the Republican president’s inauguration committee, will meet behind closed doors with staff of three Democratic-led House committees.
The impeachment probe is focusing on a whistleblower’s allegations that Mr Trump leveraged nearly $400 million in aid to secure a promise from Ukraine’s president to investigate former vice president Mr Biden and his son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight Committees staff are expected to ask Mr Sondland to explain why he became involved in dealings with Ukraine, which is not a member of the EU.
Mr Sondland was a Seattle-based hotelier until Mr Trump nominated him to his position as ambassador in May.
He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in June and presented his credentials at the European Commission in July.
According to text messages released by House committee leaders last week, Mr Sondland was heavily involved in contacts with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as he sought a meeting with Trump.
Ukrainian officials expressed concern at the administration’s decision to block nearly 400 million dollars in U.S. military assistance for Kiev.
In one of the texts, for example, Mr Sondland emphasized that Mr Trump “really wants the deliverable.”
Charges that Mr Trump pressured Mr Zelenskiy in a July 25 telephone call to investigate Mr Biden, a leading rival in Mr Trump’s 2020 re-election bid, while withholding the military aid, helped prompt House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to announce a formal impeachment investigation last month.
Mr Trump has denied wrongdoing.
Concerns about the call, and possibly Mr Trump threats to Ukraine, came to the attention of Congress in a report by a whistleblower.
On Sunday, lawyers said a second whistleblower had come forward to substantiate that complaint.
Mr Sondland’s appearance marks a shift for the investigation because he is a Mr Trump donor and political appointee.
Previous witnesses have been career officials, including the former U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, and Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the U.S. Intelligence Community.
Another career diplomat, Marie Yovanovitch, will meet with the committees behind closed doors on Friday.
Ms Yovanovitch was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until Mr Trump recalled her in May before her term was up, after Mr Trump supporters questioned her loyalty.
The impeachment inquiry has heightened bitter partisan divides in Congress, where Mr Trump’s fellow Republicans control the Senate and Democrats have a majority in the House.
Mr Trump has reacted furiously to the inquiry, using obscenities and insulting nicknames for Democratic lawmakers in posts on Twitter.
Administration officials – and some Republican allies in Congress – have questioned whether they have any obligation to cooperate with the inquiry.
The White House was expected to tell Ms Pelosi this week that it would ignore lawmakers’ demands for documents until the House holds a vote to approve the impeachment inquiry.
Ms Pelosi says a vote is not needed, although Democrats say the House would back the inquiry if there were a vote.
The impeachment investigation could lead to the approval by the House of formal charges against Mr Trump.
A trial on whether to remove him from office would then be held in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Mr Trump continues to enjoy nearly unwavering support from members of his party.