WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top US State Department official on Wednesday appeared before the impeachment probe into President Donald Trump, the first witness to show up this week after a string of administration officials refused to meet with investigators.
David Hale, who was appointed by Trump as under secretary for political affairs, met behind closed doors with lawmakers who are leading the probe of Trump in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.
More details in the impeachment inquiry are expected to be released on Wednesday, a day after transcripts revealed a top Trump donor-turned-diplomat reversed course and told investigators Ukrainian aid was tied to investigations of political rivals sought by the U.S. president.
On Tuesday, publicly released transcripts showed US ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland had returned to give lawmakers new details after his memory was “refreshed,” corroborating other witnesses who said Trump sought to pressure the Ukrainians into launching investigations that appeared aimed at boosting his 2020 re-election campaign.
House Democrats leading the inquiry are expected to release more transcripts on Wednesday, but have not yet said which accounts they will issue as the fast-moving probe marches towards televised public hearings.
Additional witnesses have also been called to testify, but some are likely to heed the White House and refuse to cooperate in the probe, which centres around Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asking him to investigate former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Joe Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to run against Trump, a Republican, in the November 2020 election. Hunter Biden was on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma, which had been investigated for corruption. Both have denied any impropriety.
Trump has blasted the House inquiry as a witch hunt and accused Democrats of unfairly targeting him in hope of reversing his surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats have defended the investigation, citing concerns that the president misused his public office for personal gain.
“It’s clear abuse of presidential power. It cannot be OK in our country for a United States president - any president - to go to a foreign leader and ask for help in his election. It’s wrong,” Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat on the House intelligence panel, told MSNBC on Wednesday.
The inquiry has shifted this week after congressional investigators began releasing hundreds of pages of testimony while efforts to gather more witness testimony behind closed doors have all but ground to a halt as top administration officials refuse lawmakers’ demands.
Two officials on Wednesday’s witness list are sure to be no-shows. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, one of the “Three Amigos” tasked by the White House to set up a back channel to Ukraine, and Russell Vought, the acting White House budget chief, have already said they will not appear.
Hale is expected to tell investigators the State Department was concerned that supporting former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch could hurt efforts to release aid and could provoke Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, the Associated Press reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
Yovanovitch was abruptly recalled from her post in May.
Another top State Department official, Ulrich Brechbuhl, has not yet said whether he will appear. The AP and CNN reported that Brechbuhl was travelling to Germany on Wednesday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Representatives for the State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The House intelligence panel, which is leading the inquiry with two other committees, has also sought testimony from other key witnesses, including acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who the White House said will not appear, and former national security adviser John Bolton, whose participation remains unclear.
Still, Democrats have said they have enough material to move forward with public impeachment hearings, which would be a likely prelude to articles of impeachment - formal charges - being brought to a vote in the Democratic-controlled House.
If the House votes to approve the articles of impeachment, the Republican-controlled Senate would then hold a trial on whether to remove Trump from office.
Senate Republicans have so far shown little appetite for removing the president.
At least one, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, this week told reporters he did not plan to read the transcripts even as hundreds of pages have begun to be released.
On Tuesday, transcripts from appearances by Sondland, who initially testified in October, and Kurt Volker, Trump’s former special representative for Ukraine negotiations, revealed US diplomats pressed Ukrainian officials to meet Trump’s demands.
Sondland, a hotelier and Trump donor, returned on Monday and told House investigators that he, in fact, had told a Ukrainian official that Kiev, which is fighting Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country, was unlikely to get nearly $400 million in US military aid unless it probed Trump’s domestic political rivals, the transcripts showed.
Transcripts released on Monday showed two other U.S. diplomats told lawmakers the State Department under Trump was being used for domestic political purposes and warned such action would hurt American interests.