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Trump impeachment news: Witness warns of Russian 'fictional narrative' in damning testimony as Republican conspiracy theories challenged

Hello and welcome to The Independent's rolling coverage of the Donald Trump administration.

'Game over' for Trump as Gordan Sondland delivers explosive testimony

Ex-White House ethics lawyer Richard W Painter has pronounced “game over” for the presidency of Donald Trump following the explosive impeachment inquiry testimony of his ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland on Wednesday.


“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a 'quid pro quo?' As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” Sondland told Congress of the Ukraine scandal that has engulfed the presidency since late September.

Sondland said he had been uncomfortable working with Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani as part of the "irregular" diplomatic channel with Ukraine but did so at the "express direction of the president of the United States."


"We did not want to work with Mr Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt," he explained.


Sondland said Giuliani emphasised to him in a subsequent conversation that Trump wanted a public statement from Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into corruption issues, including looking into potential interference in the 2016 election and Burisma, the gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served.


"Mr Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky," Sondland said. "Mr Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States and we knew that these investigations were important to the president."

Sondland made it clear that this was no rogue effort. He said he was open about Trump's demand that Ukraine commit to the investigations.


Evidentally determined not to be made the fall guy for the administration's murky dealings with Kiev, Sondland underscored that officials across the government were aware of the unconventional dialogue. He said he updated secretary of state Mike Pompeo and the White House's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, telling them that Ukraine's leader would conduct a "fully transparent investigation" and "turn over every stone".


Sondland further told Pompeo that he and another diplomat, Kurt Volker, had negotiated a statement that Zelensky could deliver that "will hopefully make the boss happy enough to authorise an invitation" to the White House.


"Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret," he said.

Sondland also mentioned vice president Mike Pence, telling him he was concerned that aid to Ukraine had become tied to the investigations.

When New York Democrat Sean Maloney pressed Sondland to admit a White House visit was dangled before Volodymr Zelensky in return for his announcement of an investigation into Trump's domestic political rival Joe Biden, a round of applause broke out.

The Republicans, for their part, looked shellshocked - ranking GOP member Devin Nunes almost literally so - and were left clutching at straws, placing a huge premium on moments like this created by Ohio congressman Mike Turner.

Afterwards, inquiry chairman Adam Schiff offered this summation.

But perhaps this press shot of Sondland summed it up best of all.

Chris Riotta and Andrew Feinberg have this report on a truly dramatic day from Capitol Hill's Longworth Office Building, one that felt like a pivotal moment for the Trump presidency.

Four key moments from Gordon Sondland's bombshell testimony

Here's Chris Riotta with a round-up of the four most telling exchanges from the ambassador's testimony to the House impeachment investigators yesterday. 

Trump says he 'barely knows' Sondland, ridiculed over all-caps Sharpie notes

The president afterwards stopped on the White House lawn - en route to Marine One and then Apple's manufacturing plant in Austin, Texas - in order to address Sondland's appearance. Characteristically, he insisted he barely knew the man.

"I don't know him very well. I have not spoken to him very much. This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though," the president said of the career hotelier who had donated $1m (£772,000) to his inauguration committee in 2017 (a fact he appeared to have forgotten about when he tweeted later accusing Sondland's lawyers of political bias).

Trump carried some handwritten notes with him, spelling out in all-caps the message: "I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO." It was written in the president's customary black Sharpie, perhaps the same pen he denied using to doctor a hurricane map back in September.

He was, naturally, teased uproariously when blown-up press photographs of his handwriting were shared online. "Zellinsky" is an incorrect spelling, for one thing.

Trump later took the same frenzied message to Twitter, howling into the void as he attempted to prematurely declare the "Impeachment Witch Hunt" over.

Here's Phil Thomas with more.

'Sondland threw Trump under the bus - and Republicans couldn't believe their eyes'

Our long-suffering man in DC Andrew Feinberg was in the hearing room once again yesterday and offers this sketch of the bewildered Republicans flailing to counter Sondland.

Laura Cooper: Ukraine knew about military aid hold-up in July

 Gordon Sondland was not the only official to take questions from the impeachment inquiry yesterday.

 Senior Defence official Laura Cooper also testified on Wednesday and said that Ukrainian officials knew Trump's administration was withholding $391m (£302m) in military assistance in July, undercutting a key Republican defence of the president's actions.

The deputy assistant secretary of defence testified said Ukrainian officials had known in July about the hold-up in the security aid, which was new information she had not had when she was interviewed behind closed doors on 23 October.


Cooper said her staff received an email on 25 July from the State Department saying that Ukraine's embassy and the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee were asking about security assistance.


"On 25 July a member of my staff got a question from a Ukrainian embassy contact asking what was going on with US security assistance," Cooper told the House Intelligence Committee at the impeachment hearing.


That was of course the day of the fateful telephone call between Trump and Zelensky.


Cooper also said some of her staff had met with officials from the Ukrainian embassy during the week of 6 August and that they had raised the issue of the aid.

Defending Trump in the inquiry, some Republicans have sought to minimise the impact of the White House decision to withhold the military aid by saying Ukraine was only aware of the hold for two weeks before the hold was lifted on 11 September.

Cooper also said she had never discussed a hold on security assistance for Ukraine with Trump and never heard from him directly on the matter. 

Senior State Department official David Hale was also giving evidence and used his platform to denounce the ousting of Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in May following a Giuliani-led smear campaign.

Pete Buttigieg: 'I don’t talk a big game about helping the working class while helicoptering between golf courses with my name on them'

All this and we've haven't yet had time to get to the latest Democratic debate in Atlanta, Georgia, last night.

While the consensus was that Pete Buttigieg excelled and Joe Biden had another off night, almost everyone had a stinging line on Trump as they tried to steer the conversation back towards policy matters.

Over two hours, the ten candidates responded to questions including that impeachment inquiry, the dangers of climate change, the US-China relationship and the question of how the country may be brought together in a time of incredible polarisation.

California senator Kamala Harris attacking maverick Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard over her regular appearances on Fox News during the Obama years was one of the evening's most dramatic interludes.

Here's a run down of who dominated last night in terms of speaking time, courtesy of Statista.

Clark Mindock was watching it all unfold. 

Intelligence officials David Holmes, Fiona Hill appearing before inquiry today

House impeachment investigators will question an official from the US embassy in Ukraine on Thursday as they seek to learn more about a phone call in which he says he overheard Trump ask about the status of an "investigation" into a political rival.


David Holmes told lawmakers in closed-door testimony that he heard Trump's voice on a 26 July phone call with Gordon Sondland in which the Republican president asked about Ukraine's willingness to carry out an unspecified investigation.

David Holmes (Jose Luis Magana/AP)


"So, he's gonna do the investigation?" Trump asked Sondland, referring to Zelensky, according to Holmes' previous testimony. "He's gonna do it," replied Sondland, according to Holmes.


Sondland added the Ukrainian president would do "anything you ask him to," Holmes said.


Holmes' account ties Trump directly to an effort to get Ukraine to launch an investigation, though his recounting of the overheard telephone call does not explicitly cite the Bidens. In his 15 November closed door testimony, Holmes said that after overhearing Sondland's phone conversation with Trump at an outdoor restaurant in Kiev, he asked the ambassador if it was true that the president did not care about Ukraine. In Holmes' telling, Sondland said that it was, and added that Trump only cares about "'big stuff' that benefits the president, like the 'Biden investigation' that Mr Giuliani was pushing."


Members of Congress will also question Fiona Hill, former senior director for European and Russian Affairs on Trump's National Security Council, who recounted in prior testimony a 10 July meeting in Washington that she attended with senior Ukrainian and US officials at which the investigations were discussed.

Fiona Hill (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)


Sondland on Wednesday testified he could not remember the precise details of the call Holmes overheard, but said the president's mention of investigations did not strike him as significant at the time. "Actually, I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations."


However, Sondland took issue with Holmes' recollection that he had talked to the diplomat about the Bidens, saying: "I do not recall mentioning the Bidens. That did not enter my mind. It was Burisma and 2016 elections."


Sondland has previously testified that he was aware at the time Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate Burisma. But he said he realised only later that such an investigation would involve the Bidens, given Hunter Biden was on Burisma's board of directors.

FBI seeking interview with whistleblower who triggered impeachment inquiry

The FBI is seeking an interview with a CIA whistleblower whose complaint led to the impeachment inquiry.


A special agent with the bureau's Washington Field Office first contacted one of the whistleblower's attorneys last month and the FBI and the legal team have reportedly traded messages since.

Lt Col Alexander Vindman demands Fox News retract spying allegation

Lieutenant colonel Alexander Vindman is hitting back at the smear campaign against him.

A lawyer for Lt Col Vindman, the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert, sent a warning letter to Fox News on Wednesday seeking a retraction or correction of an October segment hosted by one of the network’s biggest personalities, Laura Ingraham, which baselessly suggested that the colonel, a decorated Iraq War veteran, might be guilty of espionage.


The letter sent by David Pressman, a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner, the law firm run by David Boies, also highlighted inflammatory statements made on the network by others, including Donald Trump Jr, who has repeatedly attacked Lt Col Vindman, and Tucker Carlson.


“Colonel Vindman and his family have been forced to examine options, including potentially moving onto a military base, in order to ensure their physical security in the face of threats rooted in the falsehood that Fox News originated,” Pressman wrote in the letter.

Trump blasts Fox for 'wasting airtime' on Eric Swalwell

Trump's first tweet of the day is an attack on Fox, accusing his favourite broadcaster of "wasting airtime" on California Democrat Eric Swalwell, who, you will no doubt recall, got swept up in "Fartgate" earlier this week.

Ingraham, Carlson, Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs aside, Fox has been flexing its muscles on impeachment in recent days, its presenters showing more and more willing to question Trump - just look at this from Chris Wallace yesterday.

President says he asked Apple to take part in US 5G rollout

He also has this to say about his trip to Apple's plant in Austin, Texas, yesterday, where he suggested he was "looking at" tarrif exemption for the California consumer electronics giant.

He uses the company CEO's name twice there, emphatically avoiding calling him "Tim Apple" again. Well done sir.

Now we're back to this old chestnut. Yawn.

White House intruder arrested after unauthorised vehicle tries to enter complex

One person has been arrested after an "unauthorised vehicle" tried to enter the White House complex, the Secret Service has said.

Here's our breaking story.

Fiona Hill to use opening statement to call out Russian election interference

One of today's impeachment witnesses is due to attack Kremlin political meddling in her opening statement this morning.

"Our nation is being torn apart," Dr Fiona Hill will tell Congress, according to her pre-released statement. "Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined. US support for Ukraine - which continues to face armed Russian aggression - has been politicised”.

"Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them,“ she will warn.

Trump teases release of financial statement 'sometime prior to Election'

After grossly inflating the cost of the Mueller investigation, the president has just suggested he will release a (presumably heavily edited) financial statement "sometime prior to Election".

"It will only show one thing - that I am much richer than people even thought - And that is a good thing," he brags.

He's now moved on to taking credit for the release of hostages.

'I never in my wildest dreams thought my name would in any way be associated with the ugly word, Impeachment!'

Wow. He's really on one this morning.

Eric Trump uses father's impeachment hearings to promote his wine

At least one member of the Trump family is getting something out of the devastating public impeachment hearings shredding the already thin credibility of its patriach.

Eric Trump has seen an opportunity in this living nightmare to shill his brand of gut rot vino. Remember it was only last week that the president was whining about how hard this ordeal had been on his children.

Peter Stubley reports.

Donald Trump is live tweeting quotes from Fox News as Fiona Hill is set to testify before the House Intelligence Committee:

'A nothing-burger': Republicans in denial after day of drama as Pence and Pompeo distance themselves

Congressional Republicans are so far showing no overt signs of abandoning their support for Trump, the latest demonstration of how Democrats' impeachment inquiry has left the two parties inhabiting different political universes. While Democrats revelled in Sondland's testimony, GOP lawmakers minimised downplayed his appearance, saying his revelations hadn't changed their minds.


"A meeting, which is a nothing-burger?" Texas senator John Cornyn said of one of Trump's demands. "The president can meet with whoever he wants to meet with, for a good reason or no reason at all."


"None of this" has risen to level of meriting Trump's impeachment, said Indiana senator Mike Braun. "And I'm pretty certain that's what most of my cohorts in the Senate are thinking."


Even so, there is a guardedness among Republicans about the impact of revelations like Sondland's and what disclosures remain.


Polling has shown that while public opinion has shifted recently toward slightly backing Trump's impeachment, Democrats strongly support the effort while Republicans vehemently oppose it. Independents have been divided.


"The question is, is this information enough to disrupt the equilibrium or not?" David Winston, a pollster who works with congressional Republicans, said of Sondland's testimony. Winston said it "takes a lot" for people who have strong opinions on a subject to change them. Republicans acknowledged they would be watching for the results of fresh polls and focus groups and monitoring the attention the inquiry receives back home. But, for now, they said, there seems to be little shifting of people's views and a sense that Democrats' case against Trump is complicated and unwieldy for people to digest.


"Crickets," Texas congressman Michael Conaway, who is retiring, said of his constituents' reactions. "They're tired of it. They're weary of it. Stop."


Nebraska representative Don Bacon, a sophomore lawmaker who won his closely divided Omaha-based district by two percentage points last year, said even Sondland's appearance left him still thinking that Trump hadn't committed an impeachable offence."The key word is he said he presumed, hadn't heard it firsthand, it's the same old thing," Bacon said of Sondland's testimony. Bacon said impeachment is on voters' minds but leaves partisans on both sides entrenched in their views about Trump.


Florida congressman Francis Rooney, who announced he'd not seek re-election a day after saying he could consider impeachment, said he was left undecided and bemoaned the partisanship that he said leaves both sides so starkly divided on issues, including impeachment. "That's the saddest part of the whole deal, it's like Mars and Venus," he said.


North Carolina senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been conducting its own, bipartisan probe of Trump and Ukraine, also said they he doesn't think Sondland's appearance was "a gamechanger". He said Democrats must show that "there was an act that was committed that rose to the level of removal from office. I'm just like the American people, I'm waiting to see it."

Two Republicans conspicuous by their silence were Pence and Pompeo, both implicated by the ambassador.

Marc Short, Pence's chief of staff, said that Pence never spoke with Sondland on 1 September "about investigating the Bidens, Burisma or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations."

Pence later told a Wisconsin television station the conversation doesn't ring a bell: "I don't recall any discussions with Ambassador Sondland before my meeting with President Zelensky that had to do with investigations."


In Brussels, Pompeo dismissed Sondland's testimony but didn't comment on specifics.

Additional reporting by AP

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