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Trump impeachment inquiry: What's been said so far, and what could trip up the Democrats' case

As the House-led impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump's dealings with Ukraine enters a new week, and its second month, here's a look at some of what is known about the testimony Democrats have heard so far and what the next several weeks could entail.

On Nov. 21, wrench could be thrown into Democrats' wish to move speedily

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sept. 25 in New York. Two months earlier, the leaders engaged in a telephone call that resulted in the launching of an impeachment inquiry into Trump's alleged efforts to pressure Ukraine for political gain. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

It has been just over a month since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Democratic Party-led committees were proceeding under the framework of an impeachment inquiry, focusing on the Trump administration's dealings with Ukraine.

The July 25 call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the events surrounding it are threatening to damage Trump's presidency in a way allegations of Russian interference did not.

Through a whistleblower complaint and testimony in closed sessions before several House committees, a narrative has emerged of an "irregular channel," as one diplomat described it, in U.S. dealings with Ukraine, led by Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

It has been alleged that Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who served on the board of Ukraine energy company Burisma, for corruption. As well, Trump allegedly requested that Zelensky investigate unproven allegations that entities in Ukraine were allied with the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2016 presidential election and involved in the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails.

The larger question is whether Trump withheld close to $400 million US in military and security aid to Ukraine for nearly two months as he waited for Zelensky to commit to doing his bidding.

Here is a recap of some of the testimony given so far:

Praise for Biden, warning about Guiliani

Kurt Volker, who resigned as special representative for Ukraine the day after the whistleblower's complaint became public, revealed on Oct. 3 that he helped draft a statement for Zelensky committing Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

Volker also said he told Zelensky while at a July 2 conference in Toronto, that Giuliani had a negative perception of Ukraine's corruption-fighting efforts and that it was likely influencing Trump's views.

Volker characterized Biden as a "man of integrity" and said Trump once described Ukraine as full of "terrible people" and said that the country had tried to take him down in the 2016 election.

'Concerted campaign' to remove ambassador alleged

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was removed from her post more than two months before the July 25 call, during which Trump described her as "bad news," and Zelensky agreed with that assessment "100 per cent."

Yovanovitch said in her Oct. 11 opening statement to three House committees — permanent select committee on intelligence, the committee on foreign affairs and the committee on oversight and reform — that another official told her of a "concerted campaign" within the administration to remove her.

Other officials who've testified have praised her professionalism, with some lamenting the shoddy treatment they say she received from the administration.

Ukraine policy diverted to Giuliani

Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, said on Oct. 17 it was apparent soon after Zelensky was elected in May that Trump wanted Giuliani to be a point person on Ukraine policy.

Gordon Sondland, centre, former U.S. ambassador to the EU, testified that Trump had wanted his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, rather than career diplomats, to be the point person on Ukraine. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

Sondland's lawyer told the Wall Street Journal in an Oct. 26 report that his client believed Trump's pressure campaign amounted to a quid pro quo — Ukraine was to announce the twin probes Trump wanted in exchange for Zelensky getting an invitation to the White House.

Giuliani a 'hand grenade'

Fiona Hill, former senior director for European and Russian Affairs on Trump's national security council, recounted a July 10 meeting in which Sondland raised the matter of investigations, which she and others took as a reference to a probe into the Bidens, a person familiar with her testimony who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters.

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Multiple U.S. media reports indicated that Hill in her Oct. 14 appearance relayed that then-national security adviser John Bolton was appalled when learning of Giuliani's efforts, referring to him as a "hand grenade who is going to blow everybody up."

'I think it's crazy'

Bill Taylor, with some reluctance, became chargé d'affaires as essentially a replacement for Yovanovitch, with whom he spoke before taking the role. Taylor levelled the most extensive publicly known allegations of a consistent pressure campaign on Ukraine.

He described an unconventional group that included Giuliani, Sondland and Energy Secretary Rick Perry that became involved in U.S. policy on Ukraine, with more traditional diplomats on the file being kept out of the loop on key calls and readouts.

"I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign," he texted other officials on Sept. 9, raising the possibility that U.S. aid to Ukraine was being withheld until Zelensky agreed to investigate the Bidens.

Outside development

Two Eastern European associates of Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were formally accused on Oct. 9 of using a shell company to launder a contribution of more than $300,000 US to a Trump political action committee. Foreign donations are prohibited under U.S. law.

An indictment also alleges the duo were agitating for Yovanovitch's ouster.

"Individuals who have been named in the press as contacts of Mr. Giuliani may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine," Yovanovitch said in her statement to the House committees.

Volker testified he attended a July 19 breakfast meeting on Ukraine with Giuliani in which Parnas was present.

What's next

A number of State Department and national security officials are scheduled to testify, including Tim Cummings, who will appear Oct. 31,

The National Security Council official may have had firsthand knowledge of the July 25 call, which he described in less-than-stellar terms to Taylor. According to Taylor, Cummings said he had a "sinking feeling" that a quid pro quo was being demanded by the U.S. 

There are some high-profile names who say they won't comply with subpoenas to appear: Giuliani, Perry and Mick Mulvaney, who serves as both Trump's chief of staff and the head of the Office of Management and Budget.

According to Taylor's testimony, an OMB staffer on July 18 said that a hold on aid to Ukraine had been directed by Trump and was to be overseen by Mulvaney.

Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, left, was reportedly agitated by the freelancing of Giuliani on Ukraine policy. It remains to be seen whether Bolton will appear before the House committee investigating the Trump administration's dealings with Ukraine. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

Democrats have few good options to compel their appearances, as they found out in their investigations into alleged ties between Russia and Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Seeking a remedy in court would take months and bleed into the 2020 election race.

The Democrats will likely want to vote on articles of impeachment in the House and proceed to a trial in the Senate by January given that their primary race begins in earnest with voting in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020.

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Bolton, who left the White House last month, has reportedly not ruled out testifying. That possibility would likely enrage Trump.

Ex-congressman Pete Sessions, who allegedly received cash from Parnas and Fruman to help lobby the administration to recall Yovanovitch, is said to be complying with document requests and could also appear.

Democrats have indicated public hearings will take place in a matter of weeks. It is, after all, in their best interests to try and build a groundswell of public opinion among Americans in favour of impeachment.

Nov. 21 deadline

Val Demings, a member of the House intelligence and judiciary committees, said the impeachment inquiry should be wrapped up by December.

But there's a big caveat — the government only has funding to remain fully open through Nov. 21.

"The concern is that if we vote on impeachment before December, Trump will refuse to sign the funding bills and shut down the government," a Democratic congressional aide told Reuters.

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press

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