WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s former Russia adviser testified on Monday behind closed doors as the latest witness summoned in the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry against Trump over his request that Ukraine investigate a domestic political rival.
Fiona Hill, former senior director for European and Russian Affairs on Trump’s National Security Council, was called to appear before the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee. She walked past journalists without saying anything as she arrived at the U.S. Capitol building, entering with sunglasses atop her head.
Republican congressman Matt Gaetz, an outspoken defender of Trump, was asked to leave the closed session about an hour into Hill’s testimony. Gaetz is not a member of any of the three House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry and Gaetz told reporters the House parliamentarian said he could not attend.
The Trump administration’s removal in May of Marie Yovanovitch as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine could figure in Hill’s testimony.
On Friday, Yovanovitch testified that she had been ousted based on “unfounded and false claims” after coming under attack by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who had been working to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, a top contender for the Democratic nomination to face Republican Trump in the November 2020 presidential election.
The inquiry focuses on a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former vice president Biden and Biden’s businessman son Hunter Biden.
Democrats have accused Trump of pressuring a vulnerable U.S. ally to dig up dirt on a domestic rival after withholding $391 million in U.S. security aid intended to help combat Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine. Zelenskiy agreed to investigate. Trump eventually allowed the aid.
The British-born Hill, who left her White House job shortly before the July 25 call but remained on the payroll into August, had advocated a tough U.S. approach on Moscow even as Trump was more accommodating toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election with a campaign of hacking and propaganda intended to boost Trump’s candidacy.
Giuliani faces a Tuesday deadline to produce documents related to the Ukraine matter subpoenaed by the House Intelligence Committee. He has not said whether he will comply.
Lawmakers this week are returning from a two-week recess, with testimony from current and former administration officials on the schedule. A key event could be testimony on Thursday from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
Sondland, a political appointee and Trump political donor rather than a career diplomat, participated in a text message exchange with Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. Democrats say it reveals concern among aides that Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Biden was improper.
Sondland is expected to be asked why he relayed from Trump to other diplomats that the president said no “quid pro quos” connecting the Biden investigation with the U.S. aid. Quid pro quo is a Latin term meaning a favor for a favor.
Trump has denied wrongdoing. The inquiry could prompt the House to approve articles of impeachment – formal charges – leading to a trial in the Senate on whether to remove Trump from office. The Senate is led by Trump’s fellow Republicans, who have shown little inclination to remove him.
As talks continue over whether the whistleblower from within the U.S. intelligence community who prompted the inquiry will testify, Trump weighed in on Twitter, demanding that the person testify and that the individual’s identity be revealed.
Trump has questioned the patriotism of the whistleblower, who filed a complaint after the Zelenskiy call saying Trump was improperly using the power of his office to solicit interference in the 2020 election from a foreign country.
Negotiations between representatives for the whistleblower and congressional committees were deadlocked over Senate Intelligence Committee requests that the individual provide testimony in person, while the House committees were willing to exchange questions and answers in writing, according to two people familiar with the negotiations.
The House Intelligence Committee also is scheduled this week to hear from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent and State Department Counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl, a top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Lawmakers also may debate whether to seek to compel testimony from Giuliani. On Thursday, two Giuliani associates – Ukraine-born Lev Parnas and Belarus-born Igor Fruman – who helped him with his efforts to investigate the Bidens, were charged with scheming to violate U.S. campaign finance laws.
Giuliani has defended his actions as proper in his role as Trump’s lawyer.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Karen Freifeld, Mark Hosenball, Makini Brice and Jonathan Landay; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool