The former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, faced hours of questioning Thursday from members of the House committees leading an impeachment inquiry into President Trump, the first of five former and current State Department officials to testify as part of the probe.
The closed-door meeting began around 9: 30 a.m. and was expected to last several hours.
Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) released a statement just before noon saying that, after attending the interview for an hour, he felt confident Volker’s testimony would not advance House Democrats’ “impeachment agenda.”
“It is my strong belief that Volker would not have been involved in nor permitted anything inappropriate, let alone illegal, in his service to our country,” Turner’s statement says.
Volker resigned last week after being named in the whistleblower complaint as the diplomat who set up a meeting between a top adviser to Ukraine’s president and Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani during his quest to pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rival Joe Biden and his son.
As Giuliani faced a storm of accusations last week that he was conducting rogue U.S. foreign policy in his capacity as Trump’s personal lawyer, the former New York mayor countered that he acted at the request of the State Department and posted a private text message from Volker in which the envoy offered to set up the meeting with the Ukrainians. Shortly afterward, Volker resigned and agreed to sit for an interview that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to block.
“This is when the inquiry gets real,” said one senior congressional aide in anticipation of Thursday’s testimony with Volker.
Turner’s statement indicated that the questioning of Volker was being led by staff for Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is steering the Democrats’ investigation alongside the heads of the Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees. Turner derided the process, calling Volker’s interview a “show trial.”
One of the president’s closest allies in Congress, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), emerged from the hearing room and declared, “Nothing he has said supports the narrative you’ve been hearing from Mr. Schiff and the Democrats. Nothing.”
He characterized Volker as an impressive, knowledgeable witness but declined to detail any specifics about what has been discussed thus far.
Neither Pompeo nor the State Department has offered an explanation for Volker’s resignation. Lawmakers want answers about that and several other issues, including whether about $400 million in aid to Ukraine was withheld to pressure Kiev into investigating the Bidens.
In advance of his appearance Thursday, Volker had turned over a number of documents to congressional staffers including a chain of text messages with Giuliani, said a person familiar with the matter who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly. Volker has also turned over physical documents, white papers and correspondence with other officials, the person said.
Volker started his job at the State Department in 2017 in an unusual part-time arrangement that allowed him to continue consulting at BGR, a powerful lobbying firm that represents Ukraine and Raytheon. During his tenure, Volker advocated for the U.S. to send Ukraine Raytheon-manufactured antitank Javelin missiles — a decision that made the missile firm millions of dollars. BGR has said Volker recused himself from all Ukraine-related matters in response to criticisms about conflicts of interest.
Volker also kept his job as executive director of the McCain Institute, an affiliation that may explain why Volker never penetrated Trump’s inner circle, given the president’s open disdain for the late Sen. John McCain.
Previously, he served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO during the George W. Bush administration.
The whistleblower complaint that led to Volker’s resignation alleged that Trump abused his office to pressure a foreign country to damage a political opponent in the 2020 election. Among other things, it cited a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump asks if Zelensky could get in touch with Giuliani.
A day after the call, the whistleblower says Volker and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, held a meeting with Zelensky and gave him advice about how to “navigate” Trump’s request.
The State Department says Volker also arranged a meeting between Giuliani and a top aide to Zelensky, Andriy Yermak, but at the request of Yermak.
The White House denies the charge of a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine and says that Trump withheld aid to Ukraine out of frustration over Europe’s lack of support for Ukraine and continued problems related to corruption in the country.
When asked whether he thought anything was improper on the phone call, Pompeo said Wednesday that everything the Trump administration has done related to Ukraine has been “remarkably consistent” and focused on confronting the “threat that Russia poses” and rooting out “corruption” in Ukraine.
Rachael Bade, Mike DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.