WASHINGTON (CN) – Former Ambassador Kurt Volker, a former special envoy to Ukraine, backfired as a witness called by the Republican minority of the intelligence committee during remarks extolling former vice president Joe Biden and reversing his earlier testimony on the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
“In hindsight, I now understand that others saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company, ‘Burisma,’ as equivalent to investigating former Vice President Biden,” Volker told the committee. “I saw them as very different.”
Burisma is the Ukrainian energy company on which Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, sat from 2015 until this year.
President Donald Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the company in what Democrats describe as a transparent attempt to extort and bribe a U.S. ally with military assistance to kneecap his political opponent.
“In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently,” Volker testified, referring to the tie between Burisma and the Bidens, “and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections.”
The ex-ambassador emphasized that he has nothing but respect for the Delaware Democrat.
“I have known Vice President Biden for 24 years,” the ex-ambassador testified. “He is an honorable man and I hold him in the highest regard.”
Deriding Trump’s claims against the Bidens as a “conspiracy theory,” Volker had been testifying together with Timothy Morrison, the National Security Council’s ex-deputy assistant to the president.
Though both House minority witnesses, each veered off the president’s messaging. Morrison bemoaned that a once-bipartisan agreement on the importance of U.S.-Ukraine relations has become a political football.
“My fears have been realized,” Morrison remarked in his opening statement.
Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani has been identified repeatedly as a figure souring the president on Ukraine.
“He said Ukraine is a corrupt country full of terrible people,” ex-envoy Volker said. “He said they tried to take me down.”
Chairman Adam Schiff held Trump and Giuliani responsible for damaging the United States’ bilateral relationship with its ally.
“Hopes that Trump would agree to an early meeting with the Ukrainian President were soon diminished, however, when Trump pushed back,” Schiff said in his statement. “According to Volker, ‘He just didn’t believe it. He was skeptical. And he also said, that’s not what I hear. I hear, you know, he’s got some terrible people around him.’ President Trump also told them he believed that Ukraine ‘tried to take’ him down. He told the three Amigos: ‘talk to Rudy.’”
Representative Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the committee, was hardly eager to hear testimony from the minority’s own witnesses.
“Welcome to Act II of the circus,” Nunes announced, referring to the afternoon session of the impeachment inquiry.
Time and again, Nunes showed more interest in attacking the proceedings as empty theater than in expressing confidence that the Republicans’ witness would prove their case, and Volker undermined the central counternarrative offered by the president and his defenders.
Democrats accuse Trump of attempting to bribe Ukraine’s president with military assistance if he would gin up a bogus investigation against his political opponent.
Volker’s testimony was not a total win for the Democrats, however.
The Democrats’ attorney Daniel Goldman, a former prosecutor from the Southern District of New York, pressed the former ambassador about Trump’s insistence that Zelensky announce an investigation of his opponent.
“In fact, it was a necessary condition as you understood it at that point,” Goldman said, encountering resistance from his witness.
“I would not say it’s a necessary condition,” Volker responded.
The ex-ambassador’s denials sparked laughter among the spectators, who have heard several witnesses so far testify the opposite.
William Taylor, the top diplomat for Ukraine, had testified that Trump-appointed Ambassador Gordan Sondland told him that the president wanted Zelensky in a “public box by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.”
Volker also denied the central charge of the impeachment inquiry: that Trump and Giuliani’s machinations in Ukraine amounted to bribery, one of the listed offenses in the Constitution’s requiring impeachment.
“I was never involved in anything that I considered to be bribery at all,” Volker said.
While his testimony may help Republicans on the committee score anti-impeachment talking points, Volker stood up for his colleagues in government bureaucracy who have been maligned by Trump and his allies as the “deep state.” He dismissed the notion that former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was untrustworthy or undeserving of her post. The smears against her were first widely pushed by Ukraine’s former prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko.
“Lutsenko was interested in preserving his own position and wanted to avoid being prosecuted himself,” Volker said after noting Lutsenko’s “zero credibility” on the matter.
As the hearing drew to a close Tuesday, the Democratic counsel made quick work of unwinding Volker’s history of conflicting claims.
“You understood that mention of “the investigations” were [a reference to] Burisma and the 2016 election?” Goldman asked Volker.
Volker agreed he did but offered a quick caveat. While the answer was yes, he said, he believed the investigations were a matter of Ukrainians looking into fellow corrupt Ukrainians.
“But in your testimony today, you admitted the purpose for Rudy Giuliani and Trump to want the investigation is for political benefits or getting information on Biden?” Goldman asked.
“It is correct that I learned that,” Volker said, adding that knowledge only came “much later” and after transcripts from other witnesses called for the inquiry were released by the committees.
Yet Volker testified earlier Tuesday afternoon that he knew U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland was involved in pursuing the investigations at Trump’s orders as far back as July 10.
“But Biden wasn’t mentioned then,” Volker said.
Goldman checked to make sure the former special envoy to Ukraine understood several witnesses had already corroborated Sondland involvement in Giuliani’s ulterior, unofficial foreign policy track by that time.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff questioned why Volker omitted other details surrounding that same July 10 meeting, in particular, his total lapse of memory about the widely reported abrupt end to the meeting where former National Security Adviser John Bolton stormed out following Sondland’s comments about opening investigations for Trump.
“So for six or seven hours, when we asked you about the investigations, you didn’t remember Sondland bringing up. You didn’t remember Bolton calling the plan some drug deal that Sondland and [MG director Mick] Mulvaney cooked up?” Schiff said, his incredulous tone betraying his stoic, seemingly immovable face.
Volker said he couldn’t recall an “abrupt end” to the meeting.
“It was just, essentially, over,” Volker said.
But if Volker knew the mention of the investigations was inappropriate, a question remained over why he failed to bring it up then.
The special envoy chalked it up to bad timing.
Republicans on the committee deftly posed questions without context repeatedly during Tuesday’s hearing. At one point, Representative Mike Turner of Ohio appeared delighted as he elicited a “no” from Kurt Volker when he asked the former envoy if Ukrainian officials ever told him explicitly that they understood Zelensky would never receive a White House meeting or military aid until they acquiesced with Trump’s request for investigations.