Hours after House Democrats on Tuesday formally called for President Donald Trump to be removed from office, a bombshell interview challenged the allegation at the heart of their case.
In the newly released articles of impeachment, Democrats have accused Trump of “abusing his office to enlist” Ukraine to investigate his political rivals. According to the nine-page charge sheet, Trump withheld vital military aid to Ukraine in a failed attempt to get its president to announce investigations that would benefit his reelection.
However, hours after the Democrats’ solemn announcement, TIME magazine published an interview with the only Ukrainian official who is said to have been directly informed of this alleged quid pro quo. Problematically for the would-be impeachers, Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to the president of Ukraine, told Europe correspondent Simon Shuster that he was never told any such thing.
Yermak’s account contradicted key testimony that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, gave in a Nov 20 public impeachment inquiry hearing. Sondland recounted that he pulled Yermak aside after a Sept. 1 meeting between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and told him that U.S. aid to Ukraine would probably not resume until Zelensky’s government announced Trump’s desired investigations.
The White House rejected Sondland’s amended testimony at the time, saying he had wrongly assumed Trump’s expectations.
Trump, who has strongly denied any wrongdoing in his relations with Ukraine, noted that Sondland acknowledged the president had explicitly told him he did not seek a quid pro quo with Ukraine.
Sondland’s version of the conversation with Yermak — which he claimed to have “remembered” after privately testifying in October to having no knowledge of a quid pro quo — was duly recorded as fact in the in the House Intelligence Committee’s Dec. 3 final report summarizing the evidence it gathered during the inquiry.
Where Andriy Yermak leaves the Democrats on impeachment
According to Yermak’s TIME interview, though, he was “never alone” with Sondland and did not learn of any kind of quid pro quo from him. Rather, he said, the two men “bumped into each other in the hallway next to the escalator” on the way out of the meeting and briefly exchanged pleasantries.
“And I remember – everything is fine with my memory – we talked about how well the meeting went,” Yermak said. “That’s all we talked about.”
Yermak also said no one from the congressional committees handling the impeachment inquiry contacted him to request that he testify.
Shuster, the TIME reporter, noted: “These comments cast doubt on an important moment in the impeachment inquiry’s reconstruction of events: specifically, the only known point at which an American official directly tells the Ukrainians about the link between U.S. aid and the announcement of specific investigations.”
Sondland’s lawyer told Shuster that his client “stands by his prior testimony and will not comment further.”
More broadly, Yermak denied that he or the Ukrainian government ever felt there was a connection between the military aid and the requests for investigations.
“We never had that feeling,” he said. “We had a clear understanding that the aid has been frozen. We honestly said, ‘OK, that’s bad, what’s going on here.’ We were told that they would figure it out. And after a certain amount of time the aid was unfrozen. We did not have the feeling that this aid was connected to any one specific issue.”
The White House unfroze the aid to Ukraine on Sept. 11, amid mounting pressure from Congress and after Trump had reportedly been briefed on the Aug. 12 whistleblower’s complaint that would ultimately lead Democrats to on Sept. 25 start impeachment proceedings. Ukrainian officials never announced the investigations, which Trump asked Zelensky for on a July 25 phone call, according to a rough transcript released by the White House.
Yermark’s version of event supports that of his boss, Zelensky, who in a Nov. 30 interview with Schuster denied ever talking to Trump “from the position of a quid pro quo.”
“That’s not my thing,” he said.