By Patricia Zengerle, Karen Freifeld and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday that President Donald Trump already has admitted to actions that amount to bribery in the Ukraine scandal at the heart of a Democratic-led impeachment inquiry.
“The bribe is to grant or withhold military assistance in return for a public statement of a fake investigation into the elections. That’s bribery,” Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said at a news conference.
“What the president has admitted to and says it’s perfect, I say it’s perfectly wrong. It’s bribery.
Democrats are looking into whether Trump abused his power by withholding $391 million in U.S. security aid to Ukraine as leverage to pressure Kiev to conduct an investigation that would benefit him politically. The money, approved by the U.S. Congress to help a U.S. ally combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country, was later provided to Ukraine.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing.
Pelosi made her comments a day after the Democratic-controlled House held its first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry she announced in September. Another central figure – former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch – is due to testify on Friday.
If the House approves articles of impeachment – formal charges – against Trump, the Senate would then hold a trial on whether to convict him of the charges and remove him from office. Republicans control the Senate and have shown little support for Trump’s removal.
The focus of the impeachment inquiry is a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden and the former vice president’s son Hunter, who had served as a board member for a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma. Trump also asked Zelenskiy to investigate a debunked conspiracy theory embraced by some Trump allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Pelosi compared Trump’s actions to former President Richard Nixon’s actions in the Watergate corruption scandal that led him in 1974 to become the only U.S. president to resign.
She said that Trump’s actions to enlist a foreign power to help him in a U.S. election and the obstruction of information about that – she called it a cover-up – “makes what Nixon did look almost small.”
Two career U.S. diplomats, William Taylor and George Kent, testified on Wednesday in the first televised hearing of the inquiry that threatens Trump’s presidency as he seeks re-election in November 2020.
Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, offered an account that linked the Republican president more directly to the pressure campaign on Ukraine.
The public hearings follow weeks of closed-door interviews with current and former U.S. officials about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
The House Intelligence Committee on Friday is due to hear in a public session from Yovanovitch, who Trump abruptly removed from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in May.
Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani at the time was working to convince Ukraine to carry out the investigations.
Yovanovitch, who has worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations, told lawmakers behind closed doors on Oct. 11 that Trump ousted her based on “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives” after she came under attack by Giuliani. She also denied allegations by Trump allies that she was disloyal to him and said she did not know what Giuliani’s motivations were for attacking her.
Yovanovitch said Giuliani’s associates “may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”
Trump called Yovanovitch “bad news” in the phone call to Zelenskiy, according to a White House summary.
Three more public hearings are scheduled for next week.
On Wednesday, Taylor offered a new disclosure that indicated Trump’s keen interest in the investigations in Ukraine, saying a member of his staff overheard a July 26 phone call at a restaurant in which Trump asked about the probes he had asked Zelenskiy to conduct.
After the call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, a former political donor appointed as the U.S. envoy to the European Union, the staff member asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine, Taylor said.
“Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor testified.
Trump told reporters after the hearing that he knew “nothing” about the call with Sondland.
“It’s the first time I heard it,” he said.
The staffer cited by Taylor is David Holmes, a Taylor aide who has been subpoenaed to testify in the inquiry on Friday behind closed doors, said a person familiar with the issue.
Republican lawmakers called Taylor’s account hearsay.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said on Thursday that Sondland did not explicitly link the security aid to an investigation into the Bidens, Interfax Ukraine reported.
“Ambassador Sondland did not tell us, and certainly did not tell me, about a connection between the assistance and the investigations. You should ask him,” Prystaiko said.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Karen Freifeld; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington and Matthias Williams in Kiev; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Peter Cooney and Sonya Hepinstall)