WASHINGTON — House investigators on Thursday privately questioned Kurt D. Volker, the State Department’s former special envoy for Ukraine, interviewing the first witness in their growing impeachment inquiry into whether President Trump tried to bend American policy for his own political benefit.
Mr. Volker, a former ambassador to NATO, has not been accused of directly taking part in Mr. Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate a leading political rival. But he appears to have been caught up in efforts by the president and his lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to enlist Ukrainian leaders to unearth damaging information about former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other Democrats.
Mr. Volker’s name appears several times in an anonymous C.I.A. whistle-blower complaint that set off the impeachment inquiry, and Mr. Giuliani has said publicly he briefed Mr. Volker on his efforts. The complaint centers on a July call Mr. Trump had with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, in which he pressed him to investigate Mr. Biden, and asserts that Mr. Volker advised the Ukranians on how to “navigate” Mr. Trump’s demands.
Investigators for the House Intelligence Committee want to know what Mr. Volker knew, and when, about Mr. Giuliani’s work in Ukraine, the president’s decision to withhold $391 million in security assistance from the country at the same time he was pressing for the investigations of Democrats, and the Trump administration’s decision to recall Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former United States ambassador to Ukraine who was targeted by the president and Mr. Giuliani for ostensibly being insufficiently loyal.
Another key avenue of inquiry for investigators on Thursday is likely to be the American delegation that visited Kiev for Mr. Zelensky’s inauguration, which included Mr. Volker, Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union; Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin; and Rick Perry, the energy secretary. House investigators were expected to ask questions about the message the officials delivered to the new government.
The interview, which Mr. Volker participated in voluntarily, was expected to last several hours out of public view. Before he arrived, Mr. Volker provided the House with more than 60 pages of documents, mostly text messages, related to his work at the State Department, according to a congressional official familiar with the investigation, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the ongoing inquiry.
Mr. Volker resigned on Friday from his part-time, unpaid State Department post without public explanation. A person familiar with his thinking said the longtime diplomat concluded he could not longer be effective in the post in light of the unfolding scandal. But the resignation also freed him to appear before the House investigators without restrictions, according to people familiar with his account.
As special envoy for Ukraine, Mr. Volker was near the heart of the administration’s diplomacy with the country. But, he has told colleagues, he was not involved in the pressure campaign, and was only trying to prod the new president to stick to his campaign promises of fighting corruption, people familiar with his account said.
Mr. Volker has also told friends and colleagues that he believed that the Trump administration was withholding the aid to Ukraine because of generalized concerns about corruption, rather than to force a specific investigation of the Biden family, according to a person familiar with his account.
But Mr. Volker did know about Mr. Giuliani’s interest in having the Ukrainians investigate Mr. Biden, the person said. The two discussed it at a meeting that Mr. Giuliani has said took place in July, according to people familiar with his account. At that meeting, intended to pave the way for a meeting with the Ukrainians, Mr. Volker told Mr. Giuliani he believed the allegations against the Bidens were baseless, according to a person briefed on the conversation. But Mr. Volker did not disagree with Mr. Giuliani’s contention that there was corruption in Ukraine, and that some in the country wanted to try to influence Mr. Biden through his son.
Mr. Giuliani did not argue the point with Mr. Volker, but said he wanted the Ukrainian government to investigate if Ukrainian citizens had violated their laws. Mr. Volker said that was what the government was supposed to do. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Volker put Mr. Giuliani in touch with Andriy Yermak, the new Ukrainianpresident’s adviser, according to people familiar with his account.
The whistle-blower’s complaint says that a day after Mr. Trump spoke with Mr. Zelensky in July, Mr. Volker and Mr. Sondland met with Mr. Zelensky and other political figures in person. The whistle-blower said that multiple American officials told him the two Americans gave “advice” to the Ukrainians “about how to navigate the demands that the president had made of Mr. Zelensky.”
It also says that the two men had tried to “contain the damage” to American national security posed by the scheme.
Mr. Volker was expected to testify that he did not know why the aid had been frozen at the time of that conversation. While he had pushed for a call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Volker had no early warning that the July 25 call had been scheduled.
Even before the first deposition began, Republicans were raising complaints about the fairness of the investigative process. Representative Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to its chairman on Wednesday protesting that committee staff would not be allowed to ask questions during the depositions and that Republicans had been given fewer slots than Democrats. Democrats said Mr. McCaul’s complaint about partisan parity was unfounded, and that Republicans and Democrats would be represented Thursday in equal numbers.
But Republicans were demanding other answers about the fast-unfolding inquiry, highlighting some of the murkiness of Democrats’ intentions.
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the top House Republican, wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday requesting she “suspend” the impeachment investigation “until transparent and equitable rules and procedures are established to govern the inquiry, as is customary.”
Democrats are deviating from recent historical precedent for presidential impeachment proceedings. When the House conducted impeachment inquiries of Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton, the full chamber held votes to authorize the inquiries. And the majority party established rules meant to clearly govern their work and give the president substantial due process.
This time, Ms. Pelosi and her team believe no House vote is necessary and do not intend to take one. And they have said little publicly about how they expect the investigation to play out, or what procedures will govern it. Mr. McCarthy demanded she offer an outline, and said that any deviation from past precedent would be unfair to the president and would “create a process completely devoid of any merit or legitimacy.”
For now, though, Democrats are pushing forward with haste, issuing near-daily requests or subpoenas for documentary evidence and witness testimony.
The session with Mr. Volker is expected to be the first in a fast-paced series of interviews in the coming weeks, when Democrats aim to bring a parade of witnesses behind closed doors for questioning. Ms. Yovanovitch is expected to appear next week.
Other State Department diplomats, including Mr. Sondland, and associates of Mr. Giuliani’s are scheduled to participate, as well, but it remains to be seen whether they will appear voluntarily. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the committee this week that its requests were inappropriately aggressive and untenable.
First, though, the Intelligence Committee will privately debrief the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, on Friday. Mr. Atkinson met with the panel once before, but he was barred from discussing a preliminary investigation he conducted to determine the credibility of the whistle-blower complaint. Now, lawmakers expect him to provide a list of which administration officials he interviewed before ultimately deeming the complaint “credible.”
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