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White House official in 'shock' over Trump's 'improper' Ukraine call

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White House's Ukraine expert in 'shock' over Trump's 'improper' call

WASHINGTON : Senior US officials told impeachment investigators in Congress on Tuesday they were concerned by US President Donald Trump's effort to get Ukraine to investigate a political rival, with one White House official calling it a "shock".

The third day of impeachment hearings conducted by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee marked the first time that officials from inside the White House publicly expressed their misgivings about a freewheeling pressure campaign that now threatens Mr Trump's presidency.

The White House's top Ukraine expert, wearing his Army dress uniform, said Mr Trump had made an "improper" demand of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 25 phone call that has become the centrepiece of the Democratic-led impeachment probe.

"Frankly, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was probably an element of shock that maybe, in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukrainian policy could play out was playing out," Army Lieutenant-Colonel Alex Vindman said.

As he was testifying, the White House's official Twitter account attacked his judgement - undermining the same man the administration appointed to lead its European affairs brief at the National Security Council.

Two other senior White House aides, Ms Jennifer Williams and Mr Tim Morrison, also said during Tuesday's hearings, which spanned 111/2 hours, that they were concerned by the political nature of the phone call.

Ms Williams told the hearing that Mr Trump's call with Mr Zelensky was unusual and inappropriate because "it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter".

Mr Morrison said he did not see anything improper in the call but was concerned that its contents could leak, hurting bipartisan support for Ukraine.

"I wanted access to be restricted," he said.


During the call, Mr Trump asked Mr Zelensky to carry out two investigations that would benefit him politically, including one targeting Mr Joe Biden, the former vice-president who is a leading Democratic presidential contender to face Mr Trump in next year's election, and his son Hunter.

The other involved a debunked conspiracy theory embraced by some Trump allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US election.

Mr Kurt Volker, a former US envoy to Ukraine, said he believed those two concerns were "conspiracy theories".

He added that allegations of corruption involving Mr Biden and his son, who was a director of Ukrainian energy company Burisma, were "not credible".

Mr Trump has said his call with Mr Zelensky was "perfect," while Republican lawmakers have criticised the impeachment process as unfair.

"What's going on is a disgrace, and it's an embarrassment to our nation," Mr Trump told reporters on Tuesday.

"It's a big scam."

Republican US Representative Francis Rooney told reporters: "I don't think there's been a crime proven yet... But I want to see what happens. There's still a lot of water to go down this creek."

Ahead of the July call, Mr Trump had frozen US$391 million (S$532 million) in US security aid approved by Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.

Last Friday's testimony attracted an average audience of 12.9 million viewers across seven US TV networks that aired lived coverage, according to data from the Nielsen ratings agency, down slightly from the audience on the first day. The numbers did not include people who streamed the event on phones or computers or followed the proceedings via social media. - REUTERS