The White House removed the core of its Ukraine policy team in the spring and replaced it with "three amigos" considered more reliable for the plan to pressure Kyiv, a senior U.S. diplomat was described as telling House investigators on Tuesday.
That's according to the account Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., gave to reporters about the closed-door deposition by George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary in the State Department's European and Eurasian Bureau.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney organized the May 23 meeting at which the personnel moves were decided, according to Connolly's description.
That conference yielded the crew described as the new "three amigos" assigned the Ukraine portfolio: Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union; Kurt Volker, then an envoy to Ukraine for its peace negotiations; and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
In other words, Mulvaney removed career specialists who the White House believed wouldn't go along with a plan to lean on Ukraine's leaders in an attempt to get them to launch investigations that might help Trump in the 2020 election, according to this account of Kent's testimony.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the account on Tuesday evening.
Connolly, who described the deposition, called Kent's account of events "very powerful" and "deeply disturbing, especially the role of Rudy Giuliani" — the personal attorney for Trump who drove much of the Ukraine plan on his own as well as in concert with the State Department.
Members of Congress already have heard from Volker; Sondland is expected to appear behind closed doors on Thursday. Perry has been subpoenaed in the House inquiry.
Other directions for investigators
Connolly said Kent's remarks also made him want to hear from former national security adviser John Bolton, whom other witnesses also are said to have described to investigators as concerned about Trump's Ukraine pressure plan and the role Giuliani played in it.
It isn't clear whether investigators might call Bolton to appear; Connolly said that will be up to the chairmen of the three committees leading the impeachment inquiry: Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight.
One of those chairmen, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., of the Intelligence Committee, suggested elsewhere in the Capitol on Tuesday that his next priority might be to try to obtain documents about the Ukraine pressure plan, which he said exists somewhere within officialdom.
"There is a paper record of efforts to condition this meeting ... and perhaps condition military support itself," Schiff said.
More broadly, the chairman said, Democrats intend to keep up a "furious pace" of depositions and that there will be "a busy few days and weeks ahead."
No vote for now
What Democrats do not intend to do, for now, is convene a vote by the full chamber on whether to authorize their impeachment inquiry, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
President Trump and Republicans have faulted the inquiry as illegitimate because it hasn't been put before all of the members in the chamber. That's one reason the White House has said it won't cooperate with requests for witnesses or documents — although it isn't clear whether the administration would change its tune if there were a vote.
Pelosi was asked at her news conference on Tuesday why, if she believed the inquiry was right and she was on solid political ground, she wouldn't "call the president's bluff" and convene a vote.
Congress isn't in the business of calling bluffs, Pelosi said — "this is not a game for us."
The Constitution gives the House broad discretion about conducting impeachment, putting the speaker and her lieutenants in charge of when it's taking place and what rules will govern the process.
Trump and Republicans call what the Democrats are doing a "fake impeachment" because it breaks with past practices, including a vote to launch the inquiry — which took place when President Bill Clinton was impeached — and some privileges for the minority to issue subpoenas or call witnesses.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone argued in a letter rejecting the impeachment inquiry that Trump deserves the ability to confront his accuser, enjoy due process and have a vigorous defense.
But impeachment in the House is, effectively, an indictment for which lawmakers are a grand jury. If members vote to impeach, that triggers a trial for Trump in the Senate in which his allies can defend him there.
NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis and Congress editor Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.
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