Massive blow to Trump: Gordon Sondland pins Ukraine "quid pro quo" on president

EU ambassador describes Ukraine "quid pro quo" to Congress: "Everyone was in the loop. ... The answer is yes"

Published November 20, 2019 11:43AM (EST)

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that he and other advisers to President Donald Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate Democrats "because the president directed us to do so."

Sondland's much-anticipated testimony appears massively damaging to the White House. He clearly stated that Trump leveraged a possible meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine's new president, to extract the promise of Ukrainian investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, as well as into a baseless conspiracy theory about the 2016 election.

"Was there a 'quid pro quo?'" Sondland, a major Republican donor who gave $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee, said in his explosive opening remarks Wednesday. "The answer is yes."

Sondland said the nature of this proposed transaction was widely understood across the Trump administration, noting that most senior officials were aware of the arrangement — and that it was carried out at the "express direction of the president of the United States."

"Everyone was in the loop," Sondland said. "It was no secret."

The ambassador testified that he directly communicated the quid pro quo to Zelensky. He specifically cites a July 19 email he sent to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and "a lot of senior officials." In that email, Sondland said he "talked to Zelensky just now" and secured a commitment for a "fully transparent investigation."

Six days later, on July 25, Trump spoke directly to Zelensky and noted his request for an investigation into Biden. That phone call has become the central focus of the impeachment inquiry. Sondland said he did not hear the call and knew very little about it before the official summary became available.

The next day, Sondland had a phone conversation with Trump that was overheard by two other U.S. officials, including David Holmes, who has previously testified before the committee. Sondland did not discuss this call in previous testimony, but did not dispute Holmes' recollection of its contents.

"The call lasted five minutes. I remember I was at a restaurant in Kyiv, and I have no reason to doubt that this conversation included the subject of investigations," Sondland told impeachment investigators.

Sondland's testimony is central as Democrats attempt to make the case that Trump sought to leverage a potential White House meeting with Zelensky and millions of dollars in military aid approved by Congress in an effort to pressure the president of Ukraine to commit publicly to investigations that would benefit him politically.

He told members of the House Intelligence Committee that he "later came to believe" that the aid, which had been frozen at Trump's direction over the summer, would not be delivered to Ukraine unless the country publicly committed to pursuing Trump's desired investigations.

Sondland also said he expressed concerns to Vice President Mike Pence on Sept. 1 that the "delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations." He said the conversation occurred shortly before Sondland and Pence traveled to Warsaw for a meeting with Zelensky.

At the Sept. 1 meeting, Zelensky brought up the issue of withheld aid and Pence said he would discuss the matter with Trump. After that, Sondland said he shared his "concerns" with Andriy Yermak, a top Ukrainian official, telling him that the "resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on the public statement that we had been discussing for many weeks."

In addition to drawing Pence into the widening circle of scandal, Sondland also connected Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, to the campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

"Even as late as September 24, Secretary Pompeo was directing Kurt Volker to Rudy Giuliani. In a WhatsApp message, Kurt Volker told me in part: 'Spoke w Rudy per guidance from S.' S means the secretary of state," Sondland testified.

Sondland said he had no doubt that Giuliani was "expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president." He said that he, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy for Ukraine — the so-called "Three Amigos" — were reluctant to work with Giuliani and agreed only "because it was the only constructive path open to us" to "cement relations between the United States and Ukraine."

"Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the president," Sondland said in his prepared opening statement. "We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hands we were dealt."

Giuliani had publicly called for Ukraine to investigate Biden and to investigate a debunked conspiracy theory about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He also mounted a smear campaign against former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

"In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded," Sondland said.

Burisma is a reference to the Ukrainian energy company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. Several State Department officials have said they understood Trump's demand for an investigation into Burisma as code for a probe of the Bidens. (There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden in Ukraine.)

"We had no desire to set any conditions on the Ukrainians," Sondland told lawmakers. "I believed then, as I do now, that the men and women of the State Department, not the president's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for Ukraine matters."

For Sondland, this is his third account of his role in the unfolding Ukraine scandal. His closed-door testimony to lawmakers last month omitted crucial details that he later noted in a written supplement. His explosive opening statement Wednesday marked a major departure from his previous remarks and appears to be a far more damning indictment of the president and his activities in Ukraine.

Sondland admitted that his memory "has not been perfect," adding that he does not regularly take notes and saying that the State Department has refused him access to his phone records, emails and other documents. He said the process would have been "more transparent" if the State Department had allowed him to access the material.

He also noted that the White House only recently confirmed that he had, in fact, spoken with Trump on July 26, bolstering former State Department official David Holmes' testimony last week about the phone call between Trump and Sondland while the latter was with Holmes and another U.S. official at a restaurant in Kyiv.

Trump has suggested he has no knowledge of such a phone call. But Sondland confirmed the conversation, saying he had "no reason to doubt" that "this conversation included the subject of investigations." Holmes told investigators in a closed-door deposition last week that he overheard Trump loudly discussing the investigations he wanted Zelensky to launch, and that Sondland confirmed that Zelensky had promised to deliver them.

After the call, Holmes said that Sondland told him that Trump didn't "give a shit about Ukraine" except as a tool to advance investigations that could benefit him politically. Sondland told lawmakers Wednesday that he has no reason to dispute that account, although he does not recall some details.

"I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the president's concerns," Sondland said. "However, I have no recollection of discussing Vice President Biden or his son on that call or after the call ended."

Sondland is without question the most important first-hand witness to the allegations that Trump schemed to push Ukraine to announcing a public investigation of Biden and the Democrats. Unlike other witnesses who have appeared before House impeachment investigators, Sondland had direct contact with the president. Although he did not hear the July 25 phone call, he was present for numerous meetings being probed by investigators.

By Shira Tarlo

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