Congress

Sondland tells Congress he acted at Trump's direction on Ukraine

Testimony from top ambassador ties Trump, Pompeo and other top officials to Ukrainian pressure campaign

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee during a hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on Wednesday told Congress that the president directed him to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Ukrainian energy company Burisma and, in turn, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

The Trump donor and appointee stressed that the president never directly told him U.S. military aid to Ukraine was contingent upon the politically motivated investigations. But he testified, among other new revelations, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed off on a pressure campaign.

Buy-in of top administration officials was just one piece of new and conflicting pieces of information that emerged Wednesday at the House Intelligence Committee hearing.

Sondland's dramatic testimony was punctuated with different information from the transcript released of his 10-hour closed-door testimony in October. Sondland again stated that the central issue of the impeachment inquiry — a holdup of military aid and a White House meeting for Ukraine in exchange for politically motivated investigations into an energy company and the Bidens — is, in fact, a quid pro quo.

“Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland asked. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Sondland testified that he and other key players were acting at Trump's direction when they carried out the Ukraine pressure campaign.

Sondland told lawmakers that he and Kurt Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine, were not independently engaging with the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and his efforts to secure the investigations. He worked with Giuliani at the “express direction” of the president.

“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt,” Sondland told the committee during the fourth day of public impeachment hearings. “We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the president’s orders.”

[New polls show impeachment hearings having minimal impact on public sentiment]

Volker testified Tuesday that he regretted that he did not realize that when the president referred to investigations into Ukrainian energy company Burisma, he was referring to investigations into the Bidens that would help him politically in the U.S. Sondland echoed that sentiment.

“Today I know exactly what it means. I didn't know at the time,” Sondland told the panel.

Sondland confirmed in his opening statement that he talked to Trump on July 26, the day after the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. That July 26 conversation was overheard in a Kyiv restaurant.

Acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor told lawmakers in the first public hearing last week that one of his aides overheard Trump asking Sondland during that call about the status of “the investigations.”

Taylor’s aide, State Department official David Holmes, gave a closed-door deposition late last week and is scheduled for a public hearing on Thursday.

Sondland injected a brief moment of levity in Wednesday’s hearing related to that same phone call. The Democrats’ attorney read a quote attributed to Sondland, in which Sondland told Trump that Zelenskiy “loves your ass.”

Sondland, who admitted he is not a note-taker, said the quote “sounds like something I would say.” He called it “Trump-speak,” adding that when he talks with the president, he uses a “lot of four-letter words, in this case, three letters.”

On that call, among other issues more relevant to the impeachment inquiry, Sondland said he and Trump spoke about American Rapper A$AP Rocky, who was imprisoned in Sweden on assault charges. Trump worked to free A$AP Rocky from jail and cheered the rapper’s eventual release.

Spreading the blame

Sondland emphasized that Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and White House national security aides Fiona Hill and Timothy Morrison were kept apprised of communications between Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Volker, Sondland and Giuliani, including investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election.

“They knew what we were doing and why,” Sondland said.

Sondland emailed Pompeo, acting Chief of Staff and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and other top officials on July 19 in preparation for the phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy. Sondland explained that in conversations with the Ukrainian president, he had made clear what assurances needed to be made about investigations.

“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said. “I told President Zelenskiy in advance that assurances to ‘run a fully transparent investigation’ and ‘turn over every stone’ were necessary in his call with President Trump.”

GOP defenses

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee continued to defend Trump throughout the hearing, seizing on Sondland's comments that Trump had never spoken to him about the aid.

“No one on this planet told you that President Trump was tying aid to investigations,” Ohio Republican Michael R. Turner asked Sondland. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Sondland replied.

“You really have no testimony today that ties President Trump to a scheme to withhold aid from Ukraine in exchange for these investigations,” Turner stated.

“Other than my own presumption,” Sondland replied. Turner shot back, “Which is nothing!”

Earlier in the day, Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., called Sondland’s testimony “the most significant evidence to date” of wrongdoing by the president.

Republicans are working to discredit Schiff’s assertion that Sondland’s words are evidence as the ambassador admits that they are his “presumptions.”

“My colleagues seem to be under the impression that unless the president spoke the words, ‘Ambassador Sondland, I am bribing the Ukrainian president,’ that there is no evidence of bribery,” Schiff argued.

Jim Jordan of Ohio focused more on the outcomes — the fact that the Ukraine aid was ultimately released, a common refrain for Republicans over the last week.

Jordan pointed out that Ukraine received the military aid that was held up for more than 50 days by the White House Office of Management and Budget without Kyiv announcing an investigation into Burisma or the Bidens.

Schiff countered that the aid was delivered because the White House “got caught”.

No notes

Unlike previous witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, Sondland does not have extensive contemporaneous notes about conversations, meetings and phone calls he had regarding Ukraine.

Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman questioned Sondland about how his version of events compared with what Taylor testified last week.

“Do you have any reason to doubt Ambassador Taylor's testimony, which he said was based on his meticulous contemporaneous notes?” asked Goldman.

GOP counsel Steve Castor linked Sondland's lack of note-taking and admissions that he does not recall certain details, to unreliability in comparison with previous witnesses.

“You don’t have records. You don’t have your notes because you didn’t take notes. You don’t have a lot of recollections. This is like the trifecta of unreliability, isn’t that true?” Castor said.

Sondland placed part of the blame about the inconsistencies and updates to his previous testimony on his lack of access to his own phone records, emails and documents under State Department purview.

“Having access to the State Department materials would have been very helpful to me in trying to reconstruct with whom I spoke and met, when, and what was said,” Sondland said.

No follow-through required

Sondland testified that Trump was primarily interested in having investigations into his political rival announced, but was less invested in whether they actually took place or not.

Referring to Zelenskiy, Sondland said, “He had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.”

Sondland later added, “I never heard anyone say the investigations had to start, or be completed.”

The message that the announcement outweighed any true action on potential corruption at Burisma or related to Hunter Biden undermines Republican efforts to portray the president's motivations in Ukraine as focused on anti-corruption or ensuring U.S. dollars were properly spent.

Patrick Kelley and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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