Gordon Sondland, President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, was the most anticipated witness in the House impeachment inquiry, and his testimony Wednesday showed why.
He made repeated references to a quid pro quo involving Ukraine and invoked the names of senior Trump administration officials who, he said, knew what was going on. He also confirmed the existence of a newly revealed telephone call with Trump one day after Trump had pressed Ukraine’s leader for an investigation into a Trump political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Some takeaways from Day 4 of the impeachment inquiry before the House Intelligence Committee.
THIS FOR THAT
Sondland repeatedly referred to a quid pro quo — one thing in return for another — in describing the administration’s dealings with Ukraine.
It was a remarkable spectacle: Trump’s own ambassador using the exact term that the president himself has disavowed. Sondland is hardly a Never-Trumper: He donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee before being named ambassador.
“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” Sondland said.
The quid pro quo in this case, he said, involved arranging a White House visit for Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in return for Zelenskiy’s announcing investigations of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, and a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Biden’s son Hunter was a Burisma board member.
That proposed arrangement was pushed by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who conveyed Trump’s wishes to multiple administration officials. Sondland said he did not know until September that what was actually desired was an investigation into the Bidens.
The White House pushed back with a statement issued during Sondland’s testimony, saying Sondland didn’t testify that the release of withheld security assistance for Ukraine was tied to Trump’s request for investigations.
“Sondland is basing his new testimony on presumptions he had made regarding President Trump’s wishes,” the statement said. Under questioning from the committee chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., “Sondland confirmed he presumed what the President wanted. Sondland said that he ‘speculated’ about and ‘presumed’ what the President wanted.”
“AT THE EXPRESS DIRECTION” OF TRUMP
Sondland says he was uncomfortable working with Giuliani, but he did so at the “express direction of the president of the United States.”
“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt,” Sondland said.
Democrats will certainly point to the diplomat’s remarks to undercut any distance that Trump might try to put between him and demands that were placed on Zelenskiy.
Sondland said Giuliani emphasized to him in a subsequent conversation that Trump wanted a public statement from Zelenskiy committing Ukraine to look into corruption issues, including looking into potential interference in the 2016 election and Burisma.
“Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelenskiy,” Sondland said. “Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the President.”
‘EVERYONE WAS IN THE LOOP’
Sondland made clear that this was no rogue effort. Sondland said he was open about Trump’s demand that Ukraine commit to the investigations.
He updated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the White House’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, telling them that Ukraine’s leader would conduct a “fully transparent investigation” and “turn over every stone.”
Sondland further told Pompeo that he and another American diplomat, Kurt Volker, had negotiated a statement that Zelenskiy could deliver that “will hopefully make the boss happy enough to authorize an invitation” to the White House.
Sondland name-dropped Vice President Mike Pence as well, telling him he was concerned that aid to Ukraine had become tied to the issue of investigations. Pence replied that he would speak to Trump about it.
“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said.
Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, said Wednesday that Pence never spoke with Sondland “about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations.”
Sondland’s account made clear his refusal to be a fall guy for the administration’s dealings with Ukraine and underscored that officials across the government were aware of the unconventional dialogue. It could also undercut a Republican talking point that Sondland was part of a rogue and unsanctioned back channel.
TRUMP CLAIMS EXONERATION
Sondland’s testimony directly tied Trump to the effort to push Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. But Trump is seizing upon a portion of that testimony to make his defense.
While Sondland continued to face questions on Capitol Hill, Trump briefly addressed reporters as he left the White House on his way to Texas. Trump normally speaks off-the-cuff, but on Wednesday he read from handwritten notes that appeared to be scrawled in the black Sharpie that the president is famed for favoring.
Trump launched into a defense, selectively recounting Sondland’s testimony that Trump told him there was no quid pro quo and that he wanted nothing from Ukraine.
“That means it’s all over. This is the final word from the president of the United States. I want nothing,” Trump said, before resorting to his usual description of someone from whom he wanted to distance himself. “I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though.”
Trump also disputed what he said was Sondland’s characterization that Trump was in a bad mood during their conversation.
“I’m always in a good mood. I don’t know what that is.”
Trump ignored questions from reporters as he boarded the presidential helicopter.
CONFIRMING THE OVERHEARD CALL
Sondland confirmed a July call with Trump that was revealed by another diplomat last week — and said the White House has confirmed it too.
A U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, David Holmes, told impeachment investigators last week about the phone call between Trump and Sondland. Holmes overheard the cellphone call, conducted a day after Trump pushed Zelenskiy to investigate Democrats, while Holmes was dining with Sondland at a Kiyv restaurant. Holmes said Sondland told Trump that Zelenskiy would conduct the investigations he was seeking and would do anything he wanted.
Sondland also said that he had “no reason to doubt that this conversation included the subject of investigations,” but said the conversation didn’t strike him as significant.
He said the White House confirmed the call by sharing certain call dates with his attorneys.
NO INVESTIGATION NECESSARY?
Whether Ukraine actually had to do the investigations to get a White House visit is a matter of some dispute. At least according to Sondland’s account.
“He had to announce the investigations; he didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it,” Sondland said.
Republicans may look to seize on that testimony by arguing that the announcement of an investigation was far more important than whether one was actually done. Trump supporters point out that some of the ideas Trump discusses that provoke criticism and pushback aren’t actually meant to be followed up on.
Even so, Trump himself did directly encourage Zelenskiy on the July 25 call to look into the Bidens, suggesting that in this case he actually did intend to see an investigation.
NOT A NOTE-TAKER
In contrast to some veteran diplomats who have testified in the impeachment inquiry, Sondland told lawmakers that he did not take detailed notes of his interactions and “my memory has not been perfect.”
In a closed-door deposition last month, Sondland told lawmakers repeatedly that he did not recall events that other witnesses had detailed. His testimony was inconsistent with others’ accounts of some of the most pivotal meetings and conversations in the impeachment inquiry.
Sondland said his testimony has “not been perfect” because Trump’s administration has refused to give him access to calendars, phone records and other State Department documents that he says might have helped him accurately answer questions.