Trump Directed Ukraine Quid Pro Quo, Giuliani Pressed For It, Sondland Says
WASHINGTON – Ambassador Gordon Sondland, perhaps the star witness of the House impeachment inquiry, said to committee investigators Wednesday that President Donald Trump and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, unequivocally sought a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine in order to dig up dirt on Democrats.
Sondland, a tall, dignified man with open and friendly manner, conceded under questioning that Trump never told him directly that $400 million in military aid was being withheld in exchange for investigations into the Democrats and particularly, former Vice President Joe Biden.
But he maintained throughout hours of testimony that his conversations with Giuliani left no doubt that this, as well as a hoped-for Oval Office visit for Ukraine’s president, were being bartered to advance the probes.
“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?'” Sondland testified in opening remarks. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
At the heart of the impeachment inquiry are allegations that Trump sought investigations for Biden and his son — and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 presidential election — in exchange for the military aid and a White House visit for the country’s newly elected president.
Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union and million dollar donor to Trump’s inauguration, described in detail an intricate web of intrigue around Ukraine, led by Trump himself, directed by Giuliani, and involving a who’s who of top administration officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
The ambassador, who admitted he was sometimes handicapped in his recollections due to the fact he didn’t keep contemporaneous notes, also said he raised his concerns about what was happening with Vice President Mike Pence.
Asked how Pence responded, Sondland said he didn’t want to misquote the vice president, but said his reaction was along the lines of “noted.”
“He wasn’t surprised by what I told him,” Sondland said. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
A spokesperson for Pence said the conversation never happened.
Sondland said early on, the conditions on a possible White House meeting between the two presidents were “generic,” the sort of thing that happens all the time in diplomatic circles.
But as time went on, Trump, through Giuliani, began getting more specific, seeking investigations into Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that hired Hunter Biden to serve on its board, and 2016 election meddling.
Sondland told the House Intelligence panel that initially, he had no idea Burisma was linked to the Bidens.
“But exactly what it means now,” he said.
He also said he and other diplomats did not want to work with Giuliani, but they understood that if they refused to do so, “we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine.”
“Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt,” he said. “We followed the president’s orders.”
In the days leading up to his testimony, much was made of Sondland’s changing some of his testimony after his closed-door meeting with investigators.
On Wednesday he said his memory is not always perfect and that the testimony of others have jogged some of his recollections. He also said he’s been at a disadvantage due to the fact that the State Department left him without access to emails, call records and other documents.
“My lawyers and I have made multiple requests to the State Department and the White House for these materials,” he said. “Yet these materials were not provided to me.”
But Sondland was able to produce some new emails and text messages that appeared to bolster his claims that a wide range of top officials knew what was going on.
Among these was one exchange that showed he, former special envoy Kurt Volker and Secretary Perry — now known as the “three amigos” of Ukraine policy – routinely kept Pompeo in the loop.
One message from Volker said, “Spoke w Rudy per guidance from S.”
Sondland explained, “S means the secretary of state.”
Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Sondand’s testimony was “deeply significant and troubling.”
He also warned Pompeo and other administration officials who have refused to turn over documents or testify before the committee that “they do so at their own peril.”
And he reminded them that obstruction of Congress was included in articles of impeachment during Watergate.
Pompeo, meeting with NATO officials in Brussels, said he did not watch Sondland’s testimony, but maintained he is proud of the administration’s work in Ukraine and fully supports it.
For his part, Ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., continued, as he has for two weeks, to attack the inquiry, calling a “Circus” and “charade” and he apologized to Sondland at the outset, telling him “You are here to be smeared.”
Nunes also renewed his demand to hear from the still-anonymous whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy led the House to open the impeachment inquiry.
At the White House, Trump spoke briefly with reporters. Reading from notes he’d evidently written himself in black marker, he sought to dismiss some of Sondland’s testimony while insisting he didn’t know the ambassador very well.
As for the impeachment inquiry itself, Trump was equally dismissive.
“It’s all over,” he said.
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