WASHINGTON (AP) — Ambassador Gordon Sondland told House impeachment investigators Wednesday that Rudy Giuliani had pushed a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine that he had to go along with because it’s what President Donald Trump wanted.
“Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president,” Sondland said of his dealings with Trump’s personal attorney.
Sondland, the most highly anticipated witness in the public impeachment probe, made clear that he believed Trump was pursuing his desire for investigations in return for the Oval Office meeting that the Eastern European nation’s president sought. Sondland said he later came to believe military aid for Ukraine was also being held up until the investigations were launched.
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the EU
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the EU
FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2019, file photo U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, center, arrives for a interview with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
As the impeachment hearings enter their second week - one of the most highly anticipated testimonies will be Wednesday’s appearance from Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU.
Unlike the other witnesses in the inquiry, Sondland is not a career diplomat versed in the protocols of the State Department or a foreign policy expert. He’s a Seattle businessman who gave a million dollars to Trump’s inauguration and later became Trump's pick for envoy to the European Union. But Sondland’s direct interactions with Trump, and testimony from other witnesses about his dealing with Ukraine, have put him front and center in the controversy, over whether Trump made aid to Ukraine contingent on opening an investigation into his political rival, Joe Biden.
Sondland was one of three officials - along with Kurt Volker, the former representative for Ukraine, and Energy secretary Rick Perry - to take the lead on American policy toward Ukraine after Trump abruptly removed the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, Marie Yovanovitch.
Alexander Vindman, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and Ukraine expert on the NSC, said he heard Sondland explicitly press Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe Biden and his son, according to a transcript of his private testimony.
And On Friday David Holmes, a U.S. embassy official in Kiev, told lawmakers in closed-door testimony, that he overheard a phone call between Trump and Sondland, in which the ambassador told the president his Ukrainian counterpart was ready to carry out the investigations. The phone call occurred on July 26, one day after the phone conversation between Trump and Zelenskiy.
The top US diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor discussed that call in his public hearing.
(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) DIPLOMAT WILLIAM TAYLOR, SAYING:
“The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’ Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of [Joe] Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”
Sondland appeared in released texts saying there was no quid pro quo in withholding aid. But after testifying behind closed doors, he then had to revise his testimony to say that by September he had come to view a suspension of U.S. security aid as being held up as leverage to get Ukraine to commit.
Up until now – among the GOP's main defenses of Trump are that there was no quid pro quo, and that no witnesses has spoken directly to Trump about the withheld aid. Democrats hope Sondland could undercut those arguments..
Gordon Sondland headshot, as US Ambassador to the European Union, arriving to testify before congressional lawmakers as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Trump, graphic element on gray
US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland walks to a secure area of the Capitol to testify as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
ARCHIVO - En esta foto del 10 de julio del 2018, el presidente estadounidense Donald Trump es acompañado por Gordon Sondland, embajador ante la Unión Europea, al llegar a la Base Aérea Melsbroek, en Bruselas, Bélgica (AP Foto/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, left, and European Union Vice President Maros Sefcovic speak with reporters about trade as they travel with President Donald Trump, Tuesday, May 14, 2019, aboard Air Force One. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Senior Advisor to the President of the United States Jared Kushner, center, and US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, right, meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at EU headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, left, listens as European Union Vice President Maros Sefcovic speaks with reporters about trade as he travels with President Donald Trump, Tuesday, May 14, 2019, aboard Air Force One. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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“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,” he said.
The impeachment inquiry focuses significantly on allegations that Trump sought investigations of Democrat Joe Biden and his son — and the discredited idea that Ukraine rather than Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election — in return for the badly needed military aid as well as the White House visit.
Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and Trump donor, has emerged as a central figure in an intense week in the impeachment prone that has featured nine witnesses testifying over three days. Both Democrats and Republicans were uncertain about what Sondland would testify to, given that he had already clarified parts of his initial private deposition before lawmakers.
His opening statement included several key details. He confirmed that he spoke with Trump on a cellphone from a busy Kyiv restaurant the day after the president prodded Ukraine’s leader to investigate political rival Joe Biden. He also said he kept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top administration officials aware of his dealings with Ukraine on the investigations Trump sought.
Sondland said he specifically told Vice President Mike Pence he “had concerns” that U.S. military aid to Ukraine “had become tied” to the investigations.
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland testified in opening remarks. “It was no secret.”
Sondland appeared prepared to fend off scrutiny over the way his testimony has shifted in closed-door settings, saying “my memory has not been perfect.” He said the State Department left him without access to emails, call records and other documents he needed in the inquiry.
Still, he did produce new emails and text messages to bolster his assertion that others in the administration were aware of the investigations he was pursuing for Trump from Ukraine.
Sondland insisted, twice, that he was “adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid” for Ukraine. “I was acting in good faith. As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the president.”
The son of immigrants who he said escaped Europe during the Holocaust, Sondland described himself as a “lifelong Republican” who has worked with officials from both parties, including Biden.
Democratic Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff of California opened the hearing saying, “The knowledge of this scheme was far and wide.”
Schiff warned Pompeo and other administration officials who are refusing to turn over documents and testimony to the committee “they do so at their own peril.” He said obstruction of Congress was included in articles of impeachment during Watergate.
The top Republican on the committee, Devin Nunes of California, decried the inquiry and told the ambassador, "Mr. Sondland, you are here to be smeared."
Nunes 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.
Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.