Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified Wednesday that while officials in the Trump administration coordinated a months-long campaign to procure a public announcement from Ukrainian officials of an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, they didn’t care whether Kyiv followed through with it.
“They would have to announce that they were going to do it,” Sondland said. "I never heard ... anyone say that the investigations had to start or be completed.”
Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was testifying in the impeachment inquiry before the House Intelligence Committee, discussing the Trump administration’s conditions for a White House meeting for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the delivery of military aid that had been held back by the White House.
His testimony was sharply at odds with the Republican defense of President Trump: that he sought investigations of Biden and his son Hunter out of concern over corruption in Ukraine.
Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman asked Sondland if it was true that Trump “didn’t actually care if they [the Ukrainians] did them.”
"I never heard, Mr. Goldman, anyone say that the investigations had to start or be completed,” Sondland replied. “The only thing I heard, from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise, was they had to be announced in some form and that form kept changing."
“Announced publicly?” Goldman pressed.
“Announced publicly,” Sondland replied.
“And you of course recognized that there would be political benefits to a public announcement as opposed to a private confirmation, right?”
Sondland on Trump's request for investigations:
"I never heard...anyone say that the investigations had to start or be completed. The only thing I heard...was they had to be announced in some form."
“The way it was expressed to me was that the Ukrainians had a long history of committing to things privately and then never following through. So, President Trump, presumably, again communicated through Mr. Giuliani, wanted the Ukrainians on record publicly that we’re going to do these investigations. That’s the reason that was given to me.”
“But you never heard anyone say that they really wanted them to do the investigations.”
“I didn’t hear either way,” Sondland answered.
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)