`Everyone was in the loop’
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 four 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.
“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 US 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.
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.
Sondland said Giuliani emphasised 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 it 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 authorise 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.
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 US diplomat in Ukraine, David Holmes, told impeachment investigators last week about the phone call between Trump and Sondland. Holmes overheard the cell phone 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. He opened the call by telling Trump that the Zelenskiy “loves your ass”.
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.
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.”
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.