Sondland’s testimony is the most damning evidence to date directly implicating Trump in the quid pro quo at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. His public remarks show a link between US security aid and a White House meeting and Ukraine publicly announcing investigations that would help the President politically. From the beginning of Wednesday’s hearing, Sondland’s comment drag some of Trump’s senior most officials — including Pence, his chief of staff and his secretary of state — into the scandal.
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said. “It was no secret.”
In his remarkable opening statement
before the fourth day of public impeachment hearings, Sondland told House impeachment investigators that Trump “wanted a public statement from President (Volodymyr) Zelensky committing to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election.”
“Mr. Giuliani expressed those requests directly to the Ukrainians,” said Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union. “Mr. Giuliani also expressed those requests directly to us. We all understood that these pre-requisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements.”
Sondland said that Trump’s senior aides, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, were all aware that Zelensky was briefed days ahead of the July 25 call to commit to doing investigations.
“Everyone was informed via email on July 19, days before the Presidential call,” Sondland said. “As I communicated to the team, I told President Zelensky in advance that assurances to ‘run a fully transparent investigation’ and ‘turn over every stone’ were necessary in his call with President Trump.”
Mulvaney replied to the email saying he “asked NSC to set (the call) up for tomorrow,” according to documents provided by Sondland.
Sondland said that he told Pence — who has so far mostly avoided playing a role in the Ukraine scandal — before his September 1 meeting with Zelensky that he “had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations.”
Of the dozen witnesses Democrats have called to testify publicly in the impeachment inquiry, none had as much involvement in the push for Ukraine to announce an investigation as Sondland, who was in contact with Giuliani, US diplomats and top Ukrainian political aides.
Sondland testified he was never able to obtain a clear answer for why the security aid was frozen, but he believed that “if Ukraine did something to demonstrate a serious intention to fight corruption, specifically addressing Burisma and 2016 server, then the hold on military aid would be lifted.”
“In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 elections and Burisma,” Sondland said.
Sondland’s testimony on the aid could give Republicans a small opening to argue there wasn’t a quid pro quo tied to the security aid, despite his testimony that links the investigation to Ukraine’s desire for a White House meeting.
California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, did not address Sondland’s testimony in his opening statement. But he told the ambassador: “You are here today to be smeared.”
In his amended testimony, Sondland said he “presumed” that the aid was conditioned on the investigations when he told Zelensky’s advisers Ukraine would have to announce the investigations to unfreeze the aid.
Since Sondland testified last month behind closed doors, multiple administration officials have provided testimony that contradicted his account. In the case of his September 1 comments to the Ukrainians, Sondland amended his testimony when he said he recalled the episode in the wake of others’ testimony.
But his opening statement does not address some of the other discrepancies, like US diplomat Bill Taylor saying Sondland told him the President said he wanted Zelensky to “go to a microphone”
to announce the investigations. Sondland also makes no mention of what was said on a phone call he had with Trump hours before Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky.
Sondland did acknowledge another call he left out of his initial testimony: the July 26 conversation where US diplomat David Holmes says he overheard Trump ask Sondland if Zelensky was gonna “do the investigation,” and Sondland replied Zelensky was “gonna do it.”
Sondland did not dispute those details in the call.
“Actually, I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the President’s concerns,” he said.
But Sondland said he did not recall telling Holmes that Trump only cared about “big stuff” that benefited him, like the investigation into the Bidens, as Holmes testified.
Sondland argues that he was not acting in a rogue fashion as other officials, like former White House aide Fiona Hill
and National Security Council aide Lt. Col Alexander Vindman
, have described.
He says that his goal was to “break the logjam” to get Ukraine the security funding it needed.
“I believed that the public statement we had been discussing for weeks was essential to advancing that goal,” Sondland testified. “I really regret that the Ukrainians were placed in that predicament, but I do not regret doing what I could to try to break the logjam and to solve the problem.”
Sondland says that he and others officials did not want to work with Giuliani, but they felt they had no choice in the matter, given the President’s viewpoint. “If we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the President’s orders.”
Sondland provided the committee with a July 10 text message stating that Giuliani spoke with former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lustenko, and Giuliani told Lutsenko the Trump-Zelensky meeting “will not happen.”
In a July 13 email, Sondland tells NSC aide Tim Morrison that a Trump-Zelensky call should happen before Ukraine’s July 21 parliamentary elections, and the “sole purpose” is to give Trump “assurances of a ‘new sheriff’ in town.”
Sondland’s testimony names a number of senior Trump administration officials who have defied House subpoenas in the impeachment inquiry, including Mulvaney and Pompeo, and the Trump administration has not provided any documents that were subpoenaed. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff noted the Trump administration’s blockade, saying that the “sample” of documents Sondland provided show “that the knowledge of this scheme was far and wide.”
“I remind the President,” Schiff said, “that article three of the impeachment articles drafted against President (Richard) Nixon was his refusal to obey the subpoenas of Congress.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.