On Wednesday, Ambassador Gordon Sondland — a pivotal witness in the impeachment inquiry because of his close contact with President Trump on Ukraine — testified in front of congressional committee members. In his opening statement, Sondland stated in unequivocal terms that “yes” there was a “quid pro quo” presented by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine involving a White House meeting and call. He also repeated that he “came to believe” the release of U.S. military aide to Ukraine was connected to the investigations, indicating that he was not told so by the president. Sondland later made clear that he “never heard from President Trump that the aid was conditioned on the investigations.”
“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?'” Sondland said Wednesday. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.” That “quid pro quo,” he explained, came from Giuliani. “I’ve never heard from President Trump that the aid (to Ukraine) was conditioned on the investigations,” he told committee members.
In his opening statement Wednesday, Sondland underscored six key points, beginning with the role of Giuliani, with whom he said was directed by the president to work.
“First, Secretary [Rick] Perry, Ambassador [Kurt] Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the President of the United States,” said Sondland. “We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that 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.”
Though he made clear that he and the other officials were reluctant to work with Giuliani, they “did not believe that his role was improper at the time.”
“Second, although we disagreed with the need to involve Mr. Giuliani, we did not believe that his role was improper at the time,” said Sondland. “As I previously testified, if I had known of all of Mr. Giuliani’s dealings or of his associations with individuals now under criminal indictment, I would not have acquiesced to his participation. Still, given what we knew at the time, what we were asked to do did not appear to be wrong.”
The ambassador then stressed that accusations that he and the other officials were “engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy” is “absolutely false.”
“Third, let me say: precisely because we did not think that we were engaging in improper behavior, we made every effort to ensure that the relevant decisionmakers at the National Security Council and State Department knew the important details of our efforts. The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false,” said the ambassador. “I have now identified certain State Department emails and messages that provide contemporaneous support for my view. These emails show that the leadership of State, NSC, and the White House were all informed about the Ukraine efforts from May 23, 2019, until the security aid was released on September 11, 2019. I will quote from some of those messages with you shortly.”
In his fourth point, Sondland addressed the “quid pro quo” arrangement pushed by Giuliani.
“Fourth, as I testified previously, Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” he said. “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. 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 then summarized his own understanding of the connection between the $391 million in U.S. military aid and the requested investigations into Burisma and the Bidens and alleged Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. As he has stated before, he “came to believe” the aide and investigations were connected, but suggests that he was not told that expressly.
“Fifth, in July and August 2019, we learned that the White House had also suspended security aid to Ukraine,” said the ambassador. “I was adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid, as the Ukrainians needed those funds to fight against Russian aggression. I tried diligently to ask why the aid was suspended, but I never received a clear answer. 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 election and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded. I shared concerns of the potential quid pro quo regarding the security aid with Senator Ron Johnson. And I also shared my concerns with the Ukrainians.”
“Finally, at all times, I was acting in good faith,” he concluded. “As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the President. We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the President directed us to do so. We had no desire to set any conditions on the Ukrainians. Indeed, my personal view — which I shared repeatedly with others — was that the White House meeting and security assistance should have proceeded without pre-conditions of any kind. We were working to overcome the problems, given the facts as they existed. Our only interest was to advance longstanding U.S. policy and to support Ukraine’s fragile democracy.”
Later in the hearing, Sondland emphasized that Trump “never” imposed a quid pro quo. “I’ve never heard from President Trump that the aid (to Ukraine) was conditioned on the investigations,” he said, explaining that in one of his calls with Trump in which he asked for clarification about what he wanted out of Ukraine, Trump said something to the effect of, “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”
“It was a very short abrupt conversation, he was not in a good mood, and he just said, ‘I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing,’ something to that effect,” said Sondland. “So I typed out a text to Ambassador Taylor and my reason for telling him this was not to defend what the president was saying, not to opine on whether the president was being truthful or untruthful, but simply to relay I’ve gone as far as I can go. This is the final word that I heard from the president of the United States.”