European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland – one of the most highly anticipated witnesses in the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry against President Trump – disputed the notion Wednesday that he was involved in “rogue diplomacy” with Ukraine but acknowledged a “potential quid pro quo” involving military aid to the country and investigations desired by the president.
Sondland, a wealthy hotelier Trump tapped as his ambassador to the European Union, is more directly entangled than any witness yet in the Republican president’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden and Democrats in the 2016 election.
“The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false,” Sondland, the sole witness in the House Intelligence Committee’s morning hearings, told lawmakers.
Sondland — whose previous testimony has been at odds with numerous other witnesses and who recently amended his previous testimony to acknowledge he did talk to Ukraine about investigations after initially indicating otherwise – went further Wednesday than he has before in describing efforts to get Ukraine to commit to investigations.
“I shared concerns of the potential quid pro quo regarding the security aid with Senator Ron Johnson,” Sondland said, referring to the Republican senator involved in Ukraine policy. “And I also shared my concerns with the Ukrainians.” He stressed he never got a clear answer on why the aid was held up, saying in the absence of an explanation he came to believe that the aid and the investigations were linked.
He also said he specifically told Vice President Pence he “had concerns” the military aid to Ukraine “had become tied” to the investigations. And linking more top officials to the efforts, he said he kept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo aware of what was going on.
Sondland testified that Pompeo, as late as Sept. 24, was telling then-Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker to speak with the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. He said Volker sent him a WhatsApp message that said, “Spoke w Rudy per guidance from S.” Sondland said “S” was in reference to the secretary of state.
He also described a Sept. 1 conversation in Warsaw with Zelenksy’s senior aide, Andriy Yermak, saying he expressed concerns that the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on the public statement about investigations. “Based on my communications with Secretary Pompeo, I felt comfortable sharing my concerns with Mr. Yermak,” he said.
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland testified in opening remarks. “It was no secret.”
The inquiry was sparked by a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s July 25 call when he asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky for political investigations – including involving Biden’s family — at the same time as U.S. military aid for the ally was being stalled.
On Wednesday, Sondland said he was not on the call and didn’t read a transcript until it was publicly released in September. He called it “very odd” that he never received a detailed read-out of the call with the Biden references.
Sondland repeatedly made clear he did not support preconditions on the aid.
“We had no desire to set any conditions on the Ukrainians,” Sondland said. “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.”
Sondland was more explicit when it came to the link between investigations and a White House meeting and call between Trump and Zelensky.
He told the committee: “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. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
At the hearings kicked off, Republicans dismissed the proceedings as they have done during previous sessions. California Rep. Devin Nunes, the GOP’s top member on the committee, told the witness: “Ambassador Sondland, you are here today to be smeared.” Nunes also reiterated his calls for the committee to subpoena Hunter Biden, the whistleblower who wrote the complaint against Trump and Democratic National Committee documents – something Democrats have not granted.
Meanwhile, the top committee Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, in his opening remarks accused Trump and Pompeo of making “such a concerted and across-the-board effort to obstruct this investigation and this impeachment inquiry.” Schiff added, “They do so at their own peril.”
Sondland, throughout the inquiry, has been portrayed as a key player in an irregular channel of diplomacy led by Giuliani. On Wednesday, Sondland repeatedly expressed his displeasure with Giuliani’s involvement in Ukraine policy but said they were working with him at Trump’s direction. “Talk with Rudy,” Sondland said Trump told officials when it came to Ukraine.
“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said, explaining he believed State Department officials should take the responsibility for Ukraine matters. “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.”
He said he and other officials “disagreed with the need to involve” Giuliani but they “did not believe that his role was improper at the time.” He said “as a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the president.”
“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,” Sondland said. “Still, given what we knew at the time, what we were asked to do did not appear to be wrong.”
He bluntly described Giuliani’s requests linking a White House visit for Zelensky with investigations as a quid pro quo.
Sondland’s appearance at Wednesday morning’s hearing, and his closeness to Trump, is of particular concern to the White House as the historic impeachment inquiry reaches closer to the president, pushing through an intense week with nine witnesses testifying over three days in back-to-back sessions.
Sondland, who has had to amend his testimony related to his conversations with Ukraine, told lawmakers he has had hundreds of meetings and calls with individuals in his role but is not a note-taker. He said he has requested documents from the State Department and the White House for documents phone records to help refresh his memory. “In the absence of these materials, my memory has not been perfect,” he said.
Among the details that other witnesses have filled in are those concerning a call he placed to Trump from a busy Kiev restaurant the day after the president prodded Ukraine’s leader to investigate the Bidens. After another diplomat witness revealed this, Sondland confirmed Wednesday they had the call — saying he doesn’t remember much of it but has no reason to doubt other accounts, which said the conversation dealt with the topic of investigations.
Also testifying on Wednesday are Pentagon official Laura Cooper and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Hale.
Trump has recently tried to suggest that he barely knows his hand-picked ambassador, but Sondland has said he has spoken several times with the president and was acting on his direction.
Sondland’s appearance follows the testimony Tuesday of four national security and diplomatic officials, including Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a career Army officer, who described Trump’s call with Zelenskiy as “improper.”
At the White House, Trump said he had watched part of the day’s testimony and slammed the ongoing impeachment hearings as a “disgrace.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.