The testimony of Gordon Sondland was expected to be potentially devastating for President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense, and his opening statement Wednesday morning lived up to the billing with the diplomat saying he believed Trump’s attempts to strong-arm Ukraine were a quid pro quo. Sondland testified that he and his colleagues were taking directions from Rudy Giuliani on orders from the president of the United States. “Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” Sondland said in his opening statement. “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.”
While Sondland, a hotelier turned Trump campaign contributor, was technically the U.S. ambassador to the European Union at the time, his role expanded to include Ukraine, and he played a central role in the Trump administration’s off-book effort to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into the Biden family in return for an Oval Office meeting and the delivery of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid that had been held by the Trump administration.
“[Energy Department] 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,” Sondland said. “We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. … 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.
“I first communicated with Mr. Giuliani in early August,” Sondland said. “Mr. Giuliani conveyed to Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and others that President Trump wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election. Mr. Giuliani expressed those requests directly to the Ukrainians. Mr. Giuliani also expressed those requests directly to us. We all understood that these prerequisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements.”
Sondland said he did not believe Giuliani’s work to be improper at the time and that emails show that the leadership of the State Department, the National Security Council, 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.” “As I previously testifed, 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.”
Sondland also addressed the July 26 cellphone call from a restaurant in Kyiv to Trump in the White House:
Other witnesses have recently shared their recollection of overhearing this call. For the most part, I have no reason to doubt their accounts. It is true that the President speaks loudly at times. While I cannot remember the precise details—again, the White House has not allowed me to see any readouts of that call—the July 26 call did not strike me as significant at the time. 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. However, I have no recollection of discussing Vice President Biden or his son on that call or after the call ended.
Sondland testified that there was an explicit quid pro quo. “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.”
Sondland testified that Trump was deeply suspicious of Ukraine, despite U.S. efforts to bolster the country against Russian aggression, and that Trump “even mentioned that Ukraine tried to take him down in the last election.” Sondland said he was not explicitly aware of why the security aid had not been delivered to Ukraine but noted that during a Sept. 1 meeting in Warsaw, “the Ukrainians had become aware that the security funds had yet to be disbursed. In the absence of any credible explanation for the hold, I came to the conclusion that the aid, like the White House visit, was jeopardized.” Sondland said: “By the end of the August, my belief was 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.”
During that Sept. 1 meeting, “President Zelensky raised the issue of security assistance directly with Vice President Pence,” Sondland said. “The Vice President said he would speak to President Trump about it.” Sondland testified that his attempts to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into Burisma and the Bidens was based on his desire to “break the logjam” and get the aid distributed and the Oval Office meeting confirmed.
“In a very brief pull-aside conversation, that happened within a few seconds, I told [Zelensky aide Andriy] Yermak that I believed that the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on the public statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland said. “I expressed this view to many during this period. But my goal, at the time, was to do what was necessary to get the aid released, to break the logjam. I believed that the public statement we had been discussing for weeks was essential to advancing that goal. 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.”