Trump directed Ukraine quid pro quo, key witness says
WASHINGTON — Ambassador Gordon Sondland told House impeachment investigators Wednesday that he worked with Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine at the “express direction” of U.S. President Donald Trump and pushed for a political “quid pro quo” with Kyiv because it was what Trump wanted.
“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 testified of his dealings with Trump’s personal attorney.
Sondland, the most highly anticipated witness in the public impeachment probe, made clear that he believed Trump was pursuing his desire for political investigations in return for an Oval Office meeting that the eastern European nation’s new president sought to bolster his alliance with the West. Sondland said he later came to believe military aid that Ukraine relied on to counter Russia was also being held up until the investigations were launched.
In a blockbuster morning, Sondland’s opening remarks included several key details.
He confirmed that he spoke with Trump on a cellphone from a busy Kyiv restaurant the day after the president prodded Ukraine’s leader to investigate political rival Joe Biden.
He also said he kept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top administration officials aware of his dealings with Ukraine on the investigations Trump sought. Sondland said he specifically told Vice-President Mike Pence he “had concerns” that U.S. military aid to Ukraine “had become tied” to the investigations.
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified in opening remarks. “It was no secret.”
A top Pence aide denied the conversation between the vicepresident and Sondland.
It “never happened,” Pence chief of staff Marc Short said.
Trump has insisted he did nothing wrong in his dealings with Ukraine, casting the impeachment inquiry as a politically motivated effort to push him from office. Speaking to reporters outside the White House on Wednesday, he said he wanted nothing from the Ukrainians and did not seek a quid pro quo. He also distanced himself from Sondland, a major donor to his inauguration.
“I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much,” Trump said, speaking from notes on the hearing, written with a black marker.
The impeachment inquiry focuses significantly on allegations that Trump sought investigations of former vice-president Biden and his son — and the discredited idea that Ukraine rather than Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election — in return for the badly needed military aid for Ukraine and the White House visit. In Moscow on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was pleased that the “political battles” in Washington had overtaken the Russia allegations, which are supported by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Sondland said that conditions on any potential Ukraine meeting at the White House started as “generic,” but “more specific items got added to the menu, including — Burisma and 2016 election meddling.” Burisma is the Ukrainian gas company where Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on the board. And, he added, “the server,” the hacked
Democratic computer system.
“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,” he said.
Sondland said he didn’t know at the time that Burisma was linked to the Bidens but has since come to understand that — and that the military aid also hinged on the investigations.
“President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on meetings,” he testified. “The only thing we got directly from Giuliani was that the Burisma and 2016 elections were conditioned on the White House meeting ... The aid was my own personal guess ... two plus two equals four.”
The impeachment inquiry focuses significantly on allegations that Trump sought investigations of Democrat Joe Biden and his son — and the discredited idea that Ukraine rather than Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election — in return for the badly needed military aid for Ukraine and the White House visit.
Sondland’s hours of testimony didn’t appear to sway Trump’s GOP allies in the Senate.
Mike Braun of Indiana said the president’s actions “may not be appropriate, but this is the question: Does it rise to the level of impeachment? And it’s a totally different issue and none of this has.”
Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and Trump donor, has emerged as a central figure in an intense week in the impeachment probe that has featured nine witnesses testifying over three days. Both Democrats and Republicans were uncertain about what Sondland would testify to, given that he had already clarified parts of his initial private deposition before lawmakers.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S ambassador to the European Union, testifies before the House intelligence committee in Washington on Wednesday. The committee heard testimony during the fourth day of open hearings in the impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump.