Sondland’s Ukraine tale often differs from others

Eric Tucker
Associated Press

Washington – The witnesses who have testified publicly and privately in the House impeachment inquiry so far have generally told a consistent tale.

Then there’s Gordon Sondland.

The U.S. ambassador to the European Union has said he cannot recall many of the episodes involving him that other witnesses have recounted in vivid and colorful detail. And the conversations he has said he does recall, he sometimes remembers in materially different ways. Those discrepancies matter because they concern some of the most pivotal meetings and conversations in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

In this Oct. 17, 2019, file photo U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, center, arrives for a interview with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Sondland will almost certainly be pressed on those inconsistencies, as well as a newly revealed conversation he is said to have had last July with Trump, when he testifies Wednesday before impeachment investigators.

A look at how Sondland’s account differs from that of other witnesses:

On Mulvaney interactions with Mick Mulvaney

Them: Multiple witnesses describe a cozy relationship between Sondland and the White House acting chief of staff.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council official, says Sondland cited a discussion with Mulvaney when pushing Ukrainian officials to open the investigations that Trump wanted into the 2016 U.S. presidential election and into political rival Joe Biden. Fiona Hill, another White House national security official, says Sondland repeatedly talked of meetings with Mulvaney. In a further link between the two men, she quoted the-then national security adviser, John Bolton, as telling her he didn’t want to be part of “whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney were cooking up.”

Him: Sondland suggests he knows Mulvaney well enough to wave and say hello – and that’s about it. He says he may have spoken to him once or twice on the phone, but not about Ukraine. He doesn’t recall any sit-down meeting with him on Ukraine or any other subject.

About that quid pro quo

Them: William Taylor, the acting ambassador in Ukraine, told lawmakers that Sondland himself said that “everything” – a White House visit for Ukraine’s new leader and the release of military aid to the former Soviet republic – was contingent on a public announcement of investigations into the 2016 election and into Burisma, the Ukraine gas company on whose board Hunter Biden sat.

Him: This is where things get complicated. In his closed-door testimony, Sondland stated that he wouldn’t have withheld military aid for any reason. Not only that, he said he didn’t recall any conversations with the White House about withholding military assistance in return for Ukraine helping with the president’s political campaign. Even then, though, he left himself some wiggle room, saying a text message of reassurance he sent to Taylor that there was no quid pro quo came directly from Trump.

Weeks later, after testimony from Taylor and National Security Council official Tim Morrison placed him at the center of key discussions, Sondland revised his account in an extraordinary way. He said he now could recall a September conversation in which he told an aide to Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskiy that military aid likely would not occur until Ukraine made public announcements about corruption investigations.

On His role In Ukraine policy:

Them: Hill describes a “blowup” with Sondland in June when he asserted he was in charge of the administration’s Ukraine policy. Irritated and shocked, she said she responded, “you’re not.” “And I said, ‘Who has said you’re in charge of Ukraine, Gordon?’” Hill said. “And he said, ‘the President.’ Well, that shut me up, because you can’t really argue with that.”

Him: Sondland says he doesn’t recall anyone ever challenging him on his responsibilities with Ukraine or telling anyone that he was acting on the president’s authority. He says now that he viewed his role as one of support rather than leadership.

Asked point-blank if he had ever told a State Department or national security official that the president had placed him in charge of Ukraine, Sondland answered: “I don’t recall. I may have; I may not have. Again, I don’t recall.”

On Pivotal July 10 meetings:

Them: Testimony from multiple witnesses centered on a pair of pivotal, sometimes tense, meetings at the White House on July 10 involving combinations of U.S. and Ukrainian leaders. Several of those present say Sondland, on that day, explicitly connected a coveted White House visit to the country’s public announcement of corruption investigations. It was something he just “blurted out,” Hill said, recalling him saying: “Well, we have an agreement with the Chief of Staff for a meeting if these ‘investigations in the energy sector start.” Vindman, too, remembers Sondland saying that day that the Ukrainians would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens.

Him: Sondland tells a different version of the day. He said he doesn’t recall mentioning Ukraine investigations or Burisma. The only conflict he describes from that day is a disagreement on whether to promptly schedule a call between Trump and Zelenskiy. He was in favor.

On peer relationships

Them: Hill recalls scolding Sondland face-to-face after the July 10 meetings, reminding him of the need for proper procedures and the role of the National Security Council. She says Bolton “stiffened” when Sondland brought up investigations in front of the Ukrainian officials and immediately ended the meeting. Vindman, too, said he made clear to Sondland his comments were inappropriate “and that we were not going to get involved in investigations.”

Him: Sondland doesn’t recall a cross word from Hill, Bolton or anyone else about his Ukraine work.

In fact, he says, Bolton signed off on the whole Ukraine strategy. “Indeed, over the spring and summer of 2019, I received nothing but cordial responses from Ambassador Bolton and Dr. Hill. Nothing was ever raised to me about any concerns regarding our Ukrainian policy.” When Hill left her post in government, he recalled, she gave him a big hug and told him to keep in touch.