Impeachment hearings takeaways: `Everyone was in the loop’
Washington – Gordon Sondland, President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, was the most anticipated witness in the House impeachment inquiry and his testimony showed why.
He made repeated references to a quid pro quo involving Ukraine and invoked the names of senior Trump administration officials who, he said, knew what was going on. He also confirmed the existence of a newly revealed telephone call with Trump one day after Trump had pressed Ukraine’s leader for an investigation into a Trump political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Some takeaways from Day 4:
This for that
Sondland repeatedly referred to a quid pro quo – one thing in return for another – in describing the administration’s dealings with Ukraine.
It was a remarkable spectacle: Trump’s own ambassador using the exact term that the president himself has disavowed. Sondland is hardly a Never-Trumper: He donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee before being named ambassador.
“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,” Sondland said.
The quid pro quo in this case, he said, involved arranging a White House visit for Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in return for Zelenskiy’s announcing investigations of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, and a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Biden’s son Hunter was a Burisma board member.
That proposed arrangement was pushed by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who conveyed Trump’s wishes to multiple administration officials. Sondland said he did not know until September that what was actually desired was an investigation into the Bidens.
The White House pushed back with a statement issued during Sondland’s testimony, saying Sondland didn’t testify that the release of withheld security assistance for Ukraine was tied to Trump’s request for investigations.
“Sondland is basing his new testimony on presumptions he had made regarding President Trump’s wishes,” the statement said. Under questioning from the committee chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., “Sondland confirmed he presumed what the President wanted. Sondland said that he `speculated` about and `presumed` what the President wanted.”
At the direction of Trump
Sondland says he was uncomfortable working with Giuliani, but he did so at the “express direction of the president of the United States.”
“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt,” Sondland said.
Democrats will certainly point to the diplomat’s remarks to undercut any distance that Trump might try to put between him and demands that were placed on Zelenskiy.
Sondland said Giuliani emphasized to him in a subsequent conversation that Trump wanted a public statement from Zelenskiy committing Ukraine to look into corruption issues, including looking into potential interference in the 2016 election and Burisma.
“Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelenskiy,” Sondland said. “Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the President.”
‘It was no secret’
Sondland made clear that this was no rogue effort. Sondland said he was open about Trump’s demand that Ukraine commit to the investigations.
He updated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the White House’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, telling them that Ukraine’s leader would conduct a “fully transparent investigation” and “turn over every stone.”
Sondland further told Pompeo that he and another American diplomat, Kurt Volker, had negotiated a statement that Zelenskiy could deliver that “will hopefully make the boss happy enough to authorize an invitation” to the White House.
Sondland name-dropped Vice President Mike Pence as well, telling him he was concerned that aid to Ukraine had become tied to the issue of investigations. Pence replied that he would speak to Trump about it.
“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said.
Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, said Wednesday that Pence never spoke with Sondland “about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations.”