WASHINGTON — The U.S. ambassador to the European Union told congressional investigators Wednesday that he and top administration officials followed President Donald Trump’s orders in pressuring Ukraine to help the president politically, delivering the most explosive public testimony yet in the House impeachment inquiry.
Gordon Sondland, a Trump supporter and donor, said critical support sought by Ukraine’s newly elected president, including a White House visit and phone call, was explicitly linked to the country’s announcing an investigation involving Trump’s political rival Joe Biden.
“Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland said in his opening statement. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
Sondland, in the nationally televised hearing, said he and other officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, were all involved in or aware of the campaign led by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and that Trump directed them to cooperate with Giuliani. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would not get the meeting or phone call without a public announcement of the inquiry, Sondland said, confirming a key piece of the Democratic accusations against the president.
Sondland said he also “came to believe” that hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid vital to Ukraine depended on the investigations, though he conceded that Trump never directly made that point to him. At several points, his memory seemed shaky, a point Republicans used to question his testimony.
“Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt," Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee. "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.
“We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the president directed us to do so,” Sondland added.
Sondland, an Oregon hotel magnate who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration and described himself as “a lifelong Republican,” arrived Wednesday as the most anticipated witnesses of the impeachment inquiry, and the biggest wild card. Unlike other witnesses, he had direct contact with Trump and was an unabashed ally. Lawmakers in both parties were unsure what he’d say.
His opening statement sent shock waves throughout Washington.
“This is a seminal moment in our investigation,” said California Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democrat leading the impeachment inquiry.
“Is there a mercy rule for congressional hearings?” tweeted Rep. Justin Amash (Ind., Mich.), a former Republican and outspoken Trump critic.
Sondland was the first witness to directly tie Trump to the Ukraine pressure campaign, and he undercut one of Republicans’ main defenses: that Sondland and Giuliani might have driven the push for investigations without the president’s direction.
Later, another GOP argument took a hit when Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testified that Ukrainian officials inquired about the military aid being withheld on July 25, the same day as Trump’s now-famous call when he pressed Zelensky for the investigations. Republicans have argued there was no untoward pressure because Ukraine did not know about the hold.
Sondland said Pompeo, Pence, and others knew what was happening, and he shared emails showing his communications with Pompeo and Mulvaney. “Everyone was in the loop,” he said.
Republicans still saw holes in Sondland’s testimony, notably in his admission that he never received direct instructions from Trump and in memory lapses. Sondland at several points said he didn’t take notes and didn’t recall some events the way other witnesses had. He already had revised earlier private testimony when it conflicted with the statements of other witnesses.
“A lot of it is speculation, a lot of it is your guess, and we’re talking about impeachment of the president of the United States,” Republican counsel Steve Castor said.
Sondland spoke in the middle of a jam-packed week of hearings in which Democrats continued building their case that Trump abused his power by leveraging a coveted White House visit and congressionally approved military aid while pushing for the investigations that would damage Biden and his son, Hunter.
Trump, reading from hand-written notes Wednesday, pointed to Sondland’s testimony that in a Sept. 9 phone conversation, he told the ambassador he wanted “nothing” from Ukraine and “no quid pro quo.”
“This is the final word from the president of the United States. I want nothing," Trump said. As for Sondland, “This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though.” Just last month, Trump praised Sondland as “a really good man and great American.”
While Republicans repeatedly pointed to that Sept. 9 phone call, Democrats dismissed it as Trump trying to avoid culpability, and Sondland declined to answer when asked if he believed that the president wanted “nothing.” That call happened after a whistle-blower had already filed a complaint about Trump’s conduct, and as the hold on $391 million in aid was beginning to draw public scrutiny.
On that key question — the aid that would bolster Ukraine’s defenses and U.S. interests in the region — Sondland was equivocal. He said his “personal presumption” was that the money was tied to the investigations, and that he never heard any other reason for its delay.
Two plus two equals four," he said under questioning. But, he acknowledged, "I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on the announcement” of the investigations.
Several other career diplomats who had spent decades working on American foreign policy reached the exact same conclusion about the holdup.
“It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery as well as other high crimes and misdemeanors," Schiff said. In closing the hearing, he said only Trump would have the power to decide whether to hold a meeting or release foreign support: “Who had the decision to release the aid? It was one person: Donald J. Trump, president of the United States.”
Schiff also said the administration’s refusal to turn over Sondland’s communications with State Department officials and the White House could bolster an article of impeachment for obstructing Congress. Sondland testified he was denied access to documents that might have allowed him to deliver more complete testimony.
Republicans emphasized that Trump never said the military aid was contingent on the investigations.
“No one on this planet told you that this aid was tied to investigations. Yes or no?” asked Rep. Mike Turner (R., Ohio).
“Yes,” Sondland replied.
They also attacked his fluid recollections. In earlier private depositions, Sondland had downplayed any role in the scheme to pressure Ukraine, only to revise his testimony.
Sondland on Wednesday said he understood that Zelensky did not have to actually carry out the requested investigations to get a White House meeting, only to publicly announce them.
That could undermine the GOP argument that Trump was delaying aid because he wanted to root out corruption in Ukraine. Instead, it appeared to bolster Democrats’ contention that Trump only wanted a talking point to hurt Biden, a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Republicans noted that the aid eventually was delivered without Ukraine announcing an investigation. But Democrats noted that only happened once the hold was revealed.
In addition, Sondland broadly confirmed a July 26 phone call in which Trump asked Sondland about the investigations that the president had requested from Ukraine’s president the day before. Sondland had told Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass," and would do anything he asked, according to another diplomat who overheard the conversation.
Sondland said that sounded like something he might say.
“That’s how President Trump and I communicate," Sondland said, “a lot of four-letter words.”