WASHINGTON - The most anticipated - and potentially most important - witness in the House’s impeachment inquiry is testifying Wednesday. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is the closest figure to President Donald Trump to take the stand, and in his opening statement, he directly connected Trump to the Ukraine quid pro quo.
Below are some key takeaways from his opening statement. We'll add more throughout the hearing.
Pretty much every witness to date has said there was something unholy going on with regard to asking Ukraine to launch specific investigations, including one involving former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. But none of them have been able to testify to the idea that Trump actually ordered that U.S. aid or a White House meeting would be conditioned upon those investigations.
In his opening statement, though, Sondland walked right up to the line, if he didn't cross it.
"Fourth, as I testified previously, [Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President [Volodymyr] Zelensky," he said. "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."
Sondland said that he testified to this previously, but it's more plainly stated here that Giuliani "was expressing the desires of the president of the United States" when he conveyed the quid pro quo.
At another point, Sondland said that in his July 26 call with Trump - the day after Trump's call with Ukraine's Zelensky - he would have been surprised if Trump hadn't mentioned the investigations, "particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the president's concerns."
Sondland also repeatedly said "everyone knew it" when asked about the quid pro quo - as if to emphasize that Trump also knew it.
It's tempting to say Sondland is implicating Trump. That's not completely the case; he seems to still be walking a fine line, and he also says he never heard Trump explicitly direct the quid pro quo, as he has before. But he seems to be saying this was all something that Trump blessed, which is significant.
Whether Sondland is directly fingering Trump is up for debate. But he's clearly pointing fingers. He said "everyone" was aware of the quid pro quo, and he indicated that includes acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence.
He said Pompeo had instructed him to work with Giuliani as late as Sept. 24 - which is notably after the whistleblower situation exploded into public view. He added later that Pompeo directed him about how to ease what Sondland described as a logjam with Ukraine. "Secretary Pompeo essentially gave me the green light to brief President Zelensky about making those announcements," Sondland said.
He passed along this text exchange with Mulvaney from July 19, six days before Trump's call with Zelensky:
[Sondland said:] "I Talked to Zelensky just now . . . He is prepared to receive Potus' call. Will assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will 'turn over every stone'. He would greatly appreciate a call before Sunday so that he can put out some media about a 'friendly and productive call' (no details) before Ukraine election on Sunday." Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney responded: "I asked NSC to set it up for tomorrow."
That implicates Mulvaney in these efforts even more. Witnesses had previously said Sondland indicated that he had coordinated the quid pro quo with Mulvaney, who is Trump's top White House aide.
He was asked later more specifically if both Mulvaney and Pompeo were aware of the quid pro quo, and he confirmed both were:
DEMOCRATIC COUNSEL DANIEL GOLDMAN: You've testified that Mulvaney was aware of this quid pro quo of this condition that the Ukrainians had to meet, that is announcing this public investigations to get the White House meeting. Is that right?
SONDLAND: Yeah, a lot of people were aware of it ... including Mr. Mulvaney, correct.
GOLDMAN: And including the secretary of state.
Lastly, he indicates that he conveyed "concerns" about a quid pro quo to Pence before Sept. 1 meetings in Warsaw.
"I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations," Sondland said. He added later in his testimony that Pence "nodded that he heard what I said."
Pence's office denied Sondland's account. Chief of staff Marc Short said, "This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened."
Sondland also said repeatedly in his opening statement that the State Department and the White House didn't allow him access to the things he needed to provide accurate previous testimony -- hence the inconsistencies and the clarifications, apparently. He brought this up repeatedly, especially when questioning from GOP counsel Stephen Castor turned more hostile.
Sondland doesn't sound at all happy that he's in this spot and seems to believe the administration and Giuliani put him in it. We'll see how that manifests itself in the rest of the hearing.
Pence's office wasn't the only one taking exception to Sondland's testimony; so did one Sondland's fellow "three amigos."
Sondland said in his opening statement that Energy Secretary Rick Perry and the other member of the "three amigos" who spearheaded the Ukraine effort, special envoy Kurt Volker, handled initial communications with Giuliani after Trump told them to "talk to Rudy" on May 23.
"Secretary Perry volunteered to make the initial calls with Mr. Giuliani, given their prior relationship," Sondland said. "Ambassador Volker made several of the early calls and generally informed us of what was discussed."
The Energy Department issued a statement disputing that.
"Ambassador Sondland's testimony today misrepresented both Secretary Perry's interaction with Rudy Giuliani and direction the secretary received from President Trump," it said. "As previously stated, Secretary Perry spoke to Rudy Giuliani only once at the president's request. No one else was on that call. At no point before, during or after that phone call did the words 'Biden' or 'Burisma' ever come up in the presence of Secretary Perry."
So both Pence's office and Perry's are attacking Sondland's testimony. We'll see if the White House follows suit.
Sondland further undermined the idea that Trump truly cared about corruption in Ukraine, saying that he wasn't under the impression that there was ever actually a desire for investigations - just announcements of them.
"He had to announce the investigations," Sondland said of Zelensky. "He didn't actually have to do them, as I understood it."
That indicates this was all about the headlines created by the announcement, and not the actual substance of the evidence.
He was pressed on this later, but was a bit cagey. He said he never heard "anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed. The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise was that they had to be announced in some form. And that form kept changing."
Sondland added: "The way it was expressed to me was that the Ukrainians had a long history of committing to things privately and then never following through."
This is merely the latest piece of evidence contradicting the idea that Trump was worried about corruption in Ukraine. Giuliani's own public comments indicated this was a political effort aimed at helping Trump. Second, Trump himself hasn't shown an interest in any investigations besides ones that involve the United States and his political interests. And third, an aide in Ukraine, David Holmes, testified last week that Sondland had told him Trump didn't "give a s---" about Ukraine and only wanted the investigations.
Despite this extensive evidence, the idea that this was actually about corruption has remained a GOP talking point.
Related to Takeaways No. 1 and 3 is this: Sondland believed Trump urging them to talk to Giuliani was a directive -- which isn't quite how Volker testified about it.
In his testimony Tuesday, Volker was asked about Trump's May 23 order that he, Sondland and Energy Secretary Rick Perry were to "talk to Rudy," and he suggested it wasn't a direct order.
"I didn't take it as an instruction, I want to be clear about that," Volker said, adding: "You know, when we were giving him our assessment about President Zelensky and where Ukraine is headed, he said, 'That's not what I hear. I hear terrible things; he's got terrible people around him. Talk to Rudy.' And I understood in that context, him just saying, that's where he hears it from. I didn't take it as an instruction.
Volker said it was just "part of the dialogue."
But Sondland is clear on this point: that it was an directive.
"In response to our persistent efforts to change his views, President Trump directed us to 'talk with Rudy,' " Sondland said. "We understood that 'talk with Rudy' meant talk with Mr. Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer."
Castor tried to poke holes in that, urging Sondland to say it wasn't actually an order. Sondland, though, made clear he viewed it as necessary if they were to get what they wanted out of a relationship with Ukraine.
"Our conclusion, and the conclusion of the three of us, was that if we did not talk to Rudy, nothing would move forward on Ukraine," he said.