President Trump’s hand-picked ambassador to the European Union appeared Wednesday on Capitol Hill, where the latest witness in the Democrats’ impeachment investigation delivered hours of explosive testimony tying Trump directly to a politically motivated pressure campaign in Ukraine.
Gordon Sondland, a Republican mega-donor turned EU ambassador, had previously denied that Trump leveraged White House meetings and U.S. military aid in return for investigations into the president’s political rivals.
On Wednesday, with the TV cameras rolling, Sondland changed his tune, telling impeachment investigators that the quid pro quo was explicit — and came from Trump himself.
Here are five bombshells from Sondland’s nearly seven hours of testimony.
Sondland refutes Trump: Clear quid pro quo
Sondland wasted no time getting to the guts of the impeachment inquiry, telling lawmakers that Trump pressed Ukrainian leaders to launch investigations into his political opponents by dangling a meeting and a phone call with Ukraine’s newly elected president — both of which Kyiv was desperate to secure amid an ongoing war with Russia.
Sondland said Trump, through his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, told U.S. officials in Kyiv that he wanted a public statement from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “committing to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election.”
“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’” Sondland asked. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
In another damning statement, Sondland said Trump was not interested in fighting corruption, per se, but merely wanted a public declaration that former Vice President Joe Biden was under investigation.
“He had to announce the investigations; he didn’t actually have to do them,” Sondland said, referring to Zelensky.
Biden is a leading 2020 presidential contender, and such an announcement might have helped boost Trump’s reelection chances. The Democrats’ impeachment inquiry is examining whether Trump abused his office by asking a foreign power for help in a U.S. election.
On the question of whether U.S. military aid was withheld to secure those same investigations, as a government whistleblower and several other witnesses have alleged, Sondland was more demure, saying that was his “personal presumption” — one he relayed to top Ukrainian officials.
Such statements fueled the Republican argument that Sondland, despite direct contact with Trump, is yet another unreliable witness leaning too heavily on secondhand accounts. But Sondland said Trump had made clear that Giuliani was speaking on his behalf.
“When the president says talk to my personal lawyer, Mr. Giuliani, we followed his direction,” he said.
Instruction came from Trump himself
Based on Sondland’s telling, Trump was dictating Ukraine policy through Giuliani. And Giuliani was demanding a quid pro quo: No White House visit for Ukraine’s new president until Kyiv agreed to publicly announce investigations into Trump’s political rivals.
The ambassador testified that the “three amigos” — he, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker — worked with Giuliani on Ukraine matters “at the express direction of the president of the United States.”
Trump would often tell the trio on Ukraine issues: “Talk with Rudy.”
“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt,” Sondland testified. “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.”
Sondland regularly bragged about his proximity and access to Trump, often telling others that he spoke regularly to the president by phone. On July 26, Sondland was dining with three colleagues at the restaurant SHO in Kyiv when he called up Trump on an unsecure mobile phone. One attendee, David Holmes, testified that he overheard Trump asking Sondland about the status of the “investigations” by Ukraine.
However, Trump, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said he hardly knows Sondland: “I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well.”
Everyone was in the loop
Some Republicans have suggested that Sondland, a billionaire hotel magnate and Trump donor with an outsized ego, had gone rogue and wasn’t acting on behalf of Trump or his top brass.
Sondland’s response: He read emails and texts to top Trump officials outlining specific details of the quid pro quo with Ukraine.
“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland testified.
On July 19, Sondland said he sent an email to Perry, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and other Trump officials informing them that then-candidate Zelensky wanted a phone call from Trump and was prepared to announce an investigation and that he’d “turn over every stone.”
Mulvaney responded: “I asked NSC [National Security Council] to set it up for tomorrow.”
That same day, Volker sent a WhatsApp message to William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, and Sondland, stating that he just had breakfast with Giuliani. “Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation,” Volker texted.
By Aug. 11, Sondland sent another email to Pompeo and some of his top aides, saying that he and Volker had negotiated a statement by Zelensky — referred to as “Ze” — on the investigations that Trump had wanted.
“The contents will hopefully make the boss [Trump] happy enough to authorize an invitation,” Sondland emailed. “Ze plans to have a big presser on the openness subject (including specifics) next week.”
“Again,” Sondland testified, “everyone was in the loop.”
During a Sept. 1 meeting in Warsaw, Poland, Zelensky raised the issue of security aid with Vice President Pence, Sondland testified. Pence replied that he would talk to Trump about it. Moments later, Sondland told a top Zelensky aide there that the aid would not be released until Kyiv announced the launch of the Trump-sought investigations.
Then came the pushback on Sondland. On Wednesday, Pence chief of staff Marc Short refuted Sondland’s account, as did others. Pence never had a conversation with Sondland about “investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based on potential investigations,” Short said. “The alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened.”
Diplomats saw Giuliani as toxic
Wednesday’s hearing amplified a recurring theme in the impeachment investigation: Giuliani, numerous witnesses have said, was a toxic figure in Ukraine, one hell-bent on advancing Trump’s political interests — and his own business pursuits — in ways that threatened to undermine U.S.-Ukraine relations and strengthen Russia’s hand in the region.
Sondland added voice to that assessment.
“We weren’t happy with the president’s directive to talk with Rudy. We did not want to involve Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said. “I believed then, as I do now, that the men and women of the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for Ukraine matters.”
That message has been supported almost universally by the other witnesses in the impeachment investigation.
John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, had characterized Giuliani as “a hand grenade” who would ultimately “blow everybody up,” according to testimony from Fiona Hill, formerly Trump’s top Russia analyst, who will testify Thursday.
George Kent, a top diplomat in Kyiv, testified last week that Giuliani had orchestrated a “campaign of lies” designed to oust Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, whose push for tougher anticorruption measures was seen as an obstacle to some of Giuliani’s business clients.
Sondland said the diplomats had little choice but to work with Giuliani, given his proximity to Trump. Still, “if I had known of all of Mr. Giuliani’s dealings or of his associations with individuals now under criminal indictment,” he added, “I would not have acquiesced to his participation.”
Sondland airs frustration with higher ups
Sondland on numerous occasions Wednesday accused both the White House and the State Department of refusing to provide him with information surrounding his many meetings and phone calls with foreign dignitaries and administration officials, including Trump. That, he said, had hobbled his ability to recreate the events at the center of the impeachment inquiry.
“My lawyers and I have made multiple requests to the State Department and the White House for these materials. Yet, these materials were not provided to me and they have also refused to share these materials with this committee,” he said.
“These documents are not classified and, in fairness … should have been made available.”
The White House in September vowed not to participate in the impeachment inquiry, saying it was legally invalid. Since then, however, a number of administration officials have bucked that directive to appear for interviews, most of them under subpoena.
Sondland was one such witness. He was almost apologetic for the gaps in his memory.
“Having access to that State Department materials would have been very helpful to me in trying to reconstruct with whom I spoke and met and when and what was said,” he said.