U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told House impeachment investigators Wednesday that President Donald Trump in May directed him to speak with Rudy Giuliani about Ukraine. Giuliani was at that point in time leading an effort to pressure top Ukrainian officials to open investigations into the 2016 presidential election and the natural gas company Burisma on whose board Hunter Biden sat.
“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. 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,” Sondland said. “So we followed the President’s orders.”
Sondland has been at the heart of the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Kyiv to investigate 2020 candidate Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and the 2016 presidential elections. He faced intense questioning from House Democrats about his interactions with President Trump on Ukraine and his efforts to convince Ukraine to open the investigations Giuliani pushed for in exchange for a White House visit for President Volodymyr Zelensky. Throughout the first hour of the public hearing Sondland pointed to Giuliani as the main operator of the pressure campaign and said he, then-special envoy Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, only engaged with that effort because Trump told him to do so.
“Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the President of the United States,” Sondland said. “We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. 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.”
Sondald said he did not believe at the time that Giuliani’s involvement was improper in part because he did not understand that the pressure for an investigation into Burisma meant an investigation into the Bidens. However, Sondland said he did believe that Giuliani’s exertion of pressure on Kyiv constituted a quid pro quo.
“Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” Sondland’s statement says. “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 he also “shared concerns of the potential quid pro quo regarding the security aid” with Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin who had visibility into the administration’s thinking on Ukraine.
Sondland is arguably the most crucial witness in the House impeachment inquiry given his direct communication with Trump on Ukraine. In her October 14, deposition, former top Russia advisor for Trump Fiona Hill told House investigators that during a July 10 meeting with Sondland at the White House with Ukrainian officials she asked Sondland on whose authority he was operating. “He said ‘the president’s,’” Hill said.
Sondland said Wednesday that he never heard about any pre conditions for a White House meeting from President Trump directly. But several impeachment witnesses have said that the EU ambassador told his administration colleagues that he was in touch with Trump about the efforts to push Ukrainian officials to open specific investigations.
On one occasion Sondland called Trump in front of embassy staffers in Kyiv. The call took place at a restaurant following a meeting the ambassador attended with Zelensky aide Andri Yermak. In that call, Sondland told Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass” and that he would commit to the investigations. Sondland told House investigators during his deposition in October that he remembers talking to Trump on the phone just once and that it was short and non-substantive.
Throughout his testimony Sondland stressed the fact that he kept senior State Department leadership “apprised” of what he was doing. Leadership there supported his work, he said, and knew that he and others were pursuing “a commitment to investigations.”
“Our efforts were reported and approved,” he said. “Not once do I recall encountering objection.”
As part of those efforts, Sondland came to believe the Ukrainians needed to announce the investigations Trump wanted in order to receive military aid.
“By the end of the August, my belief was that if Ukraine did something to demonstrate a serious intention to fight corruption, specifically addressing Burisma and 2016 server, then the hold on military aid would be lifted,” he said.
The “2016 server” refers to a debunked conspiracy about the Democratic National Committee hack which claims that the Russians didn’t actually break into the Democratic Party’s servers. When Trump alluded to the conspiracy theory on his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian officials listening in were perplexed and had no idea what he was talking about.
Sondlandalso told House investigators that he met with Yermak Sept. 1 in Warsaw and that he told the Zelenszy aide that Kyiv needed to release a statement about investigating the Bidens and the server if it wanted military aid the U.S. had already promised.
“I really regret that the Ukrainians were placed in that predicament, but I do not regret doing what I could to try to break the logjam and to solve the problem,” he said.
Sondland complained the State Department and the White House had made preparing for his testimony “less than fair” by prohibiting access to his own documents to prepare for his testimony, and that he could not work with his staff at the U.S. embassy in Brussels to prepare. He added that he asked the State Department and the White House for his materials multiple times, but they refused to let him see them.
“Having access to the State Department materials would have been very helpful to me in trying to reconstruct with whom I spoke and met, when, and what was said,” he said.
If Twitter was any indication, Republicans struggled to formulate a real-time counter to Sondland’s testimony. The congressional GOP accounts that have been aggressively providing impeachment pushback were largely silent during the first two hours of the hearing; only the account for the Oversight Committee ventured a reminder that the Ukrainian foreign minister once said Sondland never mentioned anything about a connection between investigations and aid.
“The President did nothing wrong,” the Oversight account declared. “Republicans are united. Democrats are divided and can't keep their narrative straight.”
But Republican members appeared to plot in real time their reaction to Sondland’s testimony. As the ambassador plowed through his lengthy opening statement, members on both sides seemed to be engrossed in their copies. Republicans flipped through it at their desks; Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), a staunch Trump defender who participated in the deposition phase of the inquiry, was taking longhand notes on the back of a copy of Sondland’s statement. During Schiff’s questioning, Nunes and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) huddled with GOP counsel Steve Castor, with Castor holding up a piece of paper.