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Sondland Kept Trump Administration Officials Apprised of Ukraine Push

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 11/18/2019 Rebecca Ballhaus
Gordon Sondland wearing a suit and tie © olivier douliery/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

WASHINGTON—A U.S. ambassador set to testify this week in the House impeachment inquiry kept several Trump administration officials apprised of his effort to get Ukraine to launch investigations that President Trump would later discuss in a July call with his Ukrainian counterpart, emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union who will be one of eight witnesses to testify in the inquiry’s second week of open hearings, is one of several people who has linked a holdup of security aid to Ukraine over the summer with investigations that Mr. Trump sought. Mr. Sondland’s conversations with Mr. Trump about the investigations, including one revealed last week in another ambassador’s testimony, has made him a central figure to Democrats’ investigation.

Several witnesses have testified to impeachment investigators that they were alarmed by what they perceived as dual channels of U.S. policy on Ukraine—one traditional, and the other led by Mr. Sondland and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, which focused on the president’s push for certain investigations. Mr. Sondland kept several top officials—including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Energy Secretary Rick Perry—apprised of that push, according to the emails reviewed by the Journal, in the weeks leading up to Mr. Trump’s July 25 phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart that spurred a whistleblower complaint and, ultimately, the impeachment probe.

Democrats say the president abused the power of his office by holding up congressionally approved aid to Ukraine while pushing for investigations that could benefit him politically. Mr. Trump has defended his dealings with Ukraine as proper, and congressional Republicans have said he shouldn’t be impeached over them.

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Also set to testify this week are Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council Ukraine expert who listened to Mr. Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; Fiona Hill, an NSC official who reported concerns about Mr. Sondland to a top White House lawyer; and Tim Morrison, an NSC official who has testified that Mr. Sondland told him that aid to Ukraine was contingent on the political investigations the president was seeking.

Three witnesses testified publicly last week, including Bill Taylor, Mr. Trump’s acting ambassador to Ukraine, who said a member of his staff had overheard a call between Mr. Sondland and the president in July in which Mr. Trump asked about “the investigations.” Mr. Sondland in that call assured Mr. Trump that the Ukrainians were “ready to move forward,” Mr. Taylor testified.

That call came a day after the Trump-Zelensky phone call, in which a rough transcript shows Mr. Trump lobbied his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Democrat Joe Biden, his potential 2020 opponent, and to look into an unfounded theory that Ukraine, and not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 election.

Republicans in recent days have repeatedly criticized what they called the second- or third-hand nature of some witnesses’ testimony. The White House has blocked from testifying current and former Trump administration officials who were a part of the direct discussions on Ukraine policy.

“We will all have to wait for Sondland’s testimony, which is direct testimony, not testimony of somebody who says they heard from somebody else that somebody else said something,” said Rep. Mike Turner (R., Ohio) on CNN on Sunday.

In addition to Mr. Sondland’s July 26 phone call with the president, impeachment investigators are expected to focus on two other conversations Mr. Sondland had about investigations over the course of the summer.

On Sept. 1, Mr. Sondland told an aide to Mr. Zelensky that the “resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” the ambassador said in revised testimony this month. The statement Mr. Sondland referenced was to announce—at Mr. Giuliani’s request—investigations into Burisma Group, a Ukrainian gas company where Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, once sat on the board, and the alleged election interference, according to text messages released by the House committees conducting the inquiry.

Mr. Giuliani and the president have said Joe Biden’s spearheading of an anti-corruption push in Ukraine while his son was serving on the board of a Ukrainian company was a corrupt arrangement. The Bidens have denied any wrongdoing in their Ukraine activities.

Mr. Morrison, who said Mr. Sondland briefed him on the Sept. 1 conversation right after it happened, testified that he immediately contacted then-national security adviser John Bolton and Mr. Taylor. Mr. Bolton’s advice, he said, was “Stay out of it, brief the lawyers,” which Mr. Morrison said he subsequently did.

About a week later, on Sept. 7, Mr. Sondland called the president after Mr. Taylor had raised concerns about aid to Ukraine being contingent on investigations. Mr. Sondland asked Mr. Trump, “What do you want from Ukraine?” to which the president responded, “I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing.”

Shortly afterward, Mr. Sondland called Mr. Morrison to describe his conversation with the president, Mr. Morrison testified. Mr. Morrison described Mr. Trump’s response as: “There was no quid pro quo, but President Zelensky must announce the opening of the investigations and he should want to do it.”

Mr. Morrison is one of several officials who testified that they raised concerns about Mr. Sondland to White House lawyers. Ms. Hill and Col. Vindman also testified that they did so after a July 10 meeting with senior Ukrainian officials and Mr. Bolton at the White House, where Mr. Sondland urged the Ukrainian officials to announce the political investigations. At that point, according to testimony by several witnesses, Mr. Bolton cut the meeting short.

The emails reviewed by the Journal show that three days later, Mr. Sondland urged Mr. Morrison to schedule the call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky before Ukrainian parliamentary elections on July 21. “Sole purpose is for Zelensky to give Potus assurances of ‘new sheriff’ in town. Corruption ending, unbundling moving forward and any hampered investigations will be allowed to move forward transparently,” Mr. Sondland wrote. Mr. Morrison replied that he was “tracking.”

On July 19, a day before the president was initially scheduled to speak to Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Sondland emailed a group of administration officials including Mr. Mulvaney and Mr. Perry to say that Mr. Zelensky was prepared to assure the president that he would open investigations.

“I talked to Zelensky just now. He is prepared to receive Potus’ call,” Mr. Sondland wrote. “Will assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone.’ ” He added that Mr. Zelensky was eager for the call to take place before the parliamentary elections.

Mr. Mulvaney responded: “I asked NSC to set it up for tomorrow.” The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the emails.

Mr. Sondland was relaying to Mr. Zelensky instructions from Mr. Giuliani, according to text messages. At a May meeting that Mr. Mulvaney convened after the U.S. delegation returned from Mr. Zelensky’s inauguration, the president had instructed Mr. Sondland, then-special envoy for Ukraine negotiations Kurt Volker and others to work with Mr. Giuliani to resolve concerns about Ukraine before he would agree to a White House meeting.

Mr. Giuliani subsequently told officials that Mr. Zelensky needed to announce investigations into Burisma Group and alleged election interference, according to congressional testimony. The text messages released by congressional investigators last month showed that on the evening of July 19, Mr. Volker texted Mr. Sondland: “Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation—and address any specific personnel issues—if there are any.”

Mr. Bolton subsequently pushed to delay the call until after the parliamentary elections, according to people familiar with the discussions. When it took place on July 25, neither he nor Mr. Mulvaney were on the call.

Mr. Mulvaney in a news conference last month linked Mr. Trump’s decision to hold up the nearly $400 million in security aid to Ukraine to his push for investigations, a comment that raised alarm among senior White House aides and the president’s legal team. Hours later, Mr. Mulvaney reversed his remarks and said there was no connection.

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com

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