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Sondland: ‘Was there a quid pro quo? ... The answer is yes’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2019-11-20 Aaron Davis

Ambassador Gordon Sondland is poised to testify Wednesday more bluntly than he had before that President Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, sought to condition a White House invite for Ukraine’s new president to demands that his country publicly launch investigations that could damage Trump’s political opponents.

“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’” Sondland said in prepared testimony. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

In his sworn statement, Trump’s U.S. Ambassador to the European Union also told the House Intelligence Committee that while he never knew for sure if the White House had frozen nearly $400 million in security assistance as part of the pressure campaign against Ukraine, he operated as if that was the case.

“In the absence of any credible explanation for the hold, I came to the conclusion that the aid, like the White House visit, was jeopardized,” Sondland said. “My belief was that if Ukraine did something to demonstrate a serious intention” to launch the investigations Trump wanted, “then the hold on military aid would be lifted.”

Sondland, the star witness in the House impeachment inquiry, said that he was concerned enough about the aid holdup that he sought to improvise a solution to that in August, before the larger question could be settled for Trump of whether Ukraine would launch the investigations.

Sondland revealed an email showing he asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to help him orchestrate a face-to-face encounter between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, off to the side of a World War II commemoration ceremony that the two were scheduled to attend in Poland on Sept. 1.

“I would ask Zelensky to look him in the eye and tell him that once Ukraine’s new justice folks are in place mid-Sept, that Ze should be able to move forward publicly and with confidence on those issues of importance to Potus and to the US,” Sondland wrote in the Aug. 22 email, using an acronym for President of the United States. “Hopefully, that will break the logjam” on funding.

“Should we block time in Warsaw for a short pull-aside for Potus to meet Zelensky?” Sondland asked.

“Yes.” Pompeo replied three minutes later.

Days later, Trump would decide not to travel to Warsaw and to instead stay in the U.S. as Hurricane Dorian threatened Florida.

Vice President Pence made the trip in place of Trump, and off to the side, Sondland held his own, impromptu meeting with Zelensky confidant, Andrey Yermak.

Sondland was more direct with his warning, he said, telling Yermak that the resumption of U.S. aid “would likely not occur” until Ukraine took some kind of action on publicly committing to the investigations Trump sought.

Sondland’s account in his prepared remarks that there were conditions on the aid and that he relayed those to Ukrainian officials stand as a major reversal from closed-door testimony he provided in the impeachment inquiry a month ago.

During more than seven hours of questioning on Oct. 17, both Republicans and Democrats repeatedly asked Sondland if aid was part of the White House quid pro quo. Numerous times he said he could not recall.

Sondland was questioned at one point that day by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. McCaul asked Sondland if he had any conversation with Zelensky about withholding U.S. aid in connection with the investigations sought by Trump.

“I don’t recall any conversation about this,” Sondland replied.

Asked later by another investigator “So, you’ve never made a statement relating the aid to conditions that the Ukraine ought to comply with?”

Again, Sondland testified: “I don’t remember that, no.”

After his denials were contradicted in testimony later provided by William B. Taylor Jr., the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Tim Morrison, the top Russia and Europe adviser on the National Security Council, Sondland filed a supplemental statement early this month, stating the testimony of Taylor and Morrison had “refreshed my recollection about conversations involving the suspension of U.S. aid.”

It marked a second time Sondland had become a more problematic witness for the White House.

A longtime Republican donor who gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural, Sondland had initially been seen as a loyalist of the president with a supportive version of events.

In a text message that was among the first bits of evidence released in the impeachment inquiry, Sondland had been shown to assert to Taylor in September that Trump did not seek “quid pro quo’s of any kind.” The text was seized upon by Trump and his supporters to argue he had not used the power of his office for personal political gain.

In his closed-door testimony, Sondland undercut part of that argument, telling congressional investigators that he texted the now infamous phrase only after it was relayed to him directly by Trump. He also said he had been working to barter the White House visit for Zelensky for the investigations demanded by Giuliani, Trump’s informal emissary on the issue.

In his prepared remarks, Sondland drops distinctions he’d earlier drawn between his work for Giuliani and his work for Trump, saying that he worked with Giuliani “at the express direction of the President of the United States.”

Gordon Sondland wearing a suit and tie: U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. © Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.

Still, his testimony contains many contradictions with Taylor, Morrison, and David Holmes, an embassy official.

In one major discrepancy, Sondland had previsouly said he had only two calls with Trump between July and September. Morrison said he understood there were a half dozen.

Holmes, a counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, said he was present for one, which Sondland for the first time is now acknowledging.

In that call, placed July 26 from a restaurant in Kyiv, Holmes said he remembers Sondland using colorful language with the commander in chief to provide an encouraging update about Trump’s sought-after investigations. At one point, Holmes testified, Sondland told Trump that “President Zelensky ‘loves your ass.’ ”

Trump’s voice could initially be heard across the table, Holmes said, because it was so loud that Sondland grimaced and pulled the receiver away from his ear.

“I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’ ” Holmes testified, according to a transcript. “Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to.’ ”

Holmes testified that after the call, he asked Sondland if it was true that Trump did not care about Ukraine.

“Nope, not at all, doesn’t give a s--- about Ukraine,” Holmes recalled Sondland saying. “I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated, the President only cares about ‘big stuff.’ I noted that there was ‘big stuff’ going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia.’ Sondland said ‘no, big stuff that matters to him, like this Biden investigation that Giuliani is pushing.’ ”

At least three other witnesses have said Sondland was speaking about a Biden investigation sought by Trump. Sondland has said he only ever heard and used the word Burisma – the energy company where former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter held a board position.

Sondland’s reported use of the word Biden is the only element of Holmes account that the ambassador says he cannot recall, according to this prepared remarks.

“It is true that the President speaks loudly at times. .. It is true that the President likes to use colorful language,” Sondland said in his remarks.

“The July 26 call did not strike me as significant at the time. Actually, I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the President’s concerns,” Sondland states.

But it wasn’t about the Bidens, he adds.

“I have no recollection of discussing Vice President Biden or his son on that call or after the call ended.”


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