By Jennifer Haberkorn and Sarah D. Wire
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — Gordon Sondland, one of the highest-ranking witnesses yet in the House impeachment inquiry, insisted Wednesday that he and other senior administration officials had "followed the president's orders" in pushing Ukraine to investigate President Donald Trump's political foes, offering a firsthand account that shattered several key White House denials.
Sondland, a political appointee who Trump had named U.S. ambassador to the European Union, did not seek to defend Trump's monthslong pressure campaign, saying he was "adamantly opposed" to the White House suspension of nearly $400 million in military aid intended to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression.
And while Trump and his allies have staunchly denied that the president and his private attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, sought a "quid pro quo" to get Ukraine to investigate Democrats in exchange for a White House meeting, Sondland said he believed it was exactly that.
"Was there a quid pro quo?" he asked. "The answer is yes."
His account provided House Democrats with the strongest evidence yet in their inquiry into Trump's efforts to get Ukraine's president, Volodmyr Zelenskiy, to announce an investigation into a debunked conspiracy theory involving the 2016 U.S. election, and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee that Giuliani, at Trump's behest, had pressed for a trade of an investigation announcement for a White House meeting, but said he "presumed" that the military aid was also linked.
Sondland also knocked a hole in Republican claims that Trump had a legitimate interest in battling corruption in Ukraine, saying Trump didn't care if Ukraine's president actually carried out an investigation of Biden — simply that he publicly endorsed one.
Zelenskiy "had to announce the investigations; he didn't actually have to do them, as I understood it," Sondland said.
Sondland's often damning testimony appeared to catch the White House and its defenders off guard. As the impact became clear, and the hours wore on, several suggested his recollections could not be trusted.
He had complained at the start of the seven-hour hearing that he couldn't remember some details because the White House and State Department had refused to provide his emails, call logs and other documents that his lawyers had requested.
In a second hearing Wednesday evening, Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, knocked down another Republican argument.
She testified that her staff first fielded questions in two emails from Ukrainian officials about the blocked U.S. military aid on July 25, the same day Trump and Zelenskiy spoke by phone and a month before the government in Kyiv was thought to have been aware of the suspension.
The timing is significant because Republicans argue that the administration had no leverage until the Ukrainians knew the promised weapons and other aid were at risk.
Sondland said he spoke to Trump approximately six times about Ukraine but about 20 times overall, and laughed near the end of the marathon hearing when informed that Trump told reporters that he barely knew his ambassador. Sondland earlier had testified that they were comfortable enough together that their banter often included "four-letter" words.
But Sondland made clear he would not be a fall guy for an operation that, in his telling, involved Vice President Mike Pence, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulveney and others.
"Everyone was in the loop," he said. "It was no secret."
He said that he specifically told Pence before he met with Zelenskiy on Sept. 1 in Warsaw, Poland, that "I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations." He said Pence nodded but did not respond.
Sondland placed Giuliani at the center of the effort, saying that the former New York mayor told him directly — as well as through Kurt Volker, a special U.S. envoy to Ukraine — that Trump wouldn't agree to meet with Zelenskiy at the White House unless he announced the investigations that Trump wanted.
He testified that the investigations needed to cover the 2016 election as well as Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company that had hired Biden's son Hunter. Sondland said he later understood the inclusion of "Burisma" to mean the Bidens.
"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.
But Sondland offered only tentative evidence to a second part of the Democrats' case: that the White House had frozen $391 million in security aid in July as additional leverage to get Ukraine to investigate Trump's foes. Sondland said he never heard Trump make the connection but that he "presumed" it based on circumstantial evidence.
"I don't recall President Trump ever talking with me about any security assistance," he said. But he added that the link was "abundantly clear" to U.S. officials dealing with Ukraine.
"In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded," Sondland said.
Republicans criticized that suggestion, arguing that Sondland had no evidence to back it up.
"You don't have records. You don't have your notes because you didn't take notes. You don't have a lot of recollections," said Steve Castor, the Republican counsel who asked questions on behalf of lawmakers. "This is like the trifecta of unreliability, isn't that true?"
Only two more witnesses are scheduled to testify Thursday before Congress leaves for the Thanksgiving holiday, and both Republicans and Democrats latched onto Sondland's testimony.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-California, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said Sondland's account goes "right to the heart" of Democrats' claims that Trump could be impeached for bribery, as well as other high crimes and misdemeanors.
Republicans slammed Sondland for making accusations based on his presumptions.
"You have left people with the confusing impression that you are giving testimony that you did not," Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, told him. "You do not have any evidence that the president of the United States was tied to withholding aid from the Ukraine in exchange for investigations."
Trump, for his part, tried to distance himself from Sondland, who had donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration.
"I don't know him very well," the president said as he left the White House. "I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy, though."
Sondland, like several other witnesses who have testified, was sharply critical of the role Giuliani played in dealing with Ukraine.
"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."
He said Trump told him and others in an Oval Office meeting on May 23 that Giuliani should be their point man on Ukraine. Sondland interpreted that to mean that Giuliani, when speaking on the investigations, did so at Trump's suggestion.
Sondland also cast blame on several midlevel career professionals who had accused him and other senior political appointees of operating a "shadow foreign policy."
He insisted that he, Volker and Perry — who had dubbed themselves the "Three Amigos" — were acting at the behest of the White House and were not running a rogue operation.
Although the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., had complained directly to Sondland in a text message that linking military aid to Trump's reelection campaign was "crazy," Sondland argued that concerns about his activities in Ukraine didn't reach him.
"Everyone's hair was on fire but no one decided to talk to us," he said.
By Sondland's account, "everyone" understood the message to the Ukrainians.
He presented an excerpt from a July 19 email sent to Perry, Pompeo and Mulvaney, among others, in which Sondland said Zelenskiy assured him an investigation would be announced. Mulvaney replied that he asked the National Security Council to set up a call between Trump and Zelenskiy for the next day.
Sondland undermined his testimony, however, by repeatedly citing gaps in his memory, saying he did not take notes or write memos. He provided few new details of his conversations with Trump, such as a July 26 cellphone call that he placed to the president from a restaurant in Kyiv.
David Holmes, a State Department official who is scheduled to testify Thursday, said in earlier testimony behind closed doors that he overheard Trump ask Sondland on the call about the "investigations." The testimony was later released.
Holmes said Sondland later told him that Trump didn't care about Ukraine and was more focused on getting the investigations of the Bidens, which could benefit him politically.
Sondland said he didn't recall the conversation, chalking it up to the fact that he spoke frequently with the president or other political leaders. But he said he would have been surprised if Trump had not mentioned the investigation, "given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the president's concerns."