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Impeachment: Trump envoy testifies about Ukraine

WASHINGTON – Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told the House impeachment panel investigating President Donald Trump on Thursday that he was disappointed that he had to consult with the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on Ukraine policy.

Sondland also told the committees – Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform – that withholding military aid for a political investigation would be wrong.

“Let me state clearly: Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong,” Sondland said. “Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong. I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declared a formal impeachment inquiry Sept. 24 after reports about a July 25 call when Trump urged Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump has called the investigation a partisan witch hunt and said he was absolutely justified in urging Zelensky to fight corruption.

Sondland said he considered Zelensky a reformer with a strong mandate from voters, but that he was told at a May 23 White House briefing that Trump was skeptical about whether he would fight corruption. Sondland said a call and meeting between Trump and Zelensky, who was elected April 21, would be postponed, while the ambassador was told to consult with Giuliani.

But Sondland said he didn’t understand until months later that Giuliani’s agenda included urging Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter. Sondland said he didn’t participate in Trump’s call July 25 or learn of the contents until a summary was released Sept. 25.

“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said. “Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine.”

US Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland addresses the media during a press conference at the US Embassy to Romania in Bucharest on on Sept. 5, 2019.DANIEL MIHAILESCU, AFP via Getty Images

Sondland said he conferred with Giuliani under the president’s direction. During phone conversations, Giuliani mentioned possible interference in the 2016 election and urged an investigation of Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company where Hunter Biden served as a director. But Sondland said he wasn’t aware of the Biden connection to the firm.

“I do not recall that Mr. Giuliani discussed former Vice President Biden or his son Hunter Biden with me,” Sondland said, adding “nor do I recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation of the Bidens.”

Sondland said on Sept. 9, after the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, raised concerns about linking military aid to the investigations, he called Trump. 

“What do you want from Ukraine?” Sondland said he asked.

“Nothing. There is no quid pro quo,” Trump replied, according to Sondland. “And as I recall, the president was in a bad mood.”

A member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., would not comment on Sondland’s testimony, but said his opening statement was “very damning.”

The opening statement was “further confirmation that the president’s personal lawyer was engaged in an effort, a shadow State Department effort to persuade the Ukrainians to begin an investigation against one of his political adversaries, and members both inside the State Department and outside the State Department played a variety of different roles in helping to execute that,” Cicilline said. “I think it was very damning.”

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees, said there were “pretty large gaps” in Sondland’s opening testimony.

“Sondland’s opening statement throws Giuliani and the president under the bus, basically saying he was directed by the president to talk to Giuliani to get anything done in Ukraine,” Lieu said.

Sondland’s deposition under subpoena comes more than a week after the State Department blocked his voluntary appearance before the panels on Oct. 8. The marching orders came the same day the White House notified Pelosi that the administration wouldn’t cooperate with the impeachment inquiry. Trump tweeted that he didn’t want Sondland to go before a “kangaroo court.”

Trump has blasted the investigation as a partisan witch hunt. The White House has notified Pelosi that the administration won’t cooperate. And Trump said he was justified in urging Ukraine to fight corruption. 

More: Republicans complain about limited access to closed-door impeachment investigation sessions

Sondland’s appearance comes three days after Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council expert on Russia, told lawmakers that former national security adviser John Bolton referred to Giuliani as a “hand grenade who is going to blow everybody up,” according to The Associated Press. Hill also said Bolton wasn’t part of whatever deal Sondland and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney “are cooking up,” according to AP.

Sondland on Thursday praised Yovanovitch as “an excellent diplomat with a deep command of Ukrainian internal dynamics.”

“I was never part of any campaign to disparage or dislodge her, and I regretted her departure,” Sondland said.

Texts between diplomats questioning Ukraine policy were released as part of the investigation’s testimony from Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine.

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, asked in a text message to Volker and Sondland on Sept. 1.

“Call me,” Sondland texted back.

Taylor texted again Sept. 9: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” 

Sondland responded that the assertion was “incorrect” about Trump’s intentions. “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind,” he said in a text message.The Washington Post reported Oct. 12 that Sondland called Trump between Taylor’s text and his own reply and that the message came from the president.

In his testimony Thursday, Sondland denied that he was trying to avoid making a record of his conversation by urging Taylor to call him. Sondland called Taylor “an insightful, strategic and effective representative of U.S. interests.”

“In my view, diplomacy is best handled through back-and-forth conversation,” Sondland said.

Taylor is scheduled to meet with the committees Tuesday.

Besides Sondland’s testimony, the committees are seeking messages on his personal electronics that could shed light on Trump’s relations with Ukraine. The text messages or emails were provided to the State Department, but not to Congress, according to Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif.

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