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Sondland Updates Impeachment Testimony, Describing Ukraine Quid Pro Quo

MusicMan 13 November 5, 2019

In a substantial update to his initial account, Gordon D. Sondland recounted how he told Ukrainian officials military aid was tied to their commitment to investigations President Trump wanted.

The new testimony from Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, confirmed his involvement in essentially laying out a quid pro quo to Ukraine that he had not acknowledged.
The new testimony from Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, confirmed his involvement in essentially laying out a quid pro quo to Ukraine that he had not acknowledged.Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times
Michael S. Schmidt

WASHINGTON — A critical witness in the impeachment inquiry offered Congress substantial new testimony this week, revealing that he told a top Ukrainian official that the country likely would not receive American military aid unless it publicly committed to investigations President Trump wanted.

The disclosure from Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, in four new pages of sworn testimony released on Tuesday, confirmed his involvement in essentially laying out a quid pro quo to Ukraine that he had previously not acknowledged.

The testimony offered several major new details beyond the account he gave the inquiry in a 10-hour interview last month. Mr. Sondland provided a more robust description of his own role in alerting the Ukrainians that they needed to go along with investigative requests being demanded by the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani. By early September, Mr. Sondland said, he had become convinced that military aid and a White House meeting were conditioned on Ukraine committing to those investigations.

Mr. Sondland had said in a text message exchange in early September with William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, that the president had been clear there was no quid pro quo between the aid and investigations of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., his son and other Democrats. But Mr. Sondland testified last month that he was only repeating what Mr. Trump had told him, leaving open the question of whether he believed the president. The new account suggested that Mr. Sondland may have not been completely forthcoming with Mr. Taylor, and that he was, in fact, aware that the aid was contingent upon the investigations.

In his updated testimony, Mr. Sondland recounted how he had discussed the linkage with Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, on the sidelines of a Sept. 1 meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Mr. Zelensky in Warsaw. Mr. Zelensky had discussed the suspension of aid with Mr. Pence, Mr. Sondland said.

“I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Mr. Sondland said in the document, which was released by the House committees leading the inquiry, along with the transcript of his original testimony from last month.

The new information surfaced as the House committees also released a transcript of their interview last month with Kurt D. Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine. Rushing to complete their final round of requests for key witnesses before they commence public impeachment hearings, the panels also scheduled testimony on Friday by Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff. And two more administration witnesses who had been scheduled to testify on Tuesday — Michael Duffey, a top official on the White House budget office, and Wells Griffith, a senior aide to Energy Secretary Rick Perry — failed to appear.

In his new testimony, Mr. Sondland said he believed that withholding the aid — a package of $391 million in security assistance that had been approved by Congress — was “ill-advised,” although he did not know “when, why or by whom the aid was suspended.” But he said he came to believe that the aid was tied to the investigations.

“I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anticorruption statement,” Mr. Sondland said.

In his closed-door interview last month, Mr. Sondland portrayed himself as a well-meaning and at times unwitting player who was trying to conduct American foreign policy with Ukraine with the full backing of the State Department while Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s lawyer, repeatedly inserted himself at the behest of the president.

But some Democrats painted him as a lackey of Mr. Trump’s who had been an agent of the shadow foreign policy on Ukraine, eager to go along with what the president wanted. Democrats contended Mr. Sondland, a wealthy hotelier from Oregon, had evaded crucial questions during his testimony, repeatedly claiming not to recall the events under scrutiny.

And other witnesses have pointed to him as a central player in the irregular channel of Ukraine policymaking being run by Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani, and the instigator of the quid pro quo strategy.

In the addendum, Mr. Sondland said he had “refreshed my recollection” after reading the testimony given by Mr. Taylor and Timothy Morrison, the senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council.

Mr. Trump has denied there was a quid pro quo involving the aid and Ukraine’s willingness to launch investigations he was seeking into the Bidens and other Democrats. Mr. Sondland’s clarification is significant because his earlier testimony left it unclear how he viewed the issue, even as three other officials told impeachment investigators under oath that the aid and the investigations were linked. Unlike the others, Mr. Sondland was a donor to Mr. Trump’s campaign and was seen as a personal ally of the president.

Mr. Morrison, the National Security Council official, testified last week that it was Mr. Sondland who first indicated in a conversation with him and Mr. Taylor on Sept. 1 that the release of the military aid for Ukraine might be contingent on the announcement of the investigations, and that he hoped “that Ambassador Sondland’s strategy was exclusively his own.”

The new testimony appeared in part to be an attempt by Mr. Sondland to argue that the quid pro quo was not his idea, and explain why he believed the aid and the investigations were linked. He said it “would have been natural for me to have voiced what I presumed” about what was standing in the way of releasing the military assistance.

Mr. Sondland originally testified that Mr. Trump had essentially delegated American foreign policy on Ukraine to Mr. Giuliani, a directive he disagreed with but still followed. He said that it was Mr. Giuliani who demanded the new Ukrainian president commit to the investigations, and that he did not understand until later that the overarching goal may have been to bolster the president’s 2020 election chances.

Mr. Sondland said that he went along with what Mr. Giuliani wanted in the hope of pacifying him and restoring normal relations between the two countries. Under questioning, he acknowledged believing the statement was linked to a White House visit the new president of Ukraine sought with Mr. Trump.

Eileen Sullivan and Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.