by Olivia Beavers · November 5, 2019
A top diplomat appointed by President Trump revised his testimony in the House impeachment probe this week to say the president’s dealings with Ukraine likely amounted to a quid pro quo — the topic at the center of the fast-moving investigation into Trump’s dealings with Kiev.
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had previously asserted that Trump had not dangled U.S. aid to Ukraine in return for political favors.
But on Monday, he amended that narrative to include a crucial anecdote: In September, he’d told a top Ukrainian official that Trump would “likely” withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine unless the country’s leaders agreed publicly to launch anti-corruption investigations that could benefit Trump politically, according to a transcript released Tuesday by Democrats conducting the impeachment investigation.
“By the beginning of September 2019, and in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement,” his revised declaration reads.
The addendum marked a clear shift for Sondland, a Republican mega-donor-turned-ambassador who initially testified behind closed doors on Oct. 17. He revised his testimony after several subsequent witnesses offered contradicting narratives before the three committees leading the impeachment investigation.
Sondland says “I now recall” a Sept. 1 meeting with top U.S. and Ukrainian officials in Warsaw, where he told an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that nearly $400 million in U.S. financial aid was contingent on Zelensky committing to investigations into the 2016 election and Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that employed the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading 2020 presidential contender.
“After a large meeting, I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said that 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,” Sondland said, referring to the aide, Andriy Yermak.
The last-minute alteration undercuts the central argument from Trump and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill, who have insisted throughout the impeachment inquiry that the president had never threatened to withhold the aid as leverage to secure political favors. And Democrats pounced on the revisions, saying Sondland’s testimony — combined with other deposition transcripts being released this week — offer clear new evidence that Trump had abused his power for political gain.
“Transcripts from Ambassadors Sondland and Volker show the progression of Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine into the service of his own personal political goals, in what Sondland described as a continuum of insidiousness,” tweeted House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), referring to Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine who had testified last month. The transcript of Volker’s testimony was also released on Tuesday.
The White House said Sondland’s testimony was further evidence that there was no quid pro quo.
“Ambassador Sondland squarely states that he ‘did not know, (and still does not know) when, why or by whom the aid was suspended.’ He also said he ‘presumed’ there was a link to the aid—but cannot identify any solid source for that assumption,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement on Tuesday.
Republicans in the Capitol also rushed to Trump’s defense, saying Sondland’s suggestion of a quid pro quo was based merely on his assumptions about the president’s intentions, not the administration’s true foreign policy. GOP leaders have repeatedly noted that the military aid was ultimately delivered to Ukraine — even without Zelensky launching the requested investigations.
“I can tell you that, consistently with the witnesses, if there’s one thing that I’ve gone away with, it’s that the aid and the connection to any promise of a political investigation — that connection is just not there,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the former House Freedom Caucus chairman and a close Trump ally, told reporters in the Capitol Tuesday.
A few hours later, after Sondland’s revised transcript was released, Meadows hammered Democrats and the press for cherry-picking parts of the testimony, without mentioning that Sondland’s conclusions were “presumed.”
“Seeing many overblown (and outright false) reports about Ambassador Sondland’s testimony,” Meadows tweeted.
A major figure emerging in both Volker’s and Sondland’s testimonies was Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, who led the pressure campaign on Ukrainian leaders. Sondland suggested it was Giuliani who insisted that any public statement announcing Ukraine’s anti-corruption investigations must come from Zelensky himself. He was also central to the effort to oust Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was removed from the post in April.
“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the President’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland testified, recalling the president’s distrustful sentiment toward Ukraine, shortly after Zelensky was elected in May.
Sondland — whose testimony appeared scattered and at times contradictory — said his revised recollection of events was triggered by recent testimony from two other senior officials: William Taylor, currently the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, a top aide at the National Security Council, who both told impeachment investigators that they were concerned aid to Ukraine was held up in order to secure commitments to investigate Burisma and the 2016 election.
Sondland, in his testimony, lamented how plans to fight corruption generally transformed into more politically focused investigations.
“It kept—it kept getting more insidious as [the] timeline went on,” he testified. “Back in July, it was all about just corruption.”
Volker, the first witness to appear in the six-week-old impeachment investigation, said that while he was never told why the military aid was withheld, that hold was “not significant.” He also suggested Giuliani’s push for politically motivated investigations doesn’t necessarily reflect Trump’s views.
Separate from the aid, Volker said there was no “linkage” between the investigations sought by Trump and a White House meeting sought by Zelensky.
Rather, the diplomat, who resigned days before he testified on Oct. 3, said he did not believe the demands being made by Giuliani linked to demands made by Trump.
“Rudy Giuliani … talks about this all the time. He’s interested in that, but that doesn’t mean that the president is as focused on that as Rudy is, and so I would differentiate there,” Volker testified.
Still, Volker and other diplomats have acknowledged that as someone operating as the president’s personal lawyer, who involved himself in foreign policy, he — at the very least — was seen as an emissary working on behalf of the commander in chief.
The diplomat also described a situation in which he was working to combat the “negative narrative about Ukraine” that Giuliani was pushing, testifying that he believed the former New York mayor’s statements about Ukraine impeded U.S. diplomats’ “ability to build the relationship the way we should be doing.”
Still, some witnesses including Sondland have raised questions about the legality of Trump’s requests — if they were in fact motivated for political purposes.
Sondland, when asked whether it would be illegal to investigate Burisma to harm the Bidens, underscored the gravity of such an ask when he replied: “I’m not a lawyer, but I assume so.”
The Hill · by Olivia Beavers · November 5, 2019