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From ‘3 amigos’ to ‘everyone was in the loop’ on quid pro quo in the impeachment hearings

Trump declares ‘witch hunt’ is over, while Democrats call testimony ‘seminal moment’

SHARE From ‘3 amigos’ to ‘everyone was in the loop’ on quid pro quo in the impeachment hearings
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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.

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In explosive testimony, Ambassador Gordon Sondland not only confirmed a quid pro quo in President Donald Trump’s relations with Ukraine, but also testified that several top-level White House officials and cabinet members knew about it.

“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said, referring to the president’s offer of a coveted White House meeting to Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskiy in exchange for a public announcement of investigations Trump was seeking.

Reading from emails he had sent on the subject and recalling private meetings, Sondland named Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Vice President Mike Pence as officials who were aware of what the president wanted done.

Sondland, a wealthy Portland hotelier who donated $1 million to the president’s inaugural committee and was confirmed as ambassador to the European Union last year, said it was clear to everyone he worked with that Zelenskiy’s invitation to meet with Trump was conditioned on the announcement of investigations into political rival Joe Biden and speculated interference by Ukraine in the 2016 election.

“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’” Sondland said in his opening remarks. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

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U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, left, 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. At right is his attorney Robert Luskin.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

Sondland has emerged as a central figure in the impeachment probe and was the second of nine witnesses the committee will hear from this week. Later Wednesday, the committee heard from Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs, and David Hale, the under secretary of state for Political Affairs.

But Sondland was the star. In a moment that drew laughter from the more than 200 people in the hearing room, he was asked about a phone call he had with Trump, in which he said Zelenskiy loved Trump’s (expletive).

“Sounds like something I would say,” Sondland said, smiling. “That’s how President Trump and I communicate. A lot of four-letter words. In this case three letters.”

Sondland was one of the “three amigos” who handled Trump’s relations with Ukraine outside normal State Department channels under the direction of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney.

He described a campaign of pressure against Ukraine that was prompted by Trump, orchestrated by Giuliani and well-known to other senior officials. He said he raised his concerns about a quid pro quo for military aid with Pence — a conversation a Pence adviser vigorously denied, according to the Associated Press.

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U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, center, 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, Associated Press

Sondland said it wasn’t easy to convince Trump to embrace Ukraine, because the president was skeptical of Ukraine and believed it “tried to take him down in the last election” — a conclusion not shared by the intelligence community.

Trump told Sondland and others he was working with to “talk to Rudy,” a reference to Giuliani. Sondland said neither he nor Special Envoy Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry wanted to work through Giuliani, but accepted they had no other choice if they wanted to improve U.S. relations with Ukraine.

“The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false,” he said.

He said it was through Giuliani that he learned Zelenskiy’s visit to the White House was conditional on Ukraine investigating alleged Ukrainian interference in the U.S. 2016 election and an energy company named Burisma.

Sondland testified that he didn’t know until shortly before the arranged July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy that $400 million in military aid to Ukraine was being withheld in exchange for the investigations Trump sought.

And, Sondland claimed he didn’t make the connection that investigating Burisma meant investigating Joe Biden’s son’s lucrative position on the company’s board while Biden was vice president, until he read a transcript of the July 25 call.

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U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is sworn in before testifying 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.

Doug Mills, Pool via Associated Press

Despite having the most direct contact with Trump, Sondland was a problematic witness. His story has changed since he first testified to the committee last month behind closed doors, and he frustrated both Democrats and Republicans on the panel as he was unable to recall key details that would more directly implicate or exonerate the president in what Democrats allege is bribery.

In his opening statement, he preemptively deflected attacks on his credibility by blaming the State Department for his changing recollection or faulty recall of events because the agency would not release all of his phone records, emails and other documents that could help him reconstruct events.

“I am not a note taker, nor am I a memo writer. Never have been,” he said.

But Republicans called his excuses “the trifecta of unreliability” and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., summed up the six hours of testimony as “another hearing in the books” with no answers. Democrats weren’t sympathetic to Sondland, either.

“There’s a whole bunch of stuff you don’t recall, so with all due respect sir, we appreciate your candor, but let’s be really clear on what it took to get it out of you,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-New York.

Sondland also frustrated Democrats by insisting he never heard Trump directly say the White House visit and military aid were conditioned on Ukraine investigations. But, he said his work on Ukraine was “following the express direction of the president” by working through Giuliani.

Still, committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., called Sondland’s testimony a “seminal moment” and told reporters during a break in testimony that it went “right to the heart of the issue of bribery, as well as other potential high crimes and misdemeanors.” 

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U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, center, finishes a day of testimony 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.

Anna Moneymaker, Pool via Associated Press

During questioning, Sondland recalled a September conversation with Trump in which he sought clear direction on Ukraine and the president told him he wanted “nothing” and to “tell Zelenskiy to do the right thing.”

During the hearing, Trump latched onto that statement tweeting: ”I WANT NOTHING! I WANT NOTHING! I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO! TELL PRESIDENT ZELENSKY TO DO THE RIGHT THING!” Later, Ambassador Sondland said that I told him, “Good, go tell the truth!” This Witch Hunt must end NOW. So bad for our Country!”

While speaking to reporters outside the White House, Trump held a handwritten note with essentially the same text, as reported by The Guardian. He also distanced himself from his hand-picked ambassador, saying he didn’t know him “very well,” according to the Associated Press.

Asked about the president’s comments during the hearing, Sondland said. “Easy come, easy go.”