WASHINGTON – In testimony that stunned both Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, described how President Donald Trump directed a sprawling campaign to pressure Ukraine's government into publicly announcing it was launching investigations into Trump's political opponents.
Over the course of six hours of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Sondland – a real estate developer from Portland who donated $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee – directly implicated senior officials across Trump's national security apparatus in what he said was a "a clear quid pro quo."
Wednesday marked the third time Sondland has provided testimony to the committee, but the first time he has done so publicly.
Sondland was initially deposed on Oct 17, but two weeks later he amended his original testimony, admitting for the first time that he did, in fact, convey Trump's demands to Ukrainian officials. He had denied doing so the first time he was interviewed. On Wednesday, Sondland's version of events changed again.
Here are the most important things Sondland revealed.
"The leadership of State, NSC, and the White House were all informed about the Ukraine efforts from May 23, 2019, until the security aid was released on September 11, 2019," Sondland told committee members.
Sondland said he sent an email to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and other senior aides saying that Zelenskiy "intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will 'turn over every stone.'"
That email was sent July 19 — nearly a week before Trump's request in a July 25 phone call that Zelenskiy "look into" Joe and Hunter Biden, the Ukrainian company Burisma and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election in favor of Hillary Clinton. A whistleblower's complaint about that call sparked the impeachment inquiry.
"Everyone was in the loop," Sondland said. "It was no secret."
Sondland also said other officials, including former national security advisor John Bolton, Pompeo's counselor Ulrich Brechbuehl and State Department official Lisa Kenna, had been kept informed of his activities.
"They knew what we were doing and why," he testified.
Practically as soon as Sondland named them, spokespeople for Pompeo, Perry and Vice President Mike Pence all pushed back against Sondland.
"Mr. Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky. Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma," Sondland testified. "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 also said U.S. officials were aware of Giuliani's importance, and realized that any meeting between Trump and Zelenskiy would require Giulian's help to arrange.
"We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani," Sondland testified. "Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine [with a meeting]. So we followed the president's orders."
In response to questions from Republicans, Sondland admitted that Trump never personally told him what the terms of the quid pro quo needed to be. Over the course of the hearing, Republicans returned several times to this line of questioning, seemingly intent upon creating a video record of Sondland saying this over and over.
"Did the president ever tell you personally about any preconditions for anything?" Steve Castor, the committee's Republican counsel, asked Sondland about half way through the hearing.
"No," Sondland replied.
"So, the president never told you about any preconditions for the aid to be released?" Castor asked again.
Sondland again said, "No."
And while these exchanges at times sounded like political theater, they also revealed something important about how the Trump pressure campaign on Ukraine operated.
Specifically, that the president was careful not to discuss the granular details of what he wanted from Ukraine with people who worked for him in government. Instead, he relied on Giuliani, his private attorney, to convey his wishes to government employees. Giuliani is presumably bound by attorney-client privilege from revealing what Trump and he discuss.
Instead of speaking to directly to his employees about what he wanted, both Sondland and Volker have testified that Trump directed them to "talk to Rudy."
On Thursday, the committee will hear from the former top Russia expert at the National Security Council, Dr. Fiona Hill, as well as an embassy official stationed in Ukraine, David Holmes. Hill is expected to detail the frustration that National Security Council staff expressed over the outsized role that Giuliani and Sondland played in steering the administration's policy towards the Zelenskiy administration.
Kevin Breuninger reported from Englewood Cliffs, N.J.