Impeachment: Star Witness Sondland Testimony on Trump's Ukraine-Gate Scandal is More Damaging

Published November 20th, 2019 - 03:02 GMT
Ambassador Gordon Sondland (AFP Photo)
Ambassador Gordon Sondland (AFP Photo)

Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the most anticipated witness in the impeachment inquiry, will implicate Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton in testimony where he'll describe a 'quid pro quo' linking aid to the Ukraine to a demand for an investigation of the president's political rivals.

Sondland will implicate everyone but himself in a pressure campaign on the Ukraine.

'They knew what we were doing and why,' Sondland tells the House Intelligence Committee in his opening statement. 'Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.'

'I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ''quid pro quo?''' Sondland says in his prepared testimony. 'With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.'  

'We followed the president's orders,' he says.

Sondland repeatedly blames Trump for forcing him, special envoy to the U.S. Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry to work with Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine, despite all of them thinking it was a bad idea.

'We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt,' he says.

He will admit that at a July 10 White House meeting he mentioned the 'the prerequisites of investigations before any White House call or meeting' to the Ukraine officials.

But he will dispute accounts Bolton ended the meeting.

'Their recollections of those events simply don't square with my own or with those of Ambassador Volker or Secretary Perry,' he says.

Sondland will also testify that while he wasn't explicitly sure the nearly $400million in U.S. aid to the Ukraine was being held up in exchange for the investigations, he operated as if that were the case.

'In the absence of any credible explanation for the hold, I came to the conclusion that the aid, like the White House visit, was jeopardized,' Sondland said. 'My belief was that if Ukraine did something to demonstrate a serious intention' to launch the investigations Trump wanted, 'then the hold on military aid would be lifted.' 

Lawmakers from both parties will pounce on his bombshell testimony, which strongly implicates the president and his top advisers.

Sondland will also confront questions Wednesday about his role in Trump administration's dealings in the Ukraine.

House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Adam Schiff delivered yet another blistering opening statement about the contours of the effort to get Ukraine to conduct investigations.

‘The knowledge of this scheme was far and wide and include among others secretary of state Pompeo as well as the vice president,’ Schiff said at the top of the hearing.

He blasted the State Department for withholding notes and call readouts, although Sondland cited new information in his opening statement.

Schiff said he can see why Pompeo and Trump ‘have made a concerted and across the board effort and this impeachment inquiry.’ But he said they ‘do so at their own peril,’ and cited the Nixon impeachment.

Ranking Republican Rep. Devin Nunes began by attacking Democrats for waging ‘scorched earth political warfare.’

‘Ambassador Sondland, you are here today to be smeared,’ he told the witness.

He accused Democrats of ‘selling this absurdity as an impeachable offense.’

‘They know exactly what kind of damage they’re inflicting on this nation, but they’ve passed the point of no return,’ he said, bringing up earlier cautious statements by Speaker Nancy Pelosi on impeachment.

‘They stoked a frenzy among their most fanatical supporters that they can no longer control,’ he said.

Lawmakers will press the ambassador to the European Union on his evolving accounts of dealings with the Ukraine, on his phone call with President Donald Trump in a Kiev restaurant that other officials overheard, and a report he kept Pompeo apprised of a pressure campaign on the Ukraine. 

Sondland, a wealthy hotelier Trump tapped as his ambassador to the EU, is more directly entangled than any witness yet in the attempt to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and an unproven theory it was the Ukraine, and not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 presidential election. 

Yet Sondland has already amended his testimony once - 'I now do recall,' he said, talking to Ukraine about investigations. 

He is appearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday morning as The New York Times reported he kept Pompeo apprised of key developments in the campaign to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into making public commitments to investigate the Bidens and the 2016 election that would satisfy President Trump. 

Democrats are likely to hammer Sondland on his changing story - he sent in a clarification on his closed-door testimony after reports on other witnesses' testimony leaked. 

Republicans will try to portray Sondland as an official gone rogue - someone who was doing what he thought Trump wanted without hearing that directly from the president. 

Sondland's ties to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani will also be fodder for both parties. 

He is a key witness for both sides in that he was most of the meetings that have became subject to questions during the impeachment inquiry, along with bragging about his close relationship with the president.  

Sondland's closeness to Trump, is of particular concern to the White House.

Trump has recently tried to suggest that he barely knows his hand-picked ambassador, but Sondland has said he has spoken several times with the president and was acting on his direction.

The envoy is likely to face tough questions from lawmakers of both parties about Trump's July 25 call when he asked Zelensky for the political investigations at the same time as U.S. military aid for the ally was being stalled.

Pompeo was also on that call.  

Democrats are investigating allegations Trump held up the nearly $400 million in aid until the Ukraine agreed to investigate.

The White House and Republicans argue the aid was released to the Ukraine, although Democrats point out that happened after a report a whistleblower flagged concerns about Trump's comments on that July 25 call with Zelensky. 

Sondland routinely bragged about his proximity to Trump and drew alarm from the foreign service and national security officials as part of a back channel of diplomacy that included Sondland, Giuliani, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry - dubbed the 'three amigos.'

Last week State Department official David Holmes revealed one of those interactions to impeachment investigators.

He was having lunch with Sondland in Kiev on July 26 - the day after Trump's phone call with Zelensky - when the ambassador dialed up the president on his cellphone and Holmes could hear Trump's voice.

Holmes said Sondland told Trump that Zelensky 'loves your ass' to which Trump responded: 'So, he's gonna do the investigation?'

'He's gonna do it,' Sondland replied, according to testimony Holmes gave lawmakers on Friday afternoon behind closed doors.  

Sondland was known for telling others 'he was in charge of Ukraine' - despite the fact he was ambassador to the European Union and the Ukraine was not a part of the EU.

Former National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill described Sondland exerting his authority.

'And I asked, well, on whose authority?' said Hill, who will testify Thursday. 'And he said, the President.'

 


© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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