In a revealing yet circular impeachment hearing, Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, testified Wednesday that President Donald Trump clearly did quid pro quo in his dealings with Ukraine, and that many officials — including Vice President Mike Pence — knew about it.
In his opening testimony, Sondland said that a public statement from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that his government would investigate alleged Ukranian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company tied to former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, were prerequisites for an Oval Office meeting with Trump and the release of nearly $400 million in security aid to the country.
“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said, listing multiple officials including acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Sondland read aloud multiple emails, text messages and WhatsApp exchanges to corroborate what he classified as “the conventional wisdom at the time” that cooperation from Ukraine would “break the logjam,” meaning release the security aid. He also said he expressed concerns to Pence that Trump’s freeze of the military aid was tied to Ukraine’s investigations of the Democrats, which Pence’s chief of staff later refuted in a statement, saying it “never happened.”
Sondland testified that he, Perry and former State Department special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker were directed to pressure Ukraine into investigate the Bidens and 2016 election interference by the president through former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney.
“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we were playing the hand we were dealt,” Sondland said.
However, he said he did not, at the time, know the connection between Burisma and the Bidens. In Tuesday’s afternoon hearing, which was part of a nine-hour marathon featuring testimony from Volker and three other witnesses, Volker also said he had not realized the connection.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, used Sondland’s testimony and questioning to continue laying the groundwork for articles of impeachment, including labeling the Oval Office meeting and security aid as “official acts.” Schiff also raised concerns of whether the White House is obstructing justice after Sondland lamented the Department of State for not releasing multiple records of his emails and phone calls.
The lack of access to the records proved to be problematic for Sondland throughout his over six-hour hearing, who said he is not a note-taker and answered, “I don’t recall,” in response to multiple questions. Republicans pointed to Sondland’s foggy memory to paint his testimony as less credible.
“You don’t have records, you didn’t have notes because you didn’t take notes,” Steve Castor, Republican lawyer for the House Intelligence Committee, told Sondland. “This is like the trifecta of unreliability, isn’t it?”
Aside from gaps in memory during his Wednesday hearing, though, Sondland also raised red flags because after his closed-door testimony to the committee last month, he submitted an amended statement. U.S. Rep. Sean Maloney, D-18, called out Sondland for the three tries it took to get a full testimony from him.
“You’ve been very forthright, this is your third try to do so. Didn’t work so well the first time, did it? We had a declaration come in after, remember that?” Maloney said to Sondland sharply referring to Sondland’s testimony amendment. “Now, you’re here a third time, and we got a doozy of a statement from you this morning. There’s a whole bunch of stuff you don’t recall, so all due respect, we appreciate your candor but let’s be really clear on what it took to get it out of you.”
Another point of contention rose when Sondland said that in a September phone call with Trump, when he asked what Trump wanted from Ukraine to unfreeze the security aid, the president responded “something along the lines” of “Nothing, I want nothing, I want no quid pro quo, tell President Zelensky to do the right thing.”
Republicans jumped on this, with multiple representatives asking Sondland why he did not include that phone call in his opening testimony, and whether Trump ever directly told Sondland that the security aid was linked to the investigations.
However, Schiff argued that many times, participants in quid pro quos do not actually say out loud that they are seeking bribes.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-21, repeated questions and points she has made in previous hearings: the aid was ultimately released to the Ukraine, and the investigations never took place.
Schiff said the aid was only released because Trump got caught, saying, “Two days before the aid was lifted, Congress announced that it was investigating this scheme.”
Along the same lines, Schiff said in Tuesday’s public hearing the quid pro quo is “no less odious because it was discovered and it was stopped.”
Massarah Mikati covers the New York State Legislature and immigration for Johnson Newspaper Corp. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find her on Twitter @massarahmikati.