KYIV -- On a warm afternoon in July, Gordon Sondland arrived at Kyiv's swanky Hyatt Regency Hotel, its 21st-century glass facade reflecting the 1,000-year-old St. Sophia's Cathedral. About a half-hour late for his interview, he was led to a makeshift hotel-room studio set up by state-run Ukrainian broadcaster UATV. Facing him was Kari Odermann, a news anchor for the channel. She led with what at the time was a throwaway question to warm up her guest.
'Tell me about how your day was,' she asked.
'Well, I had a great lunch with my team,' Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, replied with a grin. Before that, he added, he had 'a wonderful hour-long meeting' with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who had spoken to U.S. President Donald Trump a day earlier.
Four months later, as Sondland prepares to testify publicly on November 20 in the U.S. congressional probe that could lead to Trump's impeachment, he may spend some time thinking about his brief trip to Kyiv and that lunch on the terrace at Sho, the upscale Ukrainian restaurant where he shared a meal and a bottle of wine with State Department staff and then called the president of the United States.
The hotel-chain owner from Washington state has become a crucial figure in the impeachment inquiry, as lawmakers in the House of Representatives seek to determine whether Trump used nearly $400 million in military aid to leverage a public commitment from Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden, a front-runner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump for the White House in 2020.
Sondland has already reversed testimony that he gave at a closed hearing before the House Intelligence Committee in October. Having first told investigators he did not know of any preconditions for aid, he amended his testimony earlier this month, saying he recalled telling a Zelenskiy aide that U.S. assistance was unlikely to come without 'a public anti-corruption statement.'
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) finally met U.S. President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. (file photo)
Trump has denied there was any quid pro quo -- an arrangement in which one party gives the other something and gets something in return -- and has dismissed the impeachment inquiry as a 'witch hunt.'
That denial was called into question by critics again last week, when David Holmes, a staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, told the House committee that, at a July 26 lunch in Kyiv, the day after Zelenskiy and Trump had spoken by telephone, Sondland had used his cell phone to call the U.S. president. Holmes said that, after Sondland told the president that Zelenskiy 'loves your ass,' Trump asked: 'So he's going to do the investigation?'
Republicans have criticized previous witnesses for lacking direct knowledge of Trump's interactions and remarks involving Ukraine, underscoring the potential significance of Sondland's call and his testimony.
Holmes said that, after a meeting with Zelenskiy, Ukrainian officials, Sondland and other top diplomats, where he participated as a notetaker, Sondland met alone with Andriy Yermak, a top aide to the Ukrainian president. He said that he tried to join the meeting but was blocked by a Yermak aide.
Neither Yermak nor State Department officials agreed to comment for this article.
After the meeting, Holmes asked if he could join Sondland for lunch, along with two other diplomatic staffers. They drove to Sho, a year-old, high-end restaurant offering dishes such as buckwheat patties, sturgeon kebab, and Carpathian mushroom soup.
After the call with Trump, Holmes said, Sondland told him that the president did not 'give a sh** about Ukraine' and only cared about the 'big stuff' like the 'Biden investigation.'
When told by an RFE/RL reporter that a phone call conducted at their restaurant had become the center of an international geopolitical scandal, employees at Sho looked perplexed.
Though some former officials have raised security concerns that Sondland made the call in a public place, with servers bustling back and forth -- CNN reported it was 'likely' that Russian intelligence intercepted the call -- he does not seem to have made an impression on restaurant staff. Shown a picture of Sondland, at least eight staff members said they had no recollection of Washington's top EU diplomat.
'This is the first I've heard of anything,' said Mark Timchenko, a manager at the restaurant.
Sho, the upscale Ukrainian restaurant where Gordon Sondland shared a meal with State Department staff and then called U.S. President Donald Trump
Soon after the lunch, Sondland joined Odermann, the UATV correspondent, at the Hyatt, not far from Kyiv's Maidan Nezalezhnosti -- Independence Square. She told RFE/RL that, while Sondland was jovial, embassy staff surrounding him appeared tense, repeatedly requesting that her off-camera conversation with him remain off-the-record.
By July 26, Zelenskiy had been president for more than two months. There were rising concerns in Kyiv that the he had not yet visited the White House, a trip that was seen by many as an important show of U.S. support for Ukraine amid its ongoing war against the Russia-backed militants who hold parts of two eastern provinces.
Trump's accusers charge that the White House visit was held back, along with the military aid, as leverage to force Ukraine to launch or announce investigations linked to Vice President Biden and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, and to an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory holding that that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Text messages that have been released as part of the impeachment investigation, and which involve Sondland, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, appear to tie Zelenskiy's possible White House visit to the potential investigations. But in the UATV interview, Sondland attributed the lack of a Trump-Zelenskiy meeting in Washington to scheduling.
'We're trying to find a mutual convenient date in the coming weeks -- we don't want this to take months -- for both of them to meet at the White House.'
Zelenskiy met Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, but no date has been set for a trip to the White House.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service later in the afternoon of July 26, Sondland confirmed that he had spoken to Trump both before and after his phone call with Zelenskiy. Looking back, though, journalist Oksana Dumska is frustrated by what she got.
'Gordon Sondland wasn't such a familiar person to Ukrainians,' Dumska said, adding that he lavished praise on Zelenskiy in the interview. When she asked Sondland what he had discussed with the Ukrainian president, he listed a range of topics but never uttered the word 'investigation.'
Other things they may have discussed, she said, seemed 'way more interesting.'
Odermann, for her part, was philosophical when asked how her conversation might have been different had she known now what she knows today.
'I would ask him exactly what everyone wants to know now,' she said. 'But we can't go back in time.'
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036