WASHINGTON - U.S. diplomat Gordon Sondland emphatically told the impeachment inquiry targeting President Donald Trump on Wednesday that despite the president's denial, there was a conditional deal with Ukraine in recent months, that Kyiv would not get the military aid it wanted unless it opened investigations to benefit Trump politically.
Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union, told the House Intelligence Committee that impeachment investigators "have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously ... the answer is yes."
Sondland, a million-dollar donor to Trump's inaugural celebration nearly three years ago before Trump tapped him for the posting to Brussels, said he worked with Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, named by the president to oversee Ukraine relations, even though he did not want to because it sidelined normal State Department channels with Kyiv.
Sondland said that Giuliani, acting at Trump's behest, told Ukrainian officials directly that the U.S. leader wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to publicly commit to investigations of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter's work for Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company, and a debunked theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election to help Democrats against Trump. The U.S. intelligence community concluded Russia interfered to help Trump.
Trump on Sept. 11 released $391 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine without Zelenskiy opening the Biden investigations.
As he left the White House for a trip to Texas in the midst of Sondland's testimony, Trump recited parts of the diplomat's original statement in private testimony a month ago, that there was no quid pro quo and that Trump did not want anything from Ukraine.
"That means it's all over," Trump said.
Sondland later amended that testimony to say there were conditions on the aid - the Biden investigations - before stating specifically Wednesday in the public testimony that there was a quid pro quo.
The president added of Sondland, "This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy, though."
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said that Sondland's testimony "made clear" that in his calls with Trump, the president "clearly stated that he 'wanted nothing' from Ukraine, and repeated 'no quid pro quo over and over again.' The U.S. aid to Ukraine flowed, no investigation was launched, and President Trump has met and spoken with President Zelenskiy. Democrats keep chasing ghosts."
While other witnesses at the impeachment inquiry had only second-hand accounts as the Ukraine aid drama unfolded in recent months and no contact with Trump, Sondland was a front-line participant with cell phone access to the president. He is the Democrats' star witness in their effort to impeach the country's 45th president.
But Sondland said the path to releasing the money was tortured. He detailed long behind-the-scenes talks involving Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, then national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and others during the 55-day delay in dispatching the money Kyiv wanted to help in its fight against pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.
"Everyone was in the loop," Sondland said. "It was no secret."
Sondland said Trump was particularly skeptical of helping Ukraine, believing it was generally engulfed in corruption. But Sondland said he came to believe that the aid would not be released without Zelenskiy making a statement that the Biden investigations were underway.
Sondland said, however, that he and Trump never specifically talked about the military assistance or that it was tied to the political investigations. Sondland said he presumed that the quid pro quo was in play because of his conversations with Giuliani, delegated by Trump to handle Ukraine relations.
"As my other State Department colleagues have testified, this security aid was critical to Ukraine's defense and should not have been delayed," he said. " I expressed this view to many during this period. But my goal, at the time, was to do what was necessary to get the aid released, to break the logjam. I believed that the public statement (about the investigations) we had been discussing for weeks was essential to advancing that goal. I really regret that the Ukrainians were placed in that predicament...."
Trump's July 25 White House call with Zelenskiy, in which the U.S. leader asked Zelenskiy to "do us a favor," to undertake the politically tinged investigations, is at the center of Democrats' impeachment inquiry against Trump, only the fourth time in the country's 243-year history such an investigation has been opened.
It is against U.S. campaign finance law to solicit foreign government help in a U.S. election, but it will be up to lawmakers to decide whether Trump's actions amount to "high crimes and misdemeanors," the standard in the U.S. Constitution sets for impeachment and removal of a president from office. Trump could be impeached by the full Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in the coming weeks, which would be similar to an indictment in a criminal trial. He then would face a trial in the Republican-majority Senate, where his conviction remains unlikely.
Sondland confirmed the essence of a cell phone conversation he had with Trump on July 26, the day after Trump's conversation with Zelenskiy, as he sat at a Kyiv restaurant with other State Department officials.
Late last week, David Holmes, an aide to William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv, told impeachment investigations in private testimony that he overheard the Trump-Sondland call because Trump's voice was loud and Sondland held the phone away from his ear.
Holmes said Sondland in the call assured Trump that Zelenskiy "loves your ass," which Sondland said "sounds like something I would say."
"So, he's gonna do the investigation?" Holmes quoted Trump as asking. Sondland, according to Holmes, replied, "He's gonna do it," while adding that Zelenskiy will do "anything you ask him to."
Holmes said he later asked Sondland if Trump cared about Ukraine, with the envoy replying that Trump did not "give a s**t about Ukraine." Sondland said he did not recall this remark but did not rebut Holmes's account.
"I asked why not," Holmes recalled, "and Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about big stuff.' I noted that there was big stuff' going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia, and Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant big stuff' that benefits the president, like the Biden investigation."'
Disdain from Trump
Before Sondland revised his testimony last month to say there had been a quid pro quo -- the military aid for the Biden investigation -- Trump had called Sondland a "great American." But after Sondland changed his testimony, Trump said, "I hardly know the gentleman."
Trump has repeatedly described the July 25 call with Zelenskiy as "perfect" and denied any wrongdoing. Trump has often assailed the impeachment inquiry but did not immediately comment on Twitter about Sondland's testimony.
Sondland's testimony came on the fourth day of the impeachment investigation, with two more witnesses set to appear later Wednesday and two more Thursday, including Holmes.