Wednesday was the most explosive day yet in the House impeachment hearings and perhaps a crucial moment for the Trump White House when U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland testified that there was a quid pro quo between President Donald Trump and Ukraine.
Trump has been denying allegations that he held up nearly $400 million in badly needed military aid to Ukraine until Kyiv promised to investigate Joe Biden, a possible rival of Trump's in the 2020 presidential election, for alleged corruption.
In his opening statement, Sondland said 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."
According to the ambassador, "it was no secret" and a number of senior Trump administration officials were "in the loop," including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and former national security adviser John Bolton.
Sondland talked about long and complicated behind-the-scenes machinations that started in April, with the election of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and September, when the aid to Ukraine was finally released after a 55-day delay.
Sondland said he joined Energy Secretary Rick Perry and special envoy Kurt Volker in following Trump's "orders" to work with the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who was pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden and alleged Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election to help Democrats.
"We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani," Sondland said. "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."
WATCH: Sondland to US Lawmakers: Trump Conditioned Aid to Ukraine on Investigations
Sondland to US Lawmakers: Trump Conditioned Aid to Ukraine on Investigations video player. Embed Copy Link
Sondland said Giuliani was acting at Trump's behest when the lawyer told Ukrainian officials that the president wanted Zelenskiy to publicly commit to investigating the Bidens and the Democrats.
Sondland said efforts to push for the investigations were a quid pro quo in arranging a White House meeting for Zelenskiy.
Sondland said that while Trump never told him directly that military aid to Ukraine was conditioned on the investigations, he later concluded that had to be the reason because Sondland said there was no other credible reason Ukraine was not getting the money it had been promised.
WATCH AMBASSADOR SONDLAND HEARING ON-DEMAND
Aid released after whistleblower complaint
Republicans on the impeachment inquiry have argued there could not have possibly been a quid pro quo with Ukraine because the military aid was eventually released and there were no investigations of Biden and the Democrats. They also say Ukraine was unaware that the money was being held up.
But in later testimony Wednesday, Pentagon official Laura Cooper said Ukrainian officials began asking questions about the aid in July.
"It's the recollections of my staff that they likely knew," she said.
Trump released the aid to Ukraine on September 11 after reports emerged that an intelligence community whistleblower told the inspector general he was concerned about a July phone call in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Biden. That whistleblower complaint is what led to the impeachment probe.
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."
Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said Ukraine got the money and there were no investigations only because Trump got caught.
No evidence of Biden wrongdoing
Trump has alleged that when Biden was vice president, he threatened to withhold loan guarantees to Ukraine unless it fired a prosecutor looking into corruption in Burisma, a gas company where Biden's son Hunter sat on the board.
No evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens has ever surfaced. Allegations that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to help Democrats are based on a debunked conspiracy theory that likely originated in Russia.
Two more witnesses are set to testify in the impeachment inquiry Thursday, including David Holmes, an aide to the U.S. ambassador, who says he overheard Trump talk about investigations in a telephone call the president had with Sondland.
July call central to inquiry
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.
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 cellphone 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' 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.