Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, delivered an apparently mixed message Wednesday to lawmakers about what President Donald Trump wanted from Ukraine.
In the fourth day of House Democrats’ public impeachment hearings, Sondland first testified that there was a “quid pro quo” in which Ukraine’s new president would have to announce specific investigations to get a White House meeting with Trump.
He said he presumed the same was true for Ukraine to receive nearly $400 million in military aid already approved by Congress.
But Sondland later insisted in his sworn testimony that Trump told him on the phone that there was “no quid pro quo.”
Over about six hours, Sondland offered this somewhat contradictory testimony to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, prompting Trump to declare that the impeachment process is “all over.”
But committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., quickly told reporters during a break that Sondland’s testimony “goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery as well as other potential high crimes or misdemeanors.”
“My personal view … was that the White House meeting and security assistance should have proceeded without preconditions of any kind,” the EU ambassador said in his opening statement.
Before joining the State Department as an ambassador after Trump took office, Sondland, 62, was chairman of Provenance Hotels and co-founder of Aspen Capital, a merchant bank. A major Republican contributor, Sondland initially backed Jeb Bush’s presidential candidacy before giving $1 million toward Trump inauguration costs.
Although Sondland was not part of the now-famous July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, he has had more direct communication with Trump than anyone else who has testified publicly so far in the impeachment inquiry. Many witnesses never have talked to Trump.
Two other witnesses testified Wednesday evening: Laura Cooper, who specializes in Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasian policy as a deputy assistant secretary in the Defense Department; and David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs.
Sondland also was one of the “three amigos” assigned handle policy on Ukraine for the Trump administration, along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Kurt Volker, then the special envoy to Ukraine.
His testimony also revealed what the trio thought of Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, looped Vice President Mike Pence into the Ukraine matter, and prompted one committee member to question whether Democrats would have impeached George Washington.
Here’s a look at seven key moments.
1. Quid Pro Quo? Yes, for a White House Visit
In his opening statement, Sondland said he became certain there was a quid pro quo in which Zelenskyy would get a White House meeting with Trump by announcing formal investigations by Ukrainian law enforcement of Burisma—an energy company where former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was a board member—and of meddling by Ukraine in the 2016 presidential election in the U.S.
One of Trump’s personal lawyers, Giuliani, communicated this point, Sondland testified.
“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 said. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
Mr. Giuliani conveyed to Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and others that President Trump wanted a public statement from President Zelenskyy committing to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election.
Mr. Giuliani expressed those requests directly to the Ukranians, and Mr. Giuliani expressed those requests directly to us. We all understood that these prerequisites [the investigations], the White House call, and the White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements. …
My personal view—which I shared repeatedly with others—was that the White House meeting and security assistance should have proceeded without preconditions of any kind.
However, Sondland told the committee that he had no direct knowledge of any conditions placed on the $391 million in military aid to Ukraine.
“I don’t recall President Trump ever talking to me about any security assistance, ever,” he testified.
Schiff dismissed the absence of a direct comment from Trump.
“My colleagues seem to be under the impression that unless the president spoke the words, ‘Ambassador Sondland, I am bribing the Ukrainian president,’ that there’s no evidence of bribery,” Schiff said during the hearing.
The California Democrat added that the fact Ukraine eventually got the military aid in September after a 55-day hold also counts for very little, since the money flowed after House Democrats began investigating.
“They also seem to say [of Ukraine], ‘They got the money.’ Yes. They got caught,” Schiff said. “You still don’t have the White House meeting. They got no meeting. The statement of the investigations [by Ukrainian officials] was to get the meeting. They didn’t make the statement. They got no meeting. But they got caught.”
Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman pressed Sondland on whether it was reasonable to presume the military aid was being held until Ukraine’s announcement of the investigations.
“President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on meetings,” Sondland replied. “The only thing we got from Giuliani was that the Burisma and the 2016 election [probes] were conditioned on the White House meeting. The aid was my own personal guess, based again on your analogy, 2 plus 2 equals 4.”
Goldman: “So you didn’t talk to President Trump?”
Sondland: “My testimony is that I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement.”
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, pointed to Schiff’s remarks to reporters earlier Wednesday that there was proof of an impeachable offense, and to a new CNN headline that he read as “Sondland ties Trump to withholding aid.”
“I’ve said repeatedly I was presuming,” Sondland said, referring to why the administration put a hold on the aid.
Turner: “So no one told you, Giuliani didn’t tell you. [Acting White House chief of staff] Mick Mulvaney didn’t tell you, [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo didn’t tell you? Nobody else on this planet told you that Donald Trump was tying aid to these investigations. Is that correct?”
Sondland: “I think I’ve already testified to that.”
Turner: “No, answer the question. Is it correct that no one on this planet told you that Donald Trump was tying this aid to the investigations? Because if your answer is yes, then the chairman is wrong and the headline on CNN is wrong.”
Sondland finally answered, “Yes.”
Turner: “So, you really have no testimony today that ties President Trump to a scheme to withhold aid from Ukraine in exchange for these investigations?”
Sondland: “Other than my own presumption.”
2. ‘I Want Nothing’
Sondland said twice during his testimony that Trump explicitly told him that he didn’t want a quid pro quo with Ukraine.
“I finally called the president. I believe I just asked him an open-ended question, Mr. Chairman,” Sondland told Schiff.
Recalling the talk with Trump, he said he asked: “What do you want from Ukraine? I keep hearing all these different ideas and theories and this and that. What do you want?”
Sondland continued, speaking of Trump:
It was a very short, abrupt conversation. He was not in a good mood. He said, ‘I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.’ Something to that effect. So, I typed out a text to Ambassador [William] Taylor. The reason for telling him this was not to defend what the president was saying. Not to opine on whether the president was being truthful or untruthful, but simply to relay ‘I’ve gone as far as I can go.’
Republican counsel Steve Castor followed up on Sondland’s Sept. 9 call with Trump, and Sondland gave the same recollection with a little more color.
“Rather than ask the president nine different questions, ‘Is it this, is it this, is it that,” I just said, ‘What do you want from Ukraine?’ I may have even used a four-letter word,” Sondland testified. “And, he said: ‘I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I just want Zelenskyy to do the right thing and do what he ran on,’ or words to that effect.”
3. Trump’s Reaction
Before departing the White House on Marine One to travel to Texas, Trump pointed to this portion of Sondland’s testimony.
“That means it’s all over,” Trump told reporters, before uncharacteristically reading to the press the portion of Sondland’s testimony about his “no quid pro quo” conversation with the president.
After reading out loud the portion in which Sondland said, “He was not in a good mood,” Trump quipped: “I’m always in a good mood. I don’t know what that is.”
Trump then resumed reading from that portion of testimony.
“That’s what I said, ‘I want nothing.’”
“I don’t know him very well,” Trump said of Sondland. “I have not spoken to him much. He’s not a man I know well. Seems like a nice guy, though. He was with other candidates. He actually supported other candidates, not me, came in late.”
“But here’s my response. If you weren’t fake news, you would cover it properly. I say to the ambassador in response, ‘I want nothing, I want nothing.’”
Trump made similar remarks in answering reporters’ questions during his visit to an Apple plant in Austin, Texas.
4. ‘Everyone Was in the Loop’
Sondland testified that all the appropriate Trump administration officials knew about the efforts of the “three amigos” to assess Zelenskyy’s new government in Ukraine.
“They knew what we were doing and why,” Sondland said. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
Sondland said he “mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations.”
He said Pence nodded and didn’t seem to object to the characterization.
But Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, issued a statement disputing that account.
“The vice president never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations,” Short said. “This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened.”
5. ‘Hair Was on Fire’ Over ‘Irregular Channel’
Sondland lashed out at previous witnesses who asserted that a “shadow” foreign policy was carried out through irregular channels.
Although he didn’t mention names, acting Ukraine Ambassador William Taylor and State Department official George Kent talked about the matter in their own sworn testimony.
“I’m not sure how someone could characterize something as an irregular channel when you’re talking to the president of the United States, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, the chief of staff at the White House, the secretary of energy. I don’t know how that’s irregular,” Sondland said.
“If a bunch of folks that are not in that channel are aggrieved for some reason for not being included, I don’t know how they can consider us to be the irregular channel and they to be the regular channel when it’s the leadership that makes the decisions,” he added.
Castor, the Republican counsel, asked: “So the concerns were never brought to a head?”
“Well, they were never raised,” Sondland replied, adding:
No one said, ‘Back off of Ukraine. This is dangerous. You’re doing something that’s untoured. We have concerns that there was a bad phone call on July 25. There is talk about a drug cocktail or something.’
No one ever said that to me by phone, by text, by email. I don’t remember anybody sounding any alarm bell. If someone had mentioned it, I would have sat up and taken notice. Everyone’s hair was on fire, but no one decided to talk to us.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif, the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, brought up the complaints about irregular channels early in the hearing, suggesting that House Democrats would impeach George Washington.
“The Democrats fein outrage that President Trump used his own channel to communicate with Ukraine. I remind my friends on the other side of the aisle that our first president, George Washington, directed his own diplomatic channels to secure a treaty with Great Britain. If my Democratic colleagues had been around in 1794, they’d probably want to impeach him too.”
6. Giuliani Was ‘Hand We Were Dealt’
As a “proud” member of the three amigos, Sondland said that neither he nor Perry nor Volker were eager to work with Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is a personal lawyer for Trump.
The three did so “at the express direction of the president of the United States,” Sondland testified.
“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we were playing the hand we were dealt,” Sondland told the committee. “If we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would all lose an opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine.”
However, Sondland testified, initially he didn’t believe anything was improper about Giuliani’s involvement. However, he indicated, he changed his mind.
“If I had known of all of Mr. Giuliani’s dealings or of his associations with individuals [in Ukraine] now under criminal indictment, I would not have acquiesced to his participation,” Sondland said.
7. An Overheard Call
Sondland talked about a phone call he had with Trump that other diplomats remembered. But the ambassador denied relaying the message that Trump didn’t care about Ukraine.
He said Ukraine wasn’t the point of the call.
“We might have discussed A$AP Rocky,” Sondland said, referring to the American rap star in speaking of his July 26 phone call with Trump from a Ukraine restaurant.
Among those present was David Holmes, the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. Sondland called Trump while he, Holmes, and others were at the restaurant.
Trump was speaking loudly, Holmes testified to the committee behind closed doors, and Sondland held the phone away from his ear, allowing the others at the table to hear.
Based on that testimony, Goldman asked Sondland whether he really told Trump that Zelenskyy “loves your ass” and would do “anything you ask him to.”
Sondland responded that it sounded like something he would say, prompting laughter in the hearing room.
“It is true that the president speaks loudly at times,” Sondland said. “It’s true that the president likes to use colorful language.”
As to whether he and the president talked about investigations, Sondland testified, “Actually, I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations.”