Ambassador Gordon Sondland never had any firsthand knowledge of any “quid pro quo” involving U.S. military aid for Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine conducting investigations, according to his recently released closed-door testimony as part of the impeachment inquiry.
When he was asked by the Republican counsel, “To the best of your knowledge, do you know about any preconditions on the aid?” he responded, “No.”
“There were a lot of rumors swirling around as to why the aid had been held up, including they wanted a review, they wanted Europe to do more. There were all kinds of rumors,” he added.
He said he called the president on September 9, 2019, to find out what he wanted from Ukraine.
“He said: ‘I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing.’ And I said: ‘What does that mean?’ And he said: ‘I want him to do what he ran on.’ And that was the end of the conversation.”
Two days later, on September 11, 2019, the aid — which had been temporarily frozen — was released to Ukraine, without the Ukrainians having to do anything.
Sondland also testified: “I recall hearing multiple reasons why the aid was being held from various people. I never heard that it was being held specifically to investigate the Bidens. I never heard the word ‘Biden’ mentioned with aid.”
He also acknowledged that the aid was released, and Trump had a phone call and a face-to-face meeting with Zelensky at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019 — without anything in exchange from Ukraine.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) asked Sondland during the testimony: “If I understand correctly, President Trump did in fact meet with President Zelensky at the U.N. General Assembly, correct?”
Sondland responded, “That’s correct.”
However, after Sondland’s testimony was released last week, Democrats seized on a portion in which Sondland said he told an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on September 1, 2019, that the resumption of U.S. aid “would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
However — Sondland had also testified that he had only “presumed” the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement. His conversation with Zelensky’s aide also came before his direct call with the president.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who attended Sondland’s testimony, also highlighted that in a recent tweet.
“Folks, if someone tells you Gordon Sondland affirmed quid pro quo, you’re being lied to. He didn’t say this. He said he *did not know* what happened, but he began to *assume* aid was tied to an anti-corruption statement. President Trump corrected Sondland on this, shortly after,” Meadows tweeted.
Folks, if someone tells you Gordon Sondland affirmed quid pro quo, you’re being lied to. He didn’t say this.
He said he *did not know* what happened, but he began to *assume* aid was tied to an anti-corruption statement
President Trump corrected Sondland on this, shortly after
— Mark Meadows (@RepMarkMeadows) November 7, 2019
Sondland, who is President Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, also discussed during his closed-door deposition on October 17, 2019, the other alleged “quid pro quo” — a White House meeting for Zelensky in exchange for a commitment to look into anti-corruption issues.
He said Trump, believing Ukraine had played a role in the Russia collusion hoax, was not enthusiastic about Ukraine, and when he and other U.S. officials had talked to Trump about a White House visit or phone call with Zelensky, he directed them to deal with Rudy Giuliani instead. (Giuliani represented Trump during the Russia collusion investigation and had been looking into its origins, including in Ukraine).
“We didn’t get a clear signal from him that he would invite Zelensky to the White House, that he would call Zelensky. It was just talk to Rudy and I’m busy,” Sondland said after that meeting with Trump on May 23, 2019.
Sondland testified that Giuliani said the president wanted the public statement committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues.
“I think generally [Trump] was frustrated that they would always promise things and never deliver. That’s one of the reasons he was so adamant about seeing something put out by President Zelensky either in the form of a press release or an interview on network television or something where President Zelensky would publicly commit to whatever he was going to commit to. I think that was my understanding from Volker as dictated by Giuliani,” he said.
Sondland testified that he worked with other U.S. officials on getting that public statement from Ukraine. He testified that such a statement, or “deliverable,” was a normal thing in diplomacy and did not raise any “red flags.”
“I knew that a public embrace of anti-corruption reforms by Ukraine was one of the preconditions for securing a White House meeting with President Zelensky. My view was, and has always been, that such Western reforms are consistent with U.S. support for rule of law in Ukraine, going back decades under both Republican and Democrat administrations,” he said.
Nothing about that request raised any red flags for me, Ambassador [Kurt] Volker, or Ambassador [Bill] Taylor. Consequently, I supported the efforts of Ambassador Volker to encourage the Ukrainian Government to adopt the public statement setting out its reform priorities. My recollection is that the statement was written primarily by the Ukrainians, with Ambassador Volker’s guidance, and I offered my assistance when asked.
This was the, quote, “deliverable,” closed quote, referenced in some of my messages. A deliverable public statement that President Trump wanted to see or hear before a White House meeting could occur. The fact that we were working on this public statement was no secret. More broadly, such public statements are a common and necessary part of U.S. diplomacy.
Requesting that parties align their public messaging in advance of any important leadership meeting is a routine way to leverage the power of a face-to-face exchange.
Sondland testified that it was Giuliani who pushed for Ukraine’s anti-corruption statement to include looking into any Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections and Burisma — a natural gas company whose owner was under investigation for corruption.
Sondland said he did not find the request unusual as another Ukrainian company, Naftogaz, was also often mentioned in regards to corruption.
Sondland testified that although he and other U.S. diplomats were not thrilled with dealing with a non-State Department official, they did so because they believed working with Giuliani was the way to change Trump’s mind about Ukraine.
“What I understood was that breaking the logjam with getting the President to finally approve a White House visit was a public utterance by Zelensky, either through the press statement or through an interview or some other public means, that he was going to pursue transparency, corruption, and so on,” he said. “It was later that the Burisma and the 2016 were added, by, apparently, Mr. Giuliani.”
Sondland said he only heard about the inclusion of Burisma and 2016 from Rudy Giuliani. “I never heard it from the President. I am assuming Rudy Giuliani heard it from the President, but I don’t know that,” he said.
He said it was not until much later that he learned from press reports that Burisma had employed Hunter Biden on its board for up to $83,000, while his father Joe Biden was vice president, and Biden had pushed for the firing of the then-chief prosecutor, who was investigating Burisma.
Sondland testified that the press statement was never actually delivered in the end.
“We just could never get a press statement agreed to, and then the whole idea got dropped” sometime probably in mid- to late-August, he said. “I believe the Ukrainians didn’t want to go forward,” he said.
Sondland also testified that there was a difference between the press statement and actual investigations.
“They are two different things,” he said.
Sondland was asked about the July 25 phone call transcript when Trump asks Zelensky for “a favor” and brings up the 2016 elections and references allegations about the Democratic National Committee server being in Ukraine.
“Yes, but President Trump changes his mind on what he wants on a daily basis. I have no idea what he wanted on the day I called him. That’s why I asked him the question,” Sondland said in reference to the September 9 phone call he had with Trump in which he said he wanted “nothing” from Zelensky and “no quid pro quo.”
Sondland testified that other European countries, not just the U.S., were deeply concerned about Ukraine’s ability to deal with corruption, and whether they contributed more to Ukraine also depended on rooting out that corruption.
“In my discussions with the EU, they would like to do more. They would like to see some things cleaned up before they contribute more has been my impression,” he said.
When Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) asked whether it was a “quid pro quo,” Sondland joked, “I walked right into that one.”
“This is like My Cousin Vinny,” he joked. “To answer your question, Representative, the Ukrainians – – the Europeans are always very careful about when they contribute money to anything and they always have a list of requirements, some of which are a mile long.”
Sondland also said other things to poke holes in the narrative that Trump wanted something in exchange for a meeting or a phone call.
Sondland was asked about the whistleblower complaint’s allegation that “multiple U.S. officials told me Ukrainian leadership is led to believe that a meeting or phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky would depend on whether Zelensky showed a willingness to play ball on the issues that had been publicly aired by Lutsenko and Mr. Giuliani.”
Sondland testified: “Well, that appears not to be true because the phone call happened without any precondition. The phone call happened on the 25th and I don’t believe anything was agreed upon by the Ukrainians by the time the phone call happened.”
Sondland also testified he found it funny that the NSC scheduled the July 25 call (originally scheduled for July 20 but pushed back five days) but later read reports that said the NSC was “alarmed” and “didn’t want to have a call.”
He said he heard that it was a good call and that the Ukrainians were happy about the call too.
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