After testifying Wednesday that President Donald Trump sought a quid pro quo with Ukraine, Ambassador Gordon Sondland was forced to admit he was simply making a “presumption.”
In his opening statement to the House Intelligence Committee, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union confirmed the allegations at the center of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into Trump. Sondland said he believed the president wanted to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations of his domestic political rivals by withholding $391 million in military aid to the country and dangling a White House meeting with its president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland testified, claiming to have been in regular contact with the White House and State Department about the effort.
However, it only took one question from the Republicans’ counsel, Steve Castor, to reveal that Sondland was sharing opinions rather than facts.
“Did the president ever tell you personally about any preconditions for anything?” asked Castor.
“No,” Sondland said.
To underline the point, Castor broke the question into two.
“OK, so the president never told you about any preconditions for the aid to be released?” he asked.
“No,” Sondland said.
“The president never told you about any preconditions for a White House meeting?” Castor asked.
“Personally, no,” Sondland said.
Sondland calls his own quid pro quo testimony “speculation”
Sondland said he assumed Trump was pushing a quid pro quo because the president asked him and other administration officials to work with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who was pressing Ukraine to investigate Democrats. Meanwhile, he noted, the congressionally apportioned aid to Ukraine was being withheld.
However, Sondland recalled that when he called Trump on Sept. 9 to ask if there was a quid pro quo, the president explicitly rejected the idea.
“I just said, ‘What do you want from Ukraine?'” Sondland said, rehashing closed-door testimony he gave to the committee last month. “And he said, ‘I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I just want Zelensky to do the right thing, to do what he ran on,’ or words to that effect.”
Castor pointed out that Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, last month testified that Trump made a similarly “vehement” denial to him on a Sept. 8 phone call.
So, the lawyer asked, on what basis was Sondland second-guessing the president’s motives?
“It was a presumption,” Sondland replied. “Two plus two equalled four in my mind at that point.”
“OK, but you didn’t have any evidence of that, correct?” Castor pressed.
“Other than that the aid wasn’t being released and we weren’t getting anywhere with the Ukrainians,” Sondland acknowledged.
Later, Castor pointed out that Sondland could not prove “Everyone was in the loop” about a quid pro quo and that Ukraine ultimately received the aid without announcing any investigations of Democrats.
He proposed Trump may have simply been advancing his “America first” approach to foreign policy with Ukraine.
“Fair enough,” Sondland conceded.
The ambassador helps Trump by contradicting other witnesses
In some ways, a previous round of questioning by the Democrats’ counsel, Daniel Goldman, went even worse for the party.
Bill Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, and National Security Council senior director Tim Morrison testified last month that Sondland told them, as well as the Ukrainians, that Trump expected a quid pro quo: investigations for military aid.
Sondland — who is the Democrats’ best hope of tying Trump to the alleged Ukraine shenanigans — did not dispute pushing a quid pro quo. But he told Goldman he had only been speculating about Trump’s support for the scheme.
“President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on the meetings,” he said at one point.
“My testimony is I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement of [investigations],” he said at another.
Sondland also denied testimony that, on a July 26 phone call, he assured Trump that Ukraine would investigate Joe Biden, the president’s Democratic rival in the 2020 election. According to Sondland, he only realized Trump wanted Ukraine to look into allegations of Biden’s corruption as vice president months later. He could not say exactly when or how he achieved the realization.
Both Castor and Goldman, for their opposing partisan reasons, highlighted that Sondland’s story is not only lacking in evidence, but also full of holes. The lawyers noted that Sondland has changed significant elements of his testimony and proved unable to remember many of the events in question.
In attempting to explain the vagaries of his memory, Sondland told Castor that he does not take notes and has to be in the right state of mind for recollection.
“It’s situational things that sort of trigger memory,” he said, noting that his job involved dealing with lots of very important people.
Trump went on to read aloud Sondland’s description of him opposing a quid pro quo. He again recited the dialogue in a series of afternoon tweets.
“Impeachment Witch Hunt is now OVER!” He declared.