Sondland, in act of defiance, says he followed Trump’s orders in Ukraine pressure scheme

Trump administration official said he ‘followed the president’s orders’ in pressure scheme

WASHINGTON — An ambassador at the center of the House impeachment inquiry testified Wednesday that he was following President Donald Trump’s orders with the full knowledge of several other top administration officials when he pressured the Ukrainians to conduct investigations into Trump’s political rivals, detailing a “clear quid pro quo” directed by the president.

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Gordon Sondland, a wealthy Republican megadonor appointed by Trump as the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told the House Intelligence Committee in sworn testimony that he reluctantly followed Trump’s directive to work with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, as he pressured Ukraine to publicly commit to investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and an unproven theory that Democrats conspired with Kyiv to interfere in the 2016 election.

“We followed the president’s orders,” Sondland said.

Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union prepares to testify during the impeachment inquiry hearing in Washington on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. The House Intelligence Committee, led by its chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff
Photo: New York Times

Act of defiance

In explosive testimony that amounted to an act of defiance by an official who has been described by other witnesses as a point man in the effort to extract from Ukraine the investigations Trump wanted, Sondland tied the senior-most members of the administration to the effort — including the vice president, the secretary of state, the acting chief of staff and others — saying they were informed of it at key moments.

Yet as striking as his account was, Sondland appeared Wednesday as a highly problematic witness, one who has had to revise his account several times based on testimony from others, repeatedly claimed not to have recalled key episodes, and conceded before the committee that he did not take notes that could give him certainty about precisely what happened. Still, the revelations he offered were stunning.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed off on parts of the pressure campaign, Sondland testified, and Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, was deeply involved. They understood, as he did, that there was a “clear quid pro quo” linking a White House meeting for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to a promise by him to announce investigations into Trump’s political rivals, he said.

“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.”

“Everyone was in the loop,” he said. “It was no secret.”

And Sondland testified that he grew to believe that there was another linkage being made by Trump, between vital military assistance approved by Congress for Ukraine and a public commitment by its president to investigate Trump’s political adversaries. Sondland said he informed Vice President Mike Pence of his concern about that connection during a Sept. 1 meeting in Warsaw, Poland.

Almost two months after House Democrats began their impeachment inquiry, Sondland’s account came as close as investigators have gotten to an admission from an official who dealt directly with Trump. But it came with the blemishes of Sondland’s shifting accounts that have evolved since the committee first deposed him in October, opening him up to criticism from Republicans who claimed he was unreliable and not credible.

Still, Democrats quickly seized on Sondland’s testimony as a bombshell.

“It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery, as well as other potential high crimes and misdemeanors,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters during a brief break in the hearing.

Sondland, who smiled often during his appearance in the stately committee room, cheerfully admitting to a flair for colorful language and frequent use of “four letter words” in his conversations with Trump, appeared to relish pulling other top officials into the spotlight with him after weeks of being cast by Republicans as a lone, rogue actor. If he was uneasy about wreaking havoc on the defense of a president for whom he still works, Sondland did not show it.

The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false,” he said, pointing to messages and phone calls in which he kept the White House and State Department informed of his actions. “Any claim that I somehow muscled my way into the Ukraine relationship is simply false.”

Sondland’s appearance was the centerpiece of a crammed week of testimony before the Intelligence Committee. Wednesday afternoon, two more officials — Laura Cooper of the Defense Department and David Hale of the State Department — were expected to deliver accounts related to the suspension of the security aid for Ukraine.

It could create new legal and political pressure on senior officials who either have refused to testify in the inquiry or have not yet been called, including Pompeo; Mulvaney; and John Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser.

Holding a page of notes scrawled in marker in large block letters, Trump read aloud from a section of Sondland’s closed-door deposition
Photo: New York Times

Trump distances himself from Sondland

Standing on the South Lawn of the White House while Sondland was still at the witness table, Trump tried to distance himself from the ambassador.

“I don’t know him very well — I have not spoken to him much,” Trump told reporters before departing on a trip to Texas.

Holding a page of notes scrawled in marker in large block letters, Trump read aloud from a section of Sondland’s closed-door deposition in which the ambassador described a phone call in which the president had told him he did not want a quid pro quo.

“This is the final word from the president of the United States,” Trump said, shouting to be heard over the hum of helicopter rotors. “‘I want nothing.’”

That conversation occurred after the White House was aware that a whistleblower had filed a complaint alleging that Trump was abusing his power to try to enlist Ukraine to help him in the 2020 presidential election.

Through an aide, Pence denied that the two men had spoken as Sondland recounted.

“Ambassador Gordon Sondland was never alone with Vice President Pence on the Sept. 1 trip to Poland,” Marc Short, his chief of staff, said in a statement. “This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened.”

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