Washington — The U.S. ambassador to the European Union who played a key role in events at the center of the impeachment inquiry planned to tell lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry that he and other diplomats were reluctant to work with Rudy Giuliani on issues related to Ukraine, but felt they had no choice.
Gordon Sondland, the ambassador in Brussels since July 2018 and a major Trump donor, arrived on Capitol Hill Thursday morning for a closed-door session before the three House committees leading the probe. The State Department previously blocked him from testifying, spurring the committees to issue a subpoena to compel his testimony.
According to his prepared opening statement, Sondland said he and other diplomats were "disappointed" that President Trump directed them to work with Giuliani shortly after the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
"Please know that I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters," Sondland said in his statement. "However, given the President's explicit direction, as well as the importance we attached to arranging a White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, we agreed to do as President Trump directed."
Sondland also said he was unaware of Giuliani was targeting former Vice President Joe Biden by urging Ukrainian officials to open an investigation in Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that appointed Biden's son Hunter to its board of directors in 2014. He said he spoke with the former New York mayor "a few times" and did not recall having met with him during his time as ambassador.
Read his prepared statement here
The president's directive
Sondland described a meeting at the White House on May 23, shortly after Zelensky was inaugurated president. He said he asked the White House to arrange a congratulatory call between the two leaders.
"However, President Trump was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption, and he directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Mr. Giuliani, his personal attorney, about his concerns," Sondland said. "It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the President's mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani. It is my understanding that Energy Secretary [Rick] Perry and Special Envoy [Kurt] Volker took the lead on reaching out to Mr. Giuliani, as the President had directed."
Sondland said he thought career diplomats at the State Department should take the lead in crafting U.S. policy toward Ukraine, not the president's personal lawyer. But he said Mr. Trump gave him and others little choice but to work with Giuliani.
"[B]ased on the President's direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region; or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President's concerns," he said.
The ambassador said he was unaware that Giuliani intended to dig up dirt on the Bidens to help the president's reelection campaign, despite Giuliani's numerous public statements laying out his strategy.
"I did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani's agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President's 2020 reelection campaign," Sondland said.
The July 25 phone call
Sondland said he was "pleased to hear" that Mr. Trump and Zelensky spoke on July 25 in the now-infamous phone call at the center of a whistleblower complaint that sparked the impeachment inquiry. In that call, Mr. Trump urged Zelensky to work with Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr to investigate supposed interference by Ukrainians in the 2016 U.S. elections, as well as Joe Biden.
Sondland said he was not on the call and had not seen theof the conversation until the administration released it under immense public pressure on September 25.
"None of the brief and general call summaries I received contained any mention of Burisma or former Vice President Biden, nor even suggested that President Trump had made any kind of request of President Zelensky," Sondland said. "I had heard afterwards that the July 25, 2019 call went well in solidifying a relationship between the two leaders."
"Pre-conditions" for White House meeting
Sondland discussed a potential public statement by the Ukrainians pledging to crack down on corruption, which he said was a prerequisite for a much-coveted visit to the White House. But the ambassador said anti-corruption reforms were "consistent with U.S. support for rule of law in Ukraine going back decades."
Inreleased by the House committees between Sondland and Kurt Volker, then the special envoy to Ukraine, the two discussed a proposed statement to be given by Zelensky pledging to crack down on corruption.
"This was the 'deliverable' 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," Sondland said. "The fact that we were working on this public statement was not a secret. More broadly, such public statements are a common and necessary part of U.S. diplomacy."
Conversations with Giuliani
Sondland said he spoke with Giuliani only a few times "for about a few minutes" in each instance.
"In these short conversations, Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anticorruption issues," Sondland said. "Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anticorruption investigatory topics of importance for the President."
He said he first spoke to the former mayor in August, two and a half months after Mr. Trump directed him, Perry and Volker to do so.
"I listened to Mr. Giuliani's concerns. My goal was the keep the focus on Ukraine and the strengthened relationship with the United States," Sondland testified.
He said he does "not recall" Giuliani discussing either Joe or Hunter Biden in their conversations, but said he did bring up Burisma.
"I understood that Burisma was one of many examples of Ukrainian companies run by oligarchs and lacking the type of corporate governance structures found in Western companies," he said. "I did not know until more recent press reports that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma."
Sondland said he does not recall "taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens" or discussing the Bidens with anyone from the White House or State Department.
"No quid pro quo"
Beginning in late August, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Kiev, raised concerns about the perception that the U.S. was withholding military aid as leverage to pressure Ukraine to investigate the president's rivals.
"Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigation?" Taylor said in messages released by the committees. "Call me," Sondland replied.
One week later, Taylor wrote to Sondland and Volker, saying he thought "it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."
In his statement on Thursday, Sondland said Taylor's concerns prompted him to call Mr. Trump.
"Taking the issue seriously, and given the many versions of speculation that had been circulating about the security aid, I called President Trump directly," Sondland testified. "I asked the President: 'What do you want from Ukraine?' The President responded, 'Nothing. There is no quid pro quo.' The President repeated: 'no quid pro quo' multiple times. This was a very short call. And I recall the President was in a bad mood."
After that conversation, Sondland replied to Taylor, telling him he was "incorrect about President Trump's intentions" and that president had been "crystal clear: no quid pro quo's of any kind."
Weijia Jiang and Nancy Cordes contributed to this report.