Gordon Sondland, Donald Trump’s ambassador to the EU, testified for nearly seven hours on Wednesday in an explosive public hearing that saw the ambassador directly contradict the US president’s claims that there was no “quid pro quo” with the Ukrainians.
He described a scheme to force the Ukrainians to announce politically beneficial investigations that was known to top US officials including Mike Pence, the vice-president; Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state; and Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff.
Mr Sondland, a hotelier from Oregon who became a diplomat after donating $1m to Mr Trump’s inauguration committee — what he described on Wednesday as “a lot of money” — appeared relaxed throughout much of the bombshell hearing, despite dogged questioning from both Democrats and Republicans and claims by Democrats that his testimony had proved pivotal in building the case against the president.
By the end of the marathon session, Mr Sondland was even cracking jokes. When asked about Mr Trump’s change in tone about their relationship — the US president has gone from calling Mr Sondland a “really good man and a great American” to insisting “I hardly know the gentleman” — Mr Sondland replied: “Easy come, easy go.”
With more witnesses set to testify on Thursday, here are five key takeaways from Wednesday’s hearing.
There was a ‘quid pro quo’
“No quid pro quo” has become the rallying cry of Mr Trump’s impeachment defence, just as “no collusion” served as his banner during the Russia investigation. Mr Sondland flatly contradicted that position in his testimony and said, without a flicker of a doubt, a quid pro quo existed.
The deal Mr Sondland described was simple. Mr Trump wanted the Ukrainians to announce investigations into Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that counted former vice-president Joe Biden’s son Hunter among its board members, and claims of Ukrainian, rather than Russian, interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
In return, Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, would get a call with Mr Trump and a White House meeting, Mr Sondland testified.
The whole effort was spearheaded by Rudy Giuliani, Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, he said. “Talk with Rudy,” Mr Sondland recalled the president telling him.
“Was there a “quid pro quo?” As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is ‘yes’,” said Mr Sondland.
2+2 = 4
The other part of the impeachment puzzle is the nearly $400m of military aid. Congress had approved the help for Ukraine; Mr Trump held it up. The question is why.
Mr Sondland said it became obvious to him, in the absence of any “credible explanation” or “straight answer”, that the aid had been tied to the investigation announcements Mr Trump wanted. “2 + 2 = 4,” he said.
But he admitted that his view was a “presumption”. Democrats tried, without success, to get him to go further, to directly link his testimony to Mr Trump.
They cited a news conference from October in which Mr Mulvaney said the US withheld the military aid in an effort to persuade Kyiv to investigate what Mr Trump claims was corruption by the Democrats in the 2016 election.
Though Mr Sondland agreed that Mr Mulvaney had said the military aid was tied to the investigations, he declined to say the same about the president.
“President Trump never told me directly that aid was conditioned on meetings,” Mr Sondland said. “I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement of investigations.”
‘Everyone was in the loop’
Mr Trump has refused to co-operate with the impeachment inquiry, ordering officials not to testify and withholding documents Democrats have sought in their investigation.
On Wednesday, Mr Sondland put that refusal to co-operate into stark relief as he pointed the finger at a number of Trump administration officials and said, in effect, they all had questions to answer.
“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” he told the House intelligence committee as he provided a limited set of emails that showed him informing, among others, Mr Pompeo about his efforts to do a deal with the Ukrainians.
Mr Pompeo sought to distance himself from the allegations, with Morgan Ortagus, his spokesperson, saying that Mr Sondland never told the secretary of state “that he believed the president was linking aid to investigations of political opponents”.
“Any suggestion to the contrary is flat-out false.”
A spokesperson for Rick Perry, the US energy secretary, made a similar statement, saying Mr Sondland had “misrepresented Secretary Perry’s interaction with Rudy Giuliani and direction the secretary received from President Trump”.
Mr Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, said his boss had “never had a conversation” with Mr Sondland “about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based on potential investigations”.
Sondland has ‘no recollection’ of discussing the Bidens
The partial transcript of the July 25 phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky made clear that the US president’s desire for “investigations” related specifically to Joe Biden and the Democrats.
Though Mr Sondland confirmed the quid pro quo, he also tried to argue that it had seemed to be appropriate, or not explicitly improper. He said he thought an investigation into Burisma meant just that, an investigation into a Ukrainian energy company.
Democrats pressed him about how he could not have realised that Mr Biden’s son, Hunter, was on the Burisma board. And they asked him about testimony from a US embassy staffer who reported overhearing Mr Trump tell Mr Sondland on a July 26 phone call in a Kyiv restaurant that he wanted an investigation into the “Bidens”.
“I have no recollection of discussing vice-president Biden or his son on that call,” said Mr Sondland, neither confirming nor explicitly denying the account.
Sondland stopped short of directly tying Trump to the scheme
Democrats hoped that Mr Sondland would directly tie Mr Trump to the bribery scheme they are attempting to convince the American public occurred.
The ambassador went some way towards doing that, but stopped short in several areas. He told the committee that he “followed the directions of the president”, while also suggesting that the extent of Mr Trump’s orders were to work with Mr Giuliani.
Republicans sought to drive a wedge through that narrow crack in the case. “The president never told you about any preconditions for a White House meeting?” asked Steve Castor, counsel for the Republicans.
“Personally, no,” said Mr Sondland, who argued that it was obvious Mr Giuliani was conveying the president’s wishes.
“How did you know that? Who told you?” Mr Castor pressed him. “Well, when the president says talk to my personal attorney, and then Giuliani as his personal attorney makes certain requests or demands, you assume it’s coming from the president,” said Mr Sondland.
On Thursday, Democrats will have another opportunity to pin down Mr Trump’s involvement directly when they hear testimony from David Holmes, the US embassy staffer in Kyiv who said in a private deposition that he overheard the July 26 phone call between Mr Sondland and Mr Trump.
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