Donald Trump and US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a donor to Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee, Brussels, Belgium, July 10, 2018 (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Ambassador Gordon Sondland updates his testimony to House committees, confirming a “quid pro quo” in which Trump froze military aid to Ukraine as he demanded Kiev’s investigations of Presidential candidate Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.
Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union, is a Trump political appointee who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee in January 2017. The hotelier was a central figure in the campaign of pressure and disinformation by Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, conducted since November 2018, for a statement of investigation that would undermine former Vice President Biden.
Last month, in his initial appearance before the committees, he said he “never” thought of a link between the aid and the demand for investigations, including Trump’s effort to cover up Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.
But on Tuesday, as a transcript of his initial testimony was released by House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Adam Schiff, Sondland issued a four-page statement reversing that denial. He said he had told Ukrainian officials “that resumption of the US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks”.
In the July 25 call with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy which sparked a formal complaint — from the CIA official liaising with the White House over Ukraine — and then an impeachment inquiry, Trump called for the investigations of unsupported claims and conspiracy theories about the hacking of Democratic e-mails and of Joe Biden’s role in the dismissal of a Ukrainian Prosecutor General for failure to investigate corruption.
Trump implicitly linked the requests to Zelenskiy’s mention of the necessity of US military aid for Ukraine, which is facing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in the east of the country.
White House Tries to Hold Back Revelations
Sondland’s role in the Trump-Giuliani campaign came to light in texts by former US envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, the first former official to testify to the House committees.
Sondland arranged meetings between Giuliani and Ukrainian officials and sought a statement by Zelenskiy announcing the investigations. When news of Trump’s pressure leaked, he rebuffed the concerns of other US officials — notably the US chargé d’affaires in Kiev, William Taylor — about the connection with Trump’s suspension of $391 million in military aid, ordered days before the call with Zelenskiy.
Sondland’s position, including his initial testimony, was eroded by subsequent witnesses such as Taylor and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert.
Other current and former officials spoke of a July 10 White House meeting in which Sondland told Ukrainian visitors that any Zelenskiy visit to the White House was conditional on an investigations statement. National Security Advisor John Bolton was so troubled about the looming “drug deal”, blaming Giuliani and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, that he convened a staff meeting and asked the NSC’s lawyer John Eisenberg for guidance.
Trump and his allies had loudly denied any “quid pro quo”. However, last weekend White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway shifted to an “I don’t know” as Trump’s camp said any demand was not “an impeachable event”.
Trump has tried to dismiss the testimony of more than a dozen current and former US officials as an attempt by “Never Trumpers” and “radical unelected bureaucrats” to undermine him.
However, with Sondland’s record as a major Trump supporter and donor, the White House scrambled on Tuesday to knock back his revised testimony. Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said, “No amount of salacious media-biased headlines, which are clearly designed to influence the narrative, change the fact that the president has done nothing wrong.”
Trump’s close friend and ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, who loudly denied a “quid pro quo” in September, said yesterday of Sondland’s revision, “It’s his opinion….All this is intrigue to me.”
The White House was more successful in stonewalling by preventing the appearances of other witnesses. Six have refused in two days. On Tuesday, Michael Duffey — a top advisor to Mulvaney in the Office of Management and Budget, which carried out Trump’s order for suspension of military aid — and Wells Griffith, a senior aide to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, declined.
House Democrats, who are seeking testimony from Bolton this week, said the White House’s blocking of testimony would only reinforce an impeachable case for obstruction of justice.