WASHINGTON – Ambassador Gordon Sondland told House impeachment investigators Wednesday that he worked with Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine at the "express direction" of President Donald Trump and pushed for a political "quid pro quo" with Kyiv because it was what Trump wanted.
"Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president," Sondland testified of his dealings with Trump's personal attorney.
Sondland, the most highly anticipated witness in the public impeachment probe, made clear that he believed Trump was pursuing his desire for political investigations in return for an Oval Office meeting that the Eastern European nation's new president sought to bolster his alliance with the West. Sondland said he later came to believe military aid that Ukraine relied on to counter Russia was also being held up until the investigations were launched.
In a blockbuster morning of testimony, Sondland’s opening remarks included several key details: He confirmed that he spoke with Trump on a cellphone from a busy Kyiv restaurant the day after the president prodded Ukraine's leader to investigate political rival Joe Biden. He also said he kept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top administration officials aware of his dealings with Ukraine on the investigations Trump sought. Sondland said he specifically told Vice President Mike Pence he "had concerns" that U.S. military aid to Ukraine "had become tied" to the investigations.
"Everyone was in the loop," Sondland testified in opening remarks. "It was no secret."
A top Pence aide denied that the conversation between the vice president and Sondland occurred.
It "never happened," said Pence chief of staff Marc Short.
Trump has insisted he did nothing wrong in his dealings with Ukraine, casting the impeachment inquiry as a politically motivated effort to push him from office. Speaking to reporters outside the White House on Wednesday, he said he wanted nothing from the Ukrainians and did not seek a quid pro quo. He also distanced himself from Sondland, a major donor to his inauguration.
"I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much," Trump said, speaking from notes on the hearing, written with a black marker.
The impeachment inquiry focuses significantly on allegations that Trump sought investigations of former Vice President Biden and his son -- and the discredited idea that Ukraine rather than Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election -- in return for the badly needed military aid for Ukraine and the White House visit.
Sondland said that conditions on any potential Ukraine meeting at the White House started as "generic" but "more specific items got added to the menu including -- Burisma and 2016 election meddling." Burisma is the Ukrainian gas company where Joe Biden's son Hunter served on the board. And, he added, "the server," the hacked Democratic computer system.
"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?' As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes," he said.
Sondland said he didn't know at the time that Burisma was linked to the Bidens but has since come to understand that -- and that the military aid also hinged on the investigations.
"President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on meetings," he testified. "The only thing we got directly from Giuliani was that the Burisma and 2016 elections were conditioned on the White House meeting. ... The aid was my own personal guess ... two plus two equals four."