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The U.S. ambassador to the European Union implicated much of the U.S. foreign policy leadership in an effort to get Ukraine to say it would investigate President Trump’s political rival, but in the end, the country is left staring at a kind of Rorschach Test.
For House Democrats, Gordon Sondland offered key details that mark a key turning point in the public impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump. For Republicans, the EU ambassador’s admission that he was not told of a quid pro quo deal with Ukraine directly from Trump essentially exonerates the president.
READ MORE: Gordon Sondland’s full opening testimony in the Trump impeachment hearing
Sondland’s account of Trump’s role in pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden was confusing at times and inconclusive at best. Nevertheless, he corroborated that the White House withheld military aid from Ukraine as it sought a probe of Biden and the 2016 election, and came closer than any other witness in placing Trump at the center of the action.
Sondland acknowledged quid pro quo
Sondland acknowledged in his opening statement that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s desire to speak with Trump by phone and meet with him at the White House was preconditioned on Ukraine announcing a probe of Biden and his son, Hunter, who served on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma.
“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,” Sondland said.
Sondland had initially testified in a close-door deposition last month that he was unaware of a link between the investigations and a White House meeting with Zelensky. Earlier this month he amended his initial testimony to say he later learned of the connection. But his public testimony Wednesday was the clearest admission yet by a senior administration official that U.S. policy with Ukraine was influenced by the president’s domestic political concerns.
Did Sondland link Trump directly to quid pro quo? It’s complicated
Sondland and Trump discussed Ukraine by phone at several critical points in recent months. The conversations include a phone call on July 24 — the day before Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky — another call on July 26, and a third conversation in early September, just days before the White House released the nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine.
In all those conversations, however, Sondland said Trump never specifically told him he was withholding the military security aid in exchange for the announcement of an investigation into the Bidens.
“I don’t recall President Trump talking to me about any security assistance, ever,” Sondland said. And he noted that in his Sept. 9 call with Trump, the president told him “I want no quid pro quo” with Ukraine.
But Sondland also confirmed that in the same conversation Trump told him Zelensky would have to “clear things up” by announcing the investigations in order to secure a White House meeting. By that point, Sondland said he understood the focus of the investigations the White House wanted was Burisma, the Bidens and a conspiracy theory pushed by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Sondland also outlined in his opening statement that once he became aware that there was a hold on aid to Ukraine, he became concerned and lobbied for an explanation for the delay. Eventually, Sondland said he came to believe that the aid would not be released “until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded.”
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., argued that Trump’s intentions were clear. Just because the president didn’t tell Sondland outright that he was bribing Ukraine doesn’t mean he wasn’t trying to, Schiff said. Still, under repeated questioning from Daniel Goldman, the House Democratic counsel, Sondland declined to say that he believed Trump knowingly did something improper.
Trump, Giuliani, push back
Sondland may have stopped short of explicitly accusing Trump of a crime. But his testimony was damaging enough to elicit a strong reaction from the president. Trump focused on the fact that he had told Sondland “no quid pro quo,” but avoided addressing other parts of his testimony.
The president also distanced himself Wednesday from Sondland, a wealthy former hotel chain operator who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee.
“I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much,” Trump told reporters at the White House during Sondland’s hearing.
Giuliani was more blunt. He claimed he was asked to work on Ukraine by the former special envoy Kurt Volker, and attacked Sondland’s credibility as a witness. “Sondland is speculating based on VERY little contact. I never met him and had very few calls with him, mostly with Volker,” Giuliani said.
Sondland says “everyone was in the loop”
Sondland said he repeatedly brought up the Ukraine controversy with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and once with Vice President Mike Pence — prompting both leaders to put out official statements through their offices denying that they had discussed the investigations or withholding military aid.
He also named acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney; then National Security Adviser John Bolton; Bolton’s deputy, Fiona Hill; and Timothy Morrison, who replaced Hill and testified Tuesday as among those aware of his work.
“Everyone was in the loop,” he said. “It was no secret.”
A spokesperson for Pompeo said: “Gordon Sondland never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the President was linking aid to investigations of political opponents. Any suggestion to the contrary is flat out false.” Pence’s office issued a similar rebuttal.
Up until now both Pompeo and Pence have remained relatively quiet about the impeachment hearings. But Sondland brought them into the investigation in a very public way. He raised questions about what Pompeo knew of the effort to push for the investigations. Pence remains a peripheral figure in the probe; no witnesses so far have claimed he played a role in a quid pro quo deal.
Like Volker, Sondland claims he was slow to connect Burisma to Biden
Wednesday, Sondland claimed it took him months to understand that Giuliani’s request for investigations into Burisma also meant a look into the Bidens. Sondland had made a similar claim in his deposition, saying he was too busy as EU ambassador to read news reports in which the former New York mayor said he was working on behalf of Trump to push Ukraine to investigate Biden, one of the leading 2020 Democratic contenders, and his son.
Sondland said he couldn’t recall exactly when “the light bulb went off” and he made the link between the Bidens and Burisma. Volker claimed as much in his public hearing Tuesday. The former special envoy to Ukraine said he regretted that he didn’t make the realization until late in the negotiations between the U.S. and Ukraine.
But Democrats were not buying it and argued the public isn’t either. Schiff noted that another witness, Morrison, said he had figured it out quickly through a basic internet search.
“Tim Morrison testified that it took him all of a Google search” to understand the link between the Bidens and Burisma, Schiff said.
Daniel Bush is PBS NewsHour's Senior Political Reporter.
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