US diplomat acknowledges what Democrats call a quid pro quo
WASHINGTON (AP) — “I now do recall.”
With that stunning reversal, diplomat Gordon Sondland handed House impeachment investigators another key piece of corroborating testimony Tuesday. He acknowledged what Democrats contend was a clear quid pro quo, pushed by President Donald Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, with Ukraine.
Sondland, in an addendum to his sworn earlier testimony, said that military assistance to the East European ally was being withheld until Ukraine’s new president agreed to release a statement about fighting corruption as Trump wanted. Sondland said he was the one who carried the message to a Ukrainian official on the sidelines of a conference in Warsaw with Vice President Mike Pence.
“I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland recalled.
His three-page update, tucked beneath hundreds of pages of sworn testimony from Sondland and former Ukraine Special Envoy Kurt Volker, was released by House investigators as Democrats prepared to push the closed-door sessions to public hearings as soon as next week.
Late Tuesday, Sondland flew to Portland, Oregon, and was met by a small group of protesters at Portland International Airport.
“I didn’t change my testimony, but I can’t answer any questions,” Sondland told reporters. He didn’t elaborate.
Trump has denied any quid pro quo, but Democrats say there is a singular narrative developing since the president’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy when he first asked for “a favor.” That request, which sparked the impeachment inquiry, included a public investigation into Ukrainian activities by Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden and his son and Trump’s allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
On Wednesday, the State Department’s third-ranking official is expected to tell Congress that political considerations were behind the agency’s refusal to deliver a robust defense of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
People familiar with the matter say David Hale plans to tell congressional impeachment investigators on Wednesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior officials determined that defending Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch would hurt the effort to free up U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. The people familiar with the matter were not authorized to discuss Hale’s appearance publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said the House panels conducting the inquiry are releasing the word-by-word transcripts of the past weeks’ closed-door hearings so the American public can decide for themselves.
“This is about more than just one call,” Schiff wrote Tuesday in an op-ed in USA Today. “We now know that the call was just one piece of a larger operation to redirect our foreign policy to benefit Donald Trump’s personal and political interests, not the national interest.”
Pushing back, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham issued a statement saying the transcripts “show there is even less evidence for this illegitimate impeachment sham than previously thought.”
In the transcripts and accompanying cache of text messages, U.S. diplomats are shown trying to navigate the demands of Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who they soon learn is running a back-channel U.S. foreign policy on Ukraine.
“It kept getting more insidious,” Sondland told investigators, as the “timeline went on.”
Sondland testified that he spoke with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Giuliani, “and Pompeo rolled his eyes and said: ‘Yes, it’s something we have to deal with.’”
In his revised testimony, Sondland, a wealthy businessman who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, says his memory was refreshed by the opening statements of two other inquiry witnesses, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, and Tim Morrison, a European expert at the National Security Council.
The ambassador initially testified on Oct. 17 that he did not “recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens.” He told investigators he didn’t know that the Ukraine firm Burisma, that Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate, was linked to Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
But in the weeks since a May visit to Kyiv for Zelenskiy’s inauguration, Sondland and the other diplomats had been heavily involved in Ukraine policy and in text messages about what Trump wanted as they came to realize the military assistance was being withheld.
Volker and Sondland both testified they were disappointed after briefing Trump at the White House about the new leader of the young democracy who was vowing to fight corruption.
At a pivotal May 23 meeting, Trump “went on and on and on about how Ukraine is a disaster and they’re bad people,” Sondland testified.
Trump holds an alternative view, pushed by Giuliani, that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 elections in the U.S., a theory counter to U.S. intelligence findings.
″‘They tried to take me down.’ He kept saying that over and over,” Sondland recalled Trump saying.
Trump told the diplomats to work with Giuliani on Ukraine issues.
Over the time that followed, Volker and Sondland proposed to Zelenskiy’s top aide, Andriy Yermak, that they a draft statement to be issued by Ukraine on potential interference with the U.S. political process. At Giuliani’s urging, that statement needed to have an “insert at end with 2 key items:” Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections.
“It was Mr. Giuliani who said: If it doesn’t say Burisma and 2016, it’s not credible, because what are they hiding?” Volker testified.
Pressed by investigators, Sondland testified that it would be improper for the U.S. to prompt Ukraine to investigate the Biden family. “It doesn’t sound good.”
The statement was never issued, as Ukraine refused it. Volker said he told Yermak it was “not a good idea.”
Questions swirled after a government whistleblower’s August complaint about Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy.
By September, Sondland also told investigators, Trump was in a “bad mood” and nearly hung up on him when the ambassador asked what it was he wanted from Ukraine.
“I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo,” Trump said, according to Sondland. “I want Zelenskiy to do the right thing.”
As House investigators released more transcripts Tuesday, they also announced they want to hear from Trump’s acting chief of staff and a top aide to Pence, reaching to the highest levels of the White House.
Pence spokeswoman Katie Waldman said the vice president was unaware of the “brief pull-aside conversation” that Sondland reported having with Yermak. She also said Pence was unaware of the ongoing back-and-forth over the statement, and that it never came up during his meeting with Zelenskiy.
At a closed-door lunch Tuesday, Pence told Senate Republicans the funds were being withheld over concerns that the Europeans weren’t contributing enough aid and issues of corruption in Ukraine, according to a person familiar with the meeting but unauthorized to discuss it and granted anonymity.
Trump says the probe is illegitimate and the administration has resumed its efforts to block the inquiry as two more White House officials, an energy adviser and a budget official, declined to appear Tuesday before investigators, even after one received a subpoena.
Meanwhile, investigators said they wanted to hear on Friday from Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. They contend his news conference last month amounted to “nothing less than a televised confession” of Trump’s efforts to have Ukraine investigate Democrats and Biden as the White House was blocking military funding.
Trump says he did nothing wrong, and Mulvaney later tried to walk back his remarks.
The White House has instructed its officials not to comply with the impeachment inquiry being led by House Democrats. Mulvaney is not expected to appear.
Republicans have been unable to deliver a unified argument against the impeachment probe, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he’s “pretty sure” how it all will end.
McConnell said he believes Trump will stay in the White House. “I don’t think there’s any question it would not lead to a removal,” he said.
A top Trump ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters he doesn’t plan to read the transcripts, calling the whole inquiry “bunch of B.S.”
Sondland closed his addendum to the House investigators saying he may have had a second call with Trump, but has been unable to obtain phone records and “cannot specifically recall” if that was the case.
Associated Press writers Colleen Long, Matthew Lee, Matthew Daly, Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor, Jill Colvin and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.