Sondland Updates Impeachment Testimony, Describing Ukraine Quid Pro Quo


WASHINGTON — An important witness within the impeachment inquiry reversed himself this week and acknowledged to investigators that he had instructed a prime Ukrainian official that the nation would probably have to present President Trump what he wished — a public pledge for investigations — with a view to unlock army help.

The disclosure from Gordon D. Sondland, an ally of Mr. Trump who’s the United States ambassador to the European Union, confirmed his function in laying out a quid professional quo to Ukraine that conditioned the discharge of safety help from the United States on the nation’s willingness to say it was investigating former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and different Democrats.

That admission, included in a four-page sworn assertion launched on Tuesday, straight contradicted his testimony to investigators final month, when he stated he “never” thought there was any precondition on the help.

“I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Mr. Sondland stated within the new assertion, which was made public by the House committees main the inquiry, together with the transcript of his unique testimony.

Mr. Sondland’s disclosure appeared supposed to insulate him from accusations that he deliberately misled Congress throughout his earlier testimony, through which he steadily stated he couldn’t recall key particulars and occasions below scrutiny by impeachment investigators.

It additionally offered Democrats with a invaluable piece of proof from a vital witness to fill out the image of their abuse-of-power case towards the president. Unlike different officers who’ve provided damaging testimony about Mr. Trump, Mr. Sondland is a political supporter of the president who has interacted straight with him.

The query of a quid professional quo is on the coronary heart of the impeachment investigation into Mr. Trump, which activates whether or not the president abused his energy when he requested a overseas energy to focus on his political rivals.

Mr. Trump initially strongly denied there was any quid professional quo involving Ukraine, and quite a few Republicans took up that chorus. But because the inquiry has unfolded, he and Republican lawmakers have progressively begun to maneuver away from that place. Instead they’ve adopted the argument that a president insisting on a quid pro quo from a foreign government to benefit himself politically may be of concern, but it is not — in the words of Mr. Trump himself — “an impeachable event.”

A wealthy Oregon hotelier who donated to the president’s campaign and was rewarded with his plum diplomatic post, Mr. Sondland can hardly be dismissed as a “Never Trumper,” a charge the president has leveled against many other officials who have offered damning accounts of his conduct with regard to Ukraine. As such, Mr. Sondland’s new, fuller account complicates Republicans’ task in defending the president against the impeachment push.

On Tuesday, the White House rejected Mr. Sondland’s new account, saying he failed to cite a “solid source” for his “assumption” that there was a link between the aid and the investigations.

“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,” Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said in a statement.

The new information surfaced as the House committees also released a transcript of their interview last month with Kurt D. Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine.

Rushing to complete their final round of requests for key witnesses before they commence public impeachment hearings, the panels also scheduled testimony on Friday by Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who quickly said he would not comply. And two more administration witnesses who had been scheduled to testify on Tuesday — Michael Duffey, a top official in the White House budget office, and Wells Griffith, a senior aide to Energy Secretary Rick Perry — failed to appear.

Mr. Sondland had said in a text message exchange in early September with William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, that the president had been clear there was no quid pro quo between the aid and investigations of the Bidens. But Mr. Sondland testified last month that he was only repeating what Mr. Trump had told him, leaving open the question of whether he believed the president.

His addendum suggested that Mr. Sondland was not completely forthcoming with Mr. Taylor, and that he was, in fact, aware that the aid was contingent on the investigations. In his updated testimony, Mr. Sondland recounted how he had discussed the linkage with Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, on the sidelines of a Sept. 1 meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Mr. Zelensky in Warsaw. Mr. Zelensky had discussed the suspension of aid with Mr. Pence, Mr. Sondland said.

In the addendum, Mr. Sondland said he had “refreshed my recollection” after reading the testimony given by Mr. Taylor and Timothy Morrison, the senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council.

Mr. Sondland said he believed that withholding the aid — a package of $391 million in security assistance that had been approved by Congress and was intended to help Ukraine combat Russian aggression — was “ill advised,” although he did not know “when, why or by whom the aid was suspended.” But he said he came to believe that the aid was tied to the investigations.

“I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anticorruption statement,” Mr. Sondland said.

In his closed-door interview last month, Mr. Sondland portrayed himself as a well-meaning and at times unwitting player who was trying to conduct American foreign policy with Ukraine with the full backing of the State Department while Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s lawyer, repeatedly inserted himself at the behest of the president. He also said repeatedly that he could not remember things, including details about the Sept. 1 meeting, according to the 375-page transcript of his testimony.

“And you had never thought there was a precondition to the aid?” one of the Republican investigators asked Mr. Sondland. “Is that correct?”

“Never,” Mr. Sondland said, adding that he “was dismayed when it was held up, but I didn’t know why.”

In the aftermath of the testimony last month, several Democrats painted Mr. Sondland as a lackey of Mr. Trump’s who had been an agent of the shadow foreign policy on Ukraine, eager to go along with what the president wanted. They contended that Mr. Sondland had deliberately evaded crucial questions during his testimony. Other witnesses have pointed to him as a central player in the irregular channel of Ukraine policymaking being run by Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani, and the instigator of the quid pro quo strategy.

Mr. Morrison, the National Security Council official, testified last week that it was Mr. Sondland who first indicated in a conversation with him and Mr. Taylor on Sept. 1 that the release of the military aid might be contingent on the announcement of the investigations, and that he hoped “that Ambassador Sondland’s strategy was exclusively his own.”

Mr. Sondland’s new testimony contradicted the notion that he was a lone wolf pushing the quid pro quo idea himself. Instead it portrayed him as just the messenger who had discovered there was a linkage between the aid and the investigations and who had articulated it to others. He said it “would have been natural for me to have voiced what I presumed” about what was standing in the way of releasing the military assistance.

Mr. Sondland originally testified that Mr. Trump had essentially delegated American foreign policy on Ukraine to Mr. Giuliani, a directive he disagreed with but still followed. He said that it was Mr. Giuliani who demanded the new Ukrainian president commit to the investigations, and that he did not understand until later that the overarching goal may have been to bolster the president’s 2020 election chances.

Mr. Sondland said that he went along with what Mr. Giuliani wanted in the hope of pacifying him and restoring normal relations between the two countries. Mr. Sondland acknowledged believing the statement was linked to a White House visit Mr. Zelensky sought with Mr. Trump.

The transcripts released on Tuesday vividly underscore the anger toward Ukraine that fueled Mr. Trump’s demands for investigations into his political rivals. Both Mr. Sondland and Mr. Volker testified that the president complained at a White House meeting on May 23 about his suspicions of Ukrainian efforts to undermine his campaign in 2016.

The president said that “Ukraine was trying to take him down,” Mr. Sondland said. “That was what I heard.”

Mr. Volker gave a similar account, telling investigators that Mr. Trump had dismissed his positive assessments about Ukraine because of what he was hearing from Mr. Giuliani.

“He gave the example of hearing from Rudy Giuliani that, ‘They’re all corrupt, they’re all terrible people,’ that they were — ‘they tried to take me down’ — meaning the president in the 2016 election,” Mr. Volker said, according to the 360-page transcript of his interview.

On Aug. 13, Mr. Volker sent a text message to Mr. Sondland indicating the precise language that he thought Mr. Zelensky should use in a public statement about investigating corruption.

“Special attention should be paid to the problem of interference in the political processes of the United States, especially with the alleged involvement of some Ukrainian politicians,” Mr. Volker wrote. “I want to declare that this is unacceptable. We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections, which in turn will prevent the recurrence of this problem in the future.”

Burisma is a Ukrainian energy company that employed Mr. Biden’s son Hunter on its board during Mr. Biden’s vice presidency.

The text was intended to be forwarded to Mr. Yermak so that Mr. Zelensky could use the language in his statement, according to the texts released on Tuesday.

Michael D. Shear and Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.



Source link Nytimes.com

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