A top US diplomat has told an impeachment inquiry that he followed President Donald Trump’s orders to put pressure on Ukraine to investigate his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
The instruction came from Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, Ambassador Gordon Sondland said.
Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, told the latest hearing in the US House of Representatives that Giuliani had sought a public statement from Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, announcing an inquiry into “corruption issues”.
Giuliani specifically mentioned the company Burisma – which had the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Hunter, as a board member – and issues surrounding the 2016 US presidential election, he said.
In his opening statement, he said he had worked with Giuliani “at the express direction of the president”. While he is the US ambassador to the EU, Sondland said his brief included work on Ukraine alongside other colleagues – despite that country not being an EU member.
“We did not want to work with Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the president’s orders,” he added.
He then confirmed the president had sought an investigation in exchange for a White House visit for Mr. Zelensky – a quid pro quo (a favour in return for favour).
“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.”
However, Mr. Sondland also said he had never directly heard from the president that military aid would be released in exchange for such an inquiry.
The US diplomat said he was “adamantly opposed” to the suspension of military aid to Ukraine, and was never told why it was withheld. But he came to believe it was linked to Ukraine announcing corruption investigations.
Mr. Sondland said he had later told an aide to the Ukrainian president: “I believed that the resumption of US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on the public statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
Moreover, the ambassador insisted that this was not a secret plan, as some critics have suggested, instead of arguing it was transparent and that his superiors were “fully supportive”.
Mr. Sondland said the leaders of the state department, National Security Council and White House had been informed, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He does not remember any objections from his superiors to the policy.
The ambassador said he had even discussed the fact military aid had been withheld with Vice President Mike Pence on a visit to Warsaw in September.
The chief of staff for Mr Pence has denied the vice president ever spoke to Mr Sondland “about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations”.
Similarly, a spokesman for the state department said Mr. Sondland had “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”.
Mr. Sondland, a wealthy hotelier, donated to Mr Trump’s 2016 election campaign and was appointed to his position by the president in July 2018.
Mr. Trump has already responded to the testimony. Brandishing a copy of Mr. Sondland’s opening statement on the White House South Lawn, he read out a transcript of a phone conversation the pair had, in which the president said: “I want nothing. That’s what I want from Ukraine.”
He also told reporters he did not know the EU ambassador “very well”, but said he seemed “like a nice guy”.
Mr. Giuliani has also denied Mr Sondland’s testimony, tweeting he had “never met him and had very few calls with him”.