As the public hearing phase of the impeachment inquiry of President Trump enters its second week, the House Intelligence Committee is set to hear testimony from nine witnesses. While each of the members of the administration are expected to shed light on Trump’s efforts to procure a Ukrainian investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, none is more anticipated than Gordon Sondland.
Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, has emerged as a central figure in what Democrats allege is a bribery and extortion scheme in which the Trump administration conditioned the release of nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid and a meeting with the president on a public announcement that Kyiv was investigating Biden and his son Hunter.
A key Republican talking point used to defend Trump has been that none of the witnesses to publicly testify had direct interactions with the president regarding the Biden investigations. That is true, although those who might have firsthand knowledge — acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and lawyer Rudy Giuliani — have either been blocked from testifying by the White House or refused to appear.
But Sondland did have direct conversations with Trump about his demands on Ukraine, although his account has changed since his original testimony.
In his Oct. 17 deposition, Sondland first told House investigators that he was not aware the White House had linked release of aid to Ukraine to investigations of the Bidens. But after the release of testimony by other witnesses that supported the scenario Democrats describe, Sondland revised his testimony on Nov. 5.
“I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anticorruption statement,” Sondland said in his written addendum. Sondland also described telling an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the “resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we have been discussing for many weeks.”
Other witnesses have added more detail about Sondland’s direct dealings with Trump. David Holmes, a U.S. Embassy official in Kyiv who is set to testify Thursday, said in his closed-door deposition on Friday that he overheard Sondland and Trump on a cellphone call discussing the plan to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
Holmes recounted hearing Trump ask Sondland, “So, he’s going to do the investigation?”
Sondland responded that Zelensky “loves your ass” and would do “anything you ask him to.”
After the call ended, Holmes then asked Sondland about what he had overheard, in particular whether it was true that Trump did not “give a s*** about Ukraine,” undercutting the president’s contention that he was concerned about corruption in the former Soviet nation.
“Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not give a s*** about Ukraine,” Holmes’s opening statement to lawmakers read. Sondland went on to say that Trump cared only about the “big stuff that benefits the president like the Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.”
If Sondland confirms Holmes’s account, contradicting Trump’s repeated assertions that he had nothing to do with demanding a quid pro quo from Ukraine, House Republicans are expected to attempt to minimize Sondland’s position in the administration. Indeed, Trump himself has already previewed this alibi, telling White House reporters earlier this month, “I hardly knew the gentleman.”
That would seem unlikely, given that Sondland, a businessman with no diplomatic experience, was appointed ambassador after making a million-dollar donation to the Trump inaugural fund — and that he could call the White House on his phone from a restaurant in Kyiv and get put through to the president.
Typically, the U.S. ambassador to the EU works out of Brussels, and the job does not concern matters related to Ukraine, a non-EU state. Democrats are expected to ask Sondland how he became Trump’s point person in the Ukraine matter.
Trump on Sondland: "I hardly know the gentleman." pic.twitter.com/gz7v2DaSoP— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) November 8, 2019
Emails obtained by the Wall Street Journal show that Sondland also kept several Trump administration officials in the loop about his efforts to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation of Biden.
And Sondland can hardly be portrayed as the “Never Trumper” that the president has labeled all those who have testified in the impeachment inquiry so far.
Less than a week after Sondland gave his sworn deposition to House investigators, the discrepancies with what others had told the Intelligence Committee had become apparent.
Prior to Sondland’s amending his testimony, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who sits on the committee, told MSNBC that the ambassador was at risk of perjury charges.
Some legal analysts have posited that rather than attempt to explain why he amended his deposition testimony, Sondland may invoke his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. Preet Bharara, who was fired by Trump in a 2017 purge of 46 U.S. attorneys, noted that Trump’s longtime personal adviser Roger Stone was convicted last week of lying to Congress.
Ambassador Gordon Sondland has a lot of explaining to do Wednesday. He should review the Roger Stone verdict carefully.— Preet Bharara (@PreetBharara) November 16, 2019
In an email to Yahoo News, Sondland’s attorney Robert Luskin said his client planned to show up on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning.
“Ambassador Sondland expects to testify as scheduled Wednesday,” Luskin said. “Beyond that, no comment.”
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