In a significant revision to his earlier testimony before House impeachment investigators, U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland now says he told a Ukrainian official that security assistance to the country would only resume if the authorities in Kyiv opened investigations requested by President Trump and potentially damaging to former vice president Joe Biden.
Sondland’s “supplemental declaration,” provided to the House impeachment inquiry Tuesday, offered further evidence of an effort directed by Trump and his personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to leverage nearly $400 million in security assistance for investigations that could politically benefit the president.
Sondland, a Trump donor-turned-diplomat, had been seen as a loyalist of the president with a supportive version of events. His earlier assertion in a text message to a senior State Department official that Trump didn’t seek a “quid pro quo” of security assistance in return for investigations had been seized upon by Republicans to argue that the president had not used the power of his office for personal political gain.
With his revised statement, Sondland is now telling a story that comports with statements from other senior national security officials that the president did try to leverage Ukraine using U.S. funds.
Sondland told lawmakers in closed-door testimony on Oct. 17 that he knew Giuliani was demanding one quid pro quo – that Ukraine announce corruption investigations, including into an energy company, Burisma, where Joe Biden’s son Hunter held a board seat, in exchange for an Oval Office meeting between Trump and Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky.
But in an opening statement circulated at the time, Sondland said he had no knowledge of whether the White House was also holding up of security assistance to press for the investigations.
The following week, William B. Taylor Jr., the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, challenged Sondland’s claim that he did not know of a second quid pro quo involving the security aid. Taylor testified that Sondland had conditioned the release of the funding on the investigations targeting Biden in a meeting with Ukrainian officials in Poland in September.
Taylor said he understood that on Sept. 1, Sondland warned Zelensky aide Andrey Yermak that the security assistance “would not come” unless the new Ukrainian president committed to pursuing the investigation into Burisma.
“I was alarmed,” Taylor wrote, saying a national security official had told him the demand was relayed in person by Sondland while the ambassador was traveling in Poland with Vice President Pence. “This was the first time I had heard that the security assistance . . . was conditioned on the investigation.”
In his new addition to his earlier testimony, Sondland stated that “by the beginning of September 2019, and in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked” to Ukraine having not yet committed publicly to the investigation of Burisma and another into a discredited theory about Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 U.S. election.
“It would have been natural for me to have voiced what I had presumed,” Sondland said, acknowledging that he told one of Zelensky’s advisors in Warsaw that “resumption” of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that the officials had been discussing.
Following the first revelations of such an exchange in Taylor’s testimony, Sondland’s attorney Robert Luskin wrote to The Washington Post on Oct. 23, saying that his client “does not recall” such a conversation.
Sondland also described an exchange he had with Trump, in which he described the president as “in a very bad mood” as Sondland sought to understand what the president hoped to achieve by pressing Ukraine on investigations.
The call took place moments after Taylor raised sharp concerns in a text message with Sondland about a possible illicit quid pro quo regarding aid to Ukraine.
Taylor texted Sondland and fellow State Department official Kurt Volker on Sept. 9: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” That prompted Sondland to phone Trump.
Sondland described the context of the call: “There were all kinds of rumors. And I know in my few previous conversations with the President, he’s not big on small talk, so I would have one shot to ask him. And rather than asking him, ‘Are you doing X because of X or because of Y or because of Z? ’ I asked him one open-ended question: What do you want from Ukraine?”
The two had a “very quick conversation,” Sondland said.
The president replied, “I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing,’” according to Sondland’s account.
“And I said: ‘What does that mean?’ And he said: ‘I want him to do what he ran on.’ And that was the end of the conversation. I wouldn’t say he hung up me, but it was almost like he hung up on me,” Sondland said.
About five hours after Taylor’s text, Sondland wrote back to Taylor: “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind” and recommending he reach out to more senior State Department officials.
“I had gotten as far as I could,” Sondland told House investigators. “I had asked the boss what he wanted. He wouldn’t tell me, other than: I want nothing.”
Republican counsel Steve Castor asked Sondland if Trump told him to write the “no quid pro quo’s” text. “The President didn’t know I was sending a text,” he said, “because he didn’t know that the question came from Ambassador Taylor.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.