The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. ambassador to E.U. ‘does not recall’ threatening Ukraine over funding, attorney says

Gordon Sondland, center, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, arrives for a closed-door House hearing last week at the Capitol. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

House Democrats say testimony provided Tuesday by William B. Taylor Jr., the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, could prove devastating to President Trump, showing he had his E.U. ambassador attempt to extort Ukraine using taxpayer money.

The testimony could pose a more immediate problem for that diplomat: Gordon Sondland. And his lawyer on Wednesday said his client either does not recall or disputes many of Taylor’s key accusations.

Sworn testimony provided by Sondland, a hotelier and Trump fundraiser, and Taylor, a decorated veteran and career diplomat, now diverges on key points. Most critically, Taylor’s testimony challenges Sondland’s claim that he did not know of an alleged quid pro quo involving nearly $400 million in security aid for Ukraine. The White House held up the planned aid over the summer as Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani worked with Sondland to press the former ­Soviet-bloc country to launch investigations that could help Trump politically.

One of the probes Giuliani wanted involved a discredited theory that Ukraine tried to undermine Trump in the 2016 U.S. election. The other was about Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that hired Hunter Biden when his father was vice president.

Sondland testified last week that he knew Giuliani had conditioned a coveted White House invite for Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on such investigations. But he said he did not know whether the White House had also made security assistance contingent on Zelensky’s committing to launch the probes.

Read Taylor’s opening statement

Taylor, the senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, contradicted Sondland’s account Tuesday. In prepared remarks delivered to congressional investigators, Taylor wrote that Sondland not only knew of such a quid pro quo, but also had communicated the threat to Ukraine.

Taylor said he understood that on Sept. 1, Sondland warned Zelensky aide Andrey Yermak that the security assistance “would not come” unless Zelensky committed to pursuing the investigation into Burisma, which could have damaged Joe Biden, a top 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful.

“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.”

Responding to questions by email, Sondland’s attorney Robert Luskin wrote to The Washington Post on Wednesday that his client “does not recall” such a conversation.

“Sondland does not recall any conversation in Warsaw concerning the aid cutoff, although he understood that the Ukrainians were, by then, certainly aware of the cutoff and raised the issue directly with Pence,” Luskin wrote.

Some members of the House Intelligence Committee have begun calling for Sondland to return for additional questioning to reconcile the two diplomats’ accounts.

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) said Taylor’s testimony raises “a lot of questions.” In an interview on CNN, he said “for sure . . . [Sondland] needs to come back and answer some of these questions.”

That Sondland did not know about an alleged quid pro quo involving taxpayer money is central to his contention that he did nothing wrong on Trump’s behalf.

Sondland ratcheted up pressure on the White House last week by testifying that when he heard that security assistance may be tied to the investigations, he paused and called Trump on Sept. 9.

After the call, Sondland sent a text message to Taylor, denying such an effort. “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind,” Sondland wrote. “The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised.”

Sondland, however, told congressional investigators that his denial came directly from Trump and that Sondland had no knowledge of whether the president was telling him the truth at the time.

But by Taylor’s account, Sondland already knew the terms of the quid pro quo and had relayed them to Zelensky’s aide a week earlier in Poland. Taylor said Sondland also suggested he had said as much in a conversation on Sept. 8 to Zelensky.

“Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelenskyy and Mr. Yermak and told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelenskyy did not ‘clear things up’ in public, we would be at a ‘stalemate,’ ” according to Taylor’s written testimony, which used an alternative spelling of the Ukrainian leader’s name. “I understood a ‘stalemate’ to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance.”

Luskin said his client “strongly opposed the cutoff of aid and believed (and advised internally) that it should be restored unconditionally.” The attorney said that in seven hours of closed-door testimony last week, Sondland was asked about his discussions in Warsaw but did not recall a meeting as recounted by Taylor.

Sondland and Taylor also conflicted on other points.

Taylor testified that it was clear earlier in the summer that Giuliani’s focus on Burisma was related to Biden. Sondland told House investigators last week that he recalls “no discussions” with anyone at the State Department or White House about investigating Biden.

Taylor also testified that Tim Morrison, a National Security Council official, had recounted to him a conversation between Trump and Sondland on Sept. 7 in which Trump insisted that Zelensky “go to a microphone” and commit to “opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference.”

Luskin said Sondland does not recall such a conversation. In his testimony to Congress, Sondland “was asked about all of his interactions with Trump on this subject matter. These did not include another call on the 7th.”

Luskin said Sondland was also asked about a June episode that Taylor recounted.

According to the Ukraine envoy’s statement, “Sondland told me on June 28 that he did not wish to include most of the regular interagency participants in a call planned with President Zelenskyy. . . . Sondland said that he wanted to make sure that no one was transcribing or monitoring as they added President Zelenskyy to the call.”

Sondland’s attorney said the call with Zelensky was routine. The ambassador “believes that it was monitored routinely and that an appropriate file memo was prepared. He never suggested otherwise.”