The most important amendment dealt with a Sept. 1 conversation Sondland had with Andrey Yermak, an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. By that point, the White House had stopped aid that had been appropriated to Ukraine, a shift of which Yermak was very much aware.
Acting Ukraine ambassador William B. Taylor told investigators last month that on that day he had had a conversation with Tim Morrison, then a senior director on the National Security Council, in which Morrison reported back on the Sondland-Yermak conversation. In the conversation, Taylor said, “Ambassador Sondland told Mr. Yermak that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelensky committed to pursue the Burisma investigation” — that is, an investigation of a company for which former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter had once worked. Morrison confirmed the conversation in broad strokes, though he said he didn’t think an announcement had to come from Zelensky himself.
In his revision to his testimony, Sondland acknowledges that he had made that assertion to Yermak.
“[B]y the beginning of September 2019, and in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid,” his amended statement reads, “I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement” — a statement from Ukraine about new investigations. “I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.” Sondland added that he learned the statement should come from Zelensky but couldn’t remember where he had learned that — maybe from Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani or maybe from Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker, who had been in contact with Giuliani.
The existence of the addendum itself asks readers to believe that Sondland suffers from a distinct inability to remember central details about important issues — especially given that Sondland and Taylor spoke that same day, Sept. 1, after Morrison told Taylor what Sondland had said.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor texted Sondland, after getting off the phone with Morrison.
“Call me,” Sondland replied.
Taylor called him. “During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. Election,” Taylor said in his testimony. “... Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance.”
Sondland’s addendum doesn’t challenge Taylor’s claim. Yet in his original testimony, Sondland never thought to mention his interaction with Yermak. Asked whether the Sept. 1 text message from Taylor indicated that he, Volker and Taylor were discussing a link between aid and the investigations, Sondland said he didn’t know. (He also said he and Taylor “probably” had a call.) Asked whether Vice President Pence had raised the issue of aid when he met with Zelensky on that same day — with Sondland in the room — Sondland didn’t reply that he himself had had such a conversation with a key Zelensky aide. He said he didn’t remember Pence raising it.
As Sondland noted in his original testimony, the Sept. 1 interaction with Taylor came only two days after a conversation with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in which Sondland told Johnson — according to Johnson — that the aid was halted to elicit the investigations.
Notice the boundaries of what Sondland offered once he admitted to the conversation: Not that he had been informed that the resumption of aid was contingent on a statement but that he “presumed” it was. Not that he told Yermak a statement had to precede the resumption of aid but that aid would be “likely” not to resume until that point.
In other words, while Sondland is taking big steps toward an explicit admission of demanding a quid pro quo from Ukraine for the investigations, he’s insulating his boss, Trump, from any culpability. Sondland wasn’t told that Trump said aid was contingent on investigations, according to his new assertions, just that he sort of guessed that’s what it would take.
This is hard to believe, but Sondland's other testimony similarly insists on his own ignorance as an excuse for questionable activity.
For example, Sondland went to great pains to differentiate between an investigation of Burisma Holdings, the company for which Hunter Biden worked, and an investigation of the Bidens. He claimed not to understand that requests for an investigation of Burisma were really requests for an investigation of the Bidens, even after admitting that Trump had instructed him and his colleagues to work through Giuliani on Ukraine and Giuliani was publicly and explicitly linking the two. Even while Sondland was working with Volker in early August to draft a statement in which Zelensky would announce new investigations, including of Burisma, he claims not to have known that the real focus was the former vice president, because “I would not endorse investigating the Bidens.”
“In hindsight, I should’ve asked more questions about Burisma,” Sondland told investigators. “But it was something that was important, apparently, to Mr. Giuliani and to the President.” In July, he said, the conversation was only about corruption, but then it “kept getting more insidious.”
On July 10, though, there was a meeting at the White House that Yermak also attended. There, according to multiple witnesses, Sondland conditioned a White House visit for Zelensky on the requested investigations.
The negative response from others in attendance reportedly was strong. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified last week that when Sondland “started to speak about Ukraine delivering specific investigations to secure the meeting with the President,” then-national security adviser John Bolton “cut the meeting short.” Fiona Hill, Morrison’s predecessor on the National Security Council, reportedly testified that Sondland said the demand came from acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
In his original testimony, Sondland told investigators that there had been no disagreement during the meeting and that Bolton ended the meeting solely because he had to leave. Sondland claimed to have asked Energy Secretary Rick Perry whether he “had completely forgotten about bad meeting, bad words” but that Perry said he didn’t recall it, either.
Sondland presents himself as a busy man whose engagement in the Ukraine issue was infrequent and glancing: an ambassador in a true sense, a man hoping to please all sides but defend his boss. Someone blindsided by Giuliani’s surreptitious and unwelcome efforts to insert Biden into the mix. Someone who forgot that he told a foreign official that acquiescence to Giuliani’s demands was a predicate for hundreds of millions of dollars of aid. Someone who twists that arm not because he’s ordered to but because he intuits that this is what the president wants.
Someone who spent a million dollars on Trump’s inauguration committee to become an ambassador and who suddenly discovered that he had been dispatched to the middle of a minefield — and who now wants to convince everyone, however unbelievably, that neither he nor the president planted any of those mines.