While this admission is important, it’s not necessarily surprising. The quid pro quo Sondland articulates — specifically, “a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelensky” — was well established through evidence provided previously by Sondland and through testimony and evidence from a number of other witnesses. Sondland’s testimony on Wednesday fleshes out details about what was demanded and, more importantly, ties the effort to senior administration officials.
This is what the quid pro quo Sondland describes looked like.
May 23. After attending the inauguration of Zelensky in Ukraine, Sondland, then-Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry met with President Trump in the White House. Sondland and the others tried to persuade Trump to have a call with Zelensky and then to invite him to the White House as a way of supporting Zelensky’s reform agenda.
“Unfortunately, President Trump was skeptical,” Sondland testified. “He expressed concerns that the Ukrainian government was not serious about reform. He even mentioned that Ukraine tried to take him down in the last election."
These are at the heart of the two investigations Trump eventually asked of Zelensky: a probe into a nonsensical conspiracy theory about Ukrainian actors blaming Russia unfairly for interfering in the 2016 election and an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden, a political opponent of Trump’s.
During the meeting, Trump directed the team to work with his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani. Giuliani had already begun publicly expressing the same skepticism Trump articulated in the meeting, in part after being egged on by Ukrainian officials who were hostile to Zelensky. Giuliani’s plan to travel to Ukraine to investigate his purported concerns had been kiboshed a few weeks before Zelensky’s inauguration.
“We weren’t happy with the president’s directive to talk with Rudy," Sondland said. "We did not want to involve Mr. Giuliani. I believed then, as I do now, that the men and women of the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for Ukraine matters.”
Sondland summarized Giuliani’s role in his testimony.
“Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky. Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the President.”
July 10. During a meeting at the White House with Ukrainian officials, Sondland explicitly tied a White House meeting for Zelensky to the need for the announced investigations. In his Wednesday testimony, Sondland admitted having done so: “I recall mentioning the prerequisite of investigations before any White House call or meeting.”
According to other attendees, that request frustrated then-national security adviser John Bolton, who abruptly ended the meeting. Sondland claims not to remember any such frustration or any frustration from other officials.
July 13. To that point, Sondland provided an email he had sent to Tim Morrison, a former member of the National Security Council, a few days after the meeting. It included a short list of items, including a follow-up on Ukraine.
“2. The call between Zelensky and Potus should happen before 7/21. (Parliamentary Elections),” Sondland wrote. “Sole purpose is for Zelensky to give Potus assurances of ‘new sheriff’ in town. Corruption ending, unbundling moving forward and any hampered investigations will be allowed to move forward transparently. Goal is for Potus to invite him to Oval.”
In other words: Zelensky moves forward on “hampered investigations,” and Trump invites him to the Oval Office.
“Thank you,” Morrison replied. “Tracking 1 and 2” — referring to the first and second items on Sondland’s list.
July 19. Sondland emailed a number of senior administration officials including Perry, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
Zelensky “is prepared to receive Potus’ call,” Sondland wrote. “Will assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone’.”
Perry and Mulvaney replied to indicate Mulvaney was setting up the call. It is worth remembering that, during a news conference in October, Mulvaney admitted the existence of a quid pro quo predicated on an investigation into the 2016 election.
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland testified. “It was no secret. Everyone was informed via email on July 19, days before the presidential call. As I communicated to the team, I told President Zelensky in advance that assurances to 'run a fully transparent investigation’ and ‘turn over every stone’ were necessary in his call with President Trump.”
On the same day, Volker and Sondland exchanged text messages.
“Had breakfast with Rudy this morning — teeing up call w Yermak Monday,” Volker wrote, referring to Andriy Yermak, a senior aide to Zelensky. “Must have helped. Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation — and address any specific personnel issues — if there are any."
July 25. Trump and Zelensky speak.
Before the call, Sondland and Trump spoke. Sondland texted Volker, asking him to call. About 30 minutes later, Volker texted Yermak.
“Heard from White House — assuming President [Zelensky] convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” Volker wrote.
After the call, Volker texted Sondland back.
“[H]ad a great lunch with Yermak and then passed your message to him,” Volker wrote. “He will see you tomorrow, think everything in place.”
While Sondland had previously expressed doubt that Volker was directing Yermak based on something Sondland himself had told him, on Wednesday he admitted it was likely — and likely a result of his call with Trump.
“Likely I would have received that from President Trump,” Sondland said.
During the call, Zelensky specifically linked a White House meeting to investigations.
“I also wanted to thank you for your invitation to visit the United States, specifically Washington DC,” Zelensky said. “On the other hand, I also wanted (to) ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation.”
July 26. Sondland arrived in Ukraine for previously planned meetings with Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky.
“After the Zelensky meeting, I also met with Mr. Zelenksy’s senior aide, Andriy Yermak,” Sondland testified on Wednesday. “While I do not recall the specifics of our conversation, I believe the issue of investigations was probably a part of that agenda or meeting.”
Later, he spoke to Trump on the phone from a restaurant in Kyiv. This call came to light during acting Ukraine ambassador William B. Taylor Jr.’s testimony last week and was confirmed by David Holmes, an employee of the embassy in Ukraine.
“While I cannot remember the precise details — again, the White House has not allowed me to see any readouts of that call — the July 26 call did not strike me as significant at the time,” Sondland said. “Actually, I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the President’s concerns.”
Holmes’s testimony was more specific.
"I then heard President Trump ask, quote, “So he’s going to do the investigation?” unquote. Ambassador Sondland replied that, "He’s going to do it, " adding that President Zelensky wiIl, quote, “Do anything you ask him to.” ...
I asked Ambassador Sondland if it was true that the President did not [care] about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland agreed that the President did not [care] about Ukraine.
I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated, the President only canes about, quote, unquote, "big stuff. " I noted that there was, quote, unquote, big stuff going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia. And Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant, quote, unquote, “big stuff” that benefits the President, like the, quote, unquote, “Biden investigation” that Mr. Giuliani was pushing
Early August. While Giuliani was in touch with Volker, Sondland testified that he first spoke with the president’s attorney in August, apparently at about the same time Giuliani and Yermak met in Madrid.
“Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into corruption issues," Sondland testified. “Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma” — an energy company for which Biden’s son Hunter worked — "as two topics of importance to the President.”
Over the first few weeks of August, Sondland, Volker and Yermak worked on a public announcement of new probes, exchanging proposed language.
Aug. 10. Yermak texted Volker.
“Please let me know when you can talk,” he wrote. “I think it’s possible to make this declaration and mention all these things. Which we discussed yesterday. But it will be logic to do after we receive a confirmation of date.”
The same day, Yermak also texted Sondland.
“My proposal, we receive date and then make general statement with discussed things,” he wrote. “Onve we have a date, we will call for a press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for the reboot of US-UKRAINE relationship, including among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations.”
“Got it,” Sondland replied.
Aug. 11. Sondland updates State Department Executive Secretary Lisa Kenna about the statement.
“Kurt [Volker] & I negotiated a statement from Ze to be delivered for our review in a day or two," he wrote in that email. "The contents will hopefully make the boss happy enough to authorize an invitation. Ze plans to have a big presser on the openness subject (including specifics) next week.”
Kenna replied that she would give the message to Pompeo.
The statement did not come out.
Aug. 22. Sondland contacted Pompeo and Kenna, asking that time be set aside for Zelensky and Trump to meet during a planned trip to Warsaw at the beginning of September.
“I would ask Zelensky to look him in the eye and tell him that once Ukraine’s new justice folks are in place (mid-Sept) Ze should be able to move forward publicly and with confidence on those issues of importance to Potus and to the US,” Sondland wrote, apparently referring to the investigations. “Hopefully, that will break the logjam.”
Pompeo agreed, and Kenna indicated she would try to set up time for this to happen. Trump ended up not going to Poland because of Hurricane Dorian.
“[T]hroughout these events,” Sondland testified, “we kept State Department leadership and others apprised of what we were doing. State Department was fully supportive of our engagement in Ukraine affairs, and was aware that a commitment to investigations was among the issues we were pursuing.”
Within a week, Ukraine would learn military aid was on hold. In Warsaw, Sondland told Yermak the aid would only be released once new investigations were announced. But the specific quid pro quo admitted by Sondland is that above: A repeated effort to leverage a White House meeting for an announcement of investigations — with the knowledge of senior officials and the mandate of the president through his lawyer.
“[A]t all times, I was acting in good faith,” Sondland testified. “As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the President. We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the President directed us to do so.”
“You testified that that meeting was conditioned, was a quid pro quo for what the president wanted, these two investigations. Is that right?” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) asked Sondland on Wednesday.
“Correct,” Sondland replied.
“And that everybody knew it?” Schiff asked.
“Correct,” Sondland again replied.