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Trump impeachment inquiry: Key witness revises testimony, cites quid pro quo with Ukraine

Gordon D. Sondland’s disclosure appeared intended to insulate him from accusations that he intentionally misled Congress during his earlier testimony.

By: New York Times | Washington | Published: November 6, 2019 10:05:01 am
Trump impeachment inquiry: Key witness revises testimony, cites quid pro quo with Ukraine US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, center, arrives for a interview with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP File Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Written by Michael S. Schmidt

A crucial witness in the impeachment inquiry reversed himself this week and acknowledged to investigators that he had told a top Ukrainian official that the country would most likely have to give President Donald Trump what he wanted — a public pledge for investigations — in order to unlock military aid.

The disclosure from Gordon D. Sondland, an ally of Trump who is the United States ambassador to the European Union, confirmed his role in laying out a quid pro quo to Ukraine that conditioned the release of security assistance from the United States on the country’s willingness to say it was investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats.

That admission, included in a four-page sworn statement released Tuesday, directly contradicted his testimony to investigators last month, when he said he “never” thought there was any precondition on the aid.

“I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland said in the new statement, which was made public by the House committees leading the inquiry, along with the transcript of his original testimony.

Sondland’s disclosure appeared intended to insulate him from accusations that he intentionally misled Congress during his earlier testimony, in which he frequently said he could not recall key details and events under scrutiny by impeachment investigators.

It also provided Democrats with a valuable piece of evidence from a critical witness to fill out the picture of their abuse-of-power case against the president. Unlike other officials who have offered damaging testimony about Trump, Sondland is a political supporter of the president who has interacted directly with him.

Explained | The Trump impeachment inquiry: what we know so far

The question of a quid pro quo is at the heart of the impeachment investigation into Trump, which turns on whether the president abused his power when he asked a foreign power to target his political rivals.

Trump initially strongly denied there was any quid pro quo involving Ukraine, and numerous Republicans took up that refrain. But as the inquiry has unfolded, he and Republican lawmakers have gradually begun to move away from that position. Instead they have adopted the argument that a president insisting on a quid pro quo from a foreign government to benefit himself politically may be of concern, but it is not — in the words of Trump himself — “an impeachable event.”

A wealthy Oregon hotelier who donated to the president’s campaign and was rewarded with his plum diplomatic post, Sondland can hardly be dismissed as a “Never Trumper,” a charge the president has leveled against many other officials who have offered damning accounts of his conduct with regard to Ukraine. As such, Sondland’s new, fuller account complicates Republicans’ task in defending the president against the impeachment push.

On Tuesday, the White House rejected Sondland’s new account, saying he failed to cite a “solid source” for his “assumption” that there was a link between the aid and the investigations.

“No amount of salacious media-biased headlines, which are clearly designed to influence the narrative, change the fact that the president has done nothing wrong,” Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said in a statement.

The new information surfaced as the House committees also released a transcript of their interview last month with Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine.

Rushing to complete their final round of requests for key witnesses before they commence public impeachment hearings, the panels also scheduled testimony Friday by Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who quickly said he would not comply. And two more administration witnesses who had been scheduled to testify Tuesday — Michael Duffey, a top official in the White House budget office, and Wells Griffith, a senior aide to Energy Secretary Rick Perry — failed to appear.

Sondland had said in a text message exchange in early September with William B. Taylor Jr., the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, that the president had been clear there was no quid pro quo between the aid and investigations of the Bidens. But Sondland testified last month that he was only repeating what Trump had told him, leaving open the question of whether he believed the president.

His addendum suggested that Sondland was not completely forthcoming with Taylor, and that he was, in fact, aware that the aid was contingent on the investigations. In his updated testimony, Sondland recounted how he had discussed the linkage with Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine, on the sidelines of a Sept. 1 meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Zelenskiy in Warsaw, Poland. Zelenskiy had discussed the suspension of aid with Pence, Sondland said.

In the addendum, Sondland said he had “refreshed my recollection” after reading the testimony given by Taylor and Timothy Morrison, the senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council.

Sondland said he believed that withholding the aid — a package of $391 million in security assistance that had been approved by Congress and was intended to help Ukraine combat Russian aggression — was “ill-advised,” although he did not know “when, why or by whom the aid was suspended.” But he said he came to believe that the aid was tied to the investigations.

“I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement,” Sondland said.

In his closed-door interview last month, Sondland portrayed himself as a well-meaning and at times unwitting player who was trying to conduct U.S. foreign policy with Ukraine with the full backing of the State Department while Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, repeatedly inserted himself at the behest of the president. He also said repeatedly that he could not remember things, including details about the Sept. 1 meeting, according to the 375-page transcript of his testimony.

“And you had never thought there was a precondition to the aid?” one of the Republican investigators asked Sondland. “Is that correct?”

“Never,” Sondland said, adding that he “was dismayed when it was held up, but I didn’t know why.”

In the aftermath of the testimony last month, several Democrats painted Sondland as a lackey of Trump’s who had been an agent of the shadow foreign policy on Ukraine, eager to go along with what the president wanted. They contended that Sondland had deliberately evaded crucial questions during his testimony.

Other witnesses have pointed to him as a central player in the irregular channel of Ukraine policymaking being run by Trump and Giuliani and the instigator of the quid pro quo strategy.

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