Washington • The U.S. ambassador to the European Union told House impeachment investigators Thursday that President Donald Trump instructed him and other envoys to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on Ukraine policy and that he was “disappointed” by the directive. He spoke to lawmakers for around 10 hours.
Lawmakers leaving the closed-door deposition said there were gaps in his testimony, and said Sondland responded "I don't know" and "I don't recall" many times. But they said it was enlightening and damning as the political appointee and Trump donor described Giuliani's takeover of U.S. policy toward Ukraine.
"It is clear you have a shadow shakedown going on by Giuliani," said California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democratic member of the House intelligence panel. "I think it is just important for the American people to understand Rudy Giuliani is Donald Trump and Donald Trump is Rudy Giuliani. If Rudy Giuliani is doing something it is because he's the lawyer for Donald Trump, and lawyers don't take actions that are not authorized by their clients."
Sondland's closed-door testimony to three House committees was aimed at distancing himself from Trump and Giuliani's efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Sondland said he was concerned that the president delegated to Giuliani foreign policy responsibilities that he thought belonged to the State Department, but Sondland followed Trump's instructions anyway. He insisted that he played no role in encouraging investigations of Biden, telling lawmakers that he thought it improper to invite a foreign government to conduct criminal probes to influence American elections.
The ambassador was the latest in a series of witnesses to be privately interviewed by three House committees conducting the impeachment investigation. He was one of several current and former Trump administration officials who have provided new information — and detailed diplomats' concerns — about Trump and Giuliani and their attempts to influence Ukraine.
White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney defended Giuliani’s involvement in foreign policy, saying, “That’s the president’s call.” Even if some people don’t like it, he added, “it’s not Illegal. It’s not impeachable. The president gets to use who he wants to use.”
The investigators will continue apace next week, when they have tentatively scheduled multiple additional interviews with a mix of State Department diplomats and White House aides. Among them is the current top official at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, William Taylor, who exchanged text messages with Sondland this summer and fall as diplomats attempted to navigate Trump's demands.
Sondland's attempts to stand apart from Trump and Giuliani are notable since, unlike other career civil servants who have testified in the impeachment inquiry, he is a hand-picked political appointee of the president who contributed $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee. His appearance was especially anticipated since the text messages and other witness testimony place him at the center of a foreign policy dialogue with Ukraine that officials feared circumvented normal channels and that is now at the center of the House impeachment inquiry of Trump.
In prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press, Sondland aimed to untether himself from any effort by the Republican president or Giuliani to have a political rival investigated, joining other current and former administration officials who have communicated to Congress misgivings about the administration's backchannel dealings with Ukraine.
But Sondland's pivotal role in the dialogue, including discussions about a quid-pro-quo in which Ukraine's president would get a coveted White House visit in exchange for satisfying Trump's push for corruption-related investigations, made some Democrats skeptical that he wasn't more closely involved.
"For purposes of the impeachment inquiry, it really doesn't matter whether Sondland was a knowing participant in this scheme or if he was an unwitting pawn," said California Rep. Ted Lieu as he left the deposition. "He was still executing the policies of Rudy Giuliani and Rudy was following the orders of the president."
Sondland said he was disappointed by a May 23 meeting with Trump, who rejected calls by the ambassador and others to arrange without preconditions a phone call and White House visit for the new Ukraine leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The president was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reform and curbing corruption and, instead of arranging the meeting his envoys wanted, directed them to talk to Giuliani, Sondland said.
"We were also disappointed by the President's direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani," Sondland said in the remarks. "Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the President's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine."
The envoys, he said, had a choice: They could abandon the goal of a White House meeting with Zelenskiy, something they saw as important in fostering U.S.-Ukraine relations, or they could do as Trump asked and work with Giuliani. He said he did not know until much later that Giuliani intended to push for the Biden probe.
When the phone call finally did occur, on July 25, Trump repeatedly prodded Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens at the same time as the U.S. was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from Ukraine. Sondland said he was not on the call.
"Let me state clearly: Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong," Sondland said. "Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong. I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings."
The Democrats asked Sondland, whose name surfaced in a whistleblower complaint in August that helped spur the impeachment inquiry, about text messages that were provided to the committees earlier this month by former Ukrainian envoy Kurt Volker.
The messages show Sondland, Volker and Taylor discussing an arrangement in which Zelenskiy would be offered a White House visit in exchange for a public statement by Ukraine committing to undertake investigations into the 2016 U.S. presidential election and into Burisma, the gas company linked to Hunter Biden.
One text exchange that has attracted attention involves Taylor telling Sondland he thought it was "crazy" to withhold military aid from Ukraine "for help with a political campaign." Sondland replied that Trump had been clear about his intentions and that there was no quid pro quo.
Now, Sondland told lawmakers that Trump told him by phone before he sent the text that there was no quid pro quo and that he was simply parroting those reassurances to Taylor.
"I asked the President: 'What do you want from Ukraine?'" Sondland said. "The President responded, 'Nothing. There is no quid pro quo.' The President repeated: 'no quid pro quo' multiple times. This was a very short call. And I recall the President was in a bad mood."
Sondland testified three days after Fiona Hill, a former White House aide, said that his actions so unnerved then-national security adviser John Bolton that Bolton said he was not part of "whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up."
But Sondland said that neither Hill nor Bolton personally raised concerns about the Ukraine work directly with him.