WASHINGTON — Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, told House impeachment investigators on Thursday that President Trump delegated American foreign policy on Ukraine to his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, a directive he said he disagreed with but nonetheless followed.
Mr. Sondland, a Trump campaign donor who has emerged as a central figure in the Ukraine scandal, testified under subpoena that he did not understand until later that Mr. Giuliani’s goal may have been an effort “to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the president’s 2020 re-election campaign.”
According to a copy of his opening statement to investigators, which was obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Sondland said Mr. Trump refused the counsel of his top diplomats, who recommended that he meet with the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, without any preconditions. The president said the diplomats needed to satisfy concerns that both he and Mr. Giuliani had related to corruption in Ukraine, Mr. Sondland asserted.
“We were also disappointed by the president’s direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani,” Mr. Sondland said. “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 toward Ukraine.”
His account is at odds with testimony from some foreign policy officials. They have portrayed Mr. Sondland as a willing participant who inserted himself into Ukraine policy even though the country is not in the purview of his posting, and was a key player in Mr. Trump’s efforts to win a commitment from the new Ukrainian government to investigate his political rivals.
It emerged as Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told reporters that the Trump administration withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate whether Kiev helped the Democrats during the 2016 election, an unsubstantiated theory that the president has long espoused. But hours later, Mr. Mulvaney denied what he had said earlier, charging that the news media had misreported his account despite the fact that his words were captured on camera.
“Let me be clear,” Mr. Mulvaney said in his statement backing away from remarks he had made at a news conference. “There was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election,” he said.
Mr. Mulvaney also said there had been nothing wrong with Mr. Trump relying on Mr. Giuliani to conduct foreign policy.
“That’s the president’s call,” he said. “You may not like the fact that Giuliani was involved. That’s great, that’s fine. It’s not illegal, it’s not impeachable.”
Yet Mr. Mulvaney’s public admission, however muddled, and Mr. Sondland’s private testimony confirmed central elements of the saga at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, which is focused on a shadow diplomatic campaign, carried out by Mr. Giuliani at Mr. Trump’s direction, to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Democrats.
Some lawmakers who heard it said Mr. Sondland’s story appeared meant to insulate him from blame. As she emerged from the first two hours of questioning, Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California and a member of the Intelligence Committee, called his remarks “a lot of C.Y.A.” Others said he repeatedly said he could not remember details of relevant events.
Mr. Sondland spent more than nine hours on Capitol Hill taking his turn in the secure rooms of the House Intelligence Committee, as the latest top foreign policy official to appear before impeachment investigators who are digging into a whistle-blower complaint about Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. His testimony, which the Trump administration initially sought to block, was a matter of intense interest for the investigators as they tried to fill out a picture of what transpired this summer as Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani ratcheted up the pressure on the Ukrainians to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other Democrats.
Even as Mr. Sondland answered questions, lawmakers and their aides were preparing for a crush of additional closed-door witness depositions in the coming days that will reach further into the diplomatic corps and the White House. They have scheduled sessions with two Pentagon officials, Laura Cooper and Kathryn Wheelbarger, and two top White House budget officials, Russell Vought and Michael Duffey, who could help address lingering questions about whether Mr. Trump’s decision this summer to freeze the aid was tied to the pressure campaign.
Questions about the aid will also likely be put to William B. Taylor Jr., a career diplomat in Ukraine who raised concerns with Mr. Sondland about the aid freeze, and two National Security Council officials, Alexander Vindman and Timothy Morrison. And investigators also plan to interview Philip Reeker, a top European affairs official at the State Department, and Suriya Jayanti, a Foreign Service officer in Kiev.
Testimony from career diplomats and a former top White House foreign policy adviser in recent days has suggested that Mr. Sondland, a wealthy hotelier from Oregon who had no political experience, was at the heart of the effort to go around normal diplomatic channels to pressure the Ukrainians.
But he presented a more complicated account, describing himself as a well-meaning and at times unwitting player who was trying to conduct American foreign policy with Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Trump standing in the way. He noted several times that he had “the blessing” of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And he said if White House officials considered his actions inappropriate, as a former top National Security Council testified earlier this week that she did, they never raised the topic with him.
Mr. Sondland said Mr. Trump put him and top diplomats and administration officials dealing with Ukraine in an impossible position, as they tried to conduct diplomacy with an important European ally.
A person familiar with the deposition who was not authorized to discuss it publicly said Mr. Sondland had not tried to shield his conversations with Mr. Trump from investigators, and answered questions from Democratic and Republican staff.
“Please know that I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters,” he said. “However, given the president’s explicit direction, as well as the importance we attached to arranging a White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, we agreed to do as President Trump directed.”
Mr. Sondland testified that he, Kurt D. Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine, and Rick Perry, the energy secretary, began coordinating with Mr. Giuliani, who insisted that the Ukrainians put out a statement committing to a series of investigations. The ambassador said he failed to appreciate how Burisma, a company that Mr. Giuliani wanted the Ukrainians to look into, was directly tied to Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son.
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“Although Mr. Giuliani did mention the name ‘Burisma’ in August 2019, I understood that Burisma was one of many examples of Ukrainian companies run by oligarchs and lacking the type of corporate governance structures found in Western companies,” Mr. Sondland said. “I did not know until more recent press reports that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma.”
Hunter Biden’s involvement with Burisma had been widely reported beginning in the spring.
Mr. Sondland said he had ultimately learned that Mr. Giuliani had singled out two topics for investigation by the Ukrainians that could benefit the president politically.
“I did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the president’s 2020 re-election campaign,” he told investigators.
Mr. Sondland sought to distance himself from other aspects of the unfolding scandal, as well. He said Marie L. Yovanovitch, whom Mr. Trump abruptly removed as ambassador to Ukraine in May amid a smear campaign against her by the president’s allies, was “an excellent diplomat” whose departure he “regretted.”
“I was never a part of any campaign to disparage or dislodge her,” he said.
Likewise, Mr. Sondland said it was only because he deeply respected Mr. Taylor, a career diplomat who replaced Ms. Yovanovitch in Ukraine, that he tried to assuage his concerns that nothing untoward was being done with respect to the frozen security aid.
In previously released text messages among Mr. Sondland, Mr. Volker and Mr. Taylor, Mr. Taylor was deeply uneasy about what he saw as an effort by Trump aides to use the package of security assistance as leverage over Ukraine for political favors, calling the notion “crazy.”
After calling Mr. Trump directly, Mr. Sondland replied to Mr. Taylor that “The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind” and directed Mr. Taylor to stop texting and call him with any additional concerns.
Mr. Sondland insisted that he was never involved in any potential discussions with the White House about withholding the security aid in exchange for a pledge to investigate. He said Mr. Trump was in a bad mood when he called him to ask about it, and told Mr. Sondland that he wanted “nothing” from the Ukrainians.
On Thursday, Mr. Mulvaney at first confirmed, but later flatly denied, that the aid was held back until Ukraine agreed to investigations Mr. Trump wanted.
Mr. Sondland told the committees that he did not know the substance of a July 25 phone call in which Mr. Trump pressed Mr. Zelensky to investigate Mr. Biden and matters related to the 2016 campaign until a reconstructed account of the call was released publicly in September. He said he spoke with Mr. Trump a day after the call, before Mr. Sondland was to meet with Ukrainian leaders in Kiev, but that the conversation was not “substantive.”
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