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 that 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 that Mr. Trump refused to take the counsel of his top diplomats, who recommended to him that he meet with the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, without any preconditions. The president said that 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 who have portrayed Mr. Sondland who willingly inserted himself into Ukraine policy despite the fact that the country is not technically within 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.
Some lawmakers who heard it said that Mr. Sondland’s story appeared to be designed to insulate himself 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.”
Mr. Sondland arrived on Capitol Hill on Thursday morning to take 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, is a matter of intense interest for the investigators as they try 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 was answering 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 sessions scheduled 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 $391 million in security aid for Ukraine 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 Jayant, a foreign service officer in Kiev.
Testimony from career diplomats and a former top White House foreign policy adviser in recent days have 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 his prepared remarks offer a more complicated account, casting him 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.
Mr. Sondland said that 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 ongoing deposition, who was not authorized to discuss it publicly, said that Mr. Sondland had not tried to shield his conversations with Mr. Trump from investigators, and was so far answering 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 the Ukrainians put out a statement committing to a series of investigations. The ambassador said that 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.
Subpoenas and Requests for Evidence in the Trump Impeachment Inquiry
The status of the documents and witness testimony being collected by congressional investigators.
“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.
Still, Mr. Sondland’s prepared testimony leaves unaddressed obvious questions that investigators are sure to press him to answer. It offers no real explanation of why Mr. Giuliani was involved in Ukraine policy in the first place or if Mr. Sondland took any steps to find out why.
Nor do the prepared remarks explain whether Mr. Sondland questioned why Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Trump repeatedly singled out two topics for investigation that would have benefited 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 that 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 “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 that it was only because he deeply respected William B. Taylor Jr., 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 between 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 that 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.
And he 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 that 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.”
Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com