On October 17, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, testified in a private deposition prior to the House Intelligence Committee's impeachment inquiry. Recently, the committee publicly released a transcript of his testimony. Included with the transcript was a supplementary \”declaration\” from Sondland dated November 4-after Sondland reviewed written testimony from acting ambassador William Taylor and National Security Council official Tim Morrison.
Sondland's verbal and written testimony contradict one another-and clash along with other established facts-in several ways. A close examination can offer a good preview for Sondland's scheduled appearance this Wednesday prior to the committee in public session. It can also help shed some light on the overall timeline of the scandal in the centre of the impeachment proceedings.
Flipping on the quid pro quo.
Sondland originally stated he did not participate in any make an effort to pressure Ukraine by withholding security assistance . Within the supplement, though, Sondland said lucrative remembers having told Andriy Yermak, a specialist advisor to Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky, on September 1 that Ukraine would not receive the withheld security assistance without making \”a public statement reopening the Burisma investigation\” , as President Trump had asked Zelensky to do in the infamous July 25 phone call.
But Sondland's November 4 revision of the record did not fix his problems. Even with the inclusion of his supplemental testimony, Sondland's original testimony still contains unamended statements that repeatedly misled Congress, omitted goals testified to by other officials, and appear to be false.
For example, Sondland claimed that after President Trump directed Sondland, special envoy Kurt Volker, and Secretary Rick Perry to work on Ukraine policy with Rudy Giuliani on May 23, he didn't perceive that the investigations Giuliani demanded were about Joe Biden. Sondland makes the following claims in his testimony:
- He asserted until late September, when he first read the partial transcript of Trump's July 25 telephone call, he did not know that he-along with Giuliani, Volker, and Perry-had been asking Ukraine to publicly commit to an investigation of Biden in return for a White House meeting .
- He said that, during a meeting between Trump administration officials and President Zelensky's aides at the White House on July 10, he did not link a Zelensky White House meeting to investigations of Biden and 2021 .
- He said he wasn't aware of any conditions put on the security assistance withheld by President Trump in July , and did not participate in any scheme to pressure Ukraine while using security assistance .
Let's deal with each of these three trouble areas, one by one.
What Sondland knew about the extortion scheme, so when he knew it.
In his opening statement, Sondland asserted he did not \”recall\” Giuliani discussing Biden or his son \”with me\” . Next he said that none of the summaries he received of President Trump's July 25 call with President Zelensky included any mention of Biden . And he said that he didn't learn of Biden being part of what they were asking the Ukrainians to announce until Trump released the partial transcript of the July 25 call in late September .
This is significant because Sondland claimed that in his conversations with Giuliani in August, Giuliani insisted that the Ukrainians announce investigations of 2021 and Burisma, but that Sondland didn't know Hunter Biden was a Burisma board member. Sondland testified he thought Burisma was merely \”one of numerous examples of Ukrainian companies run by oligarchs and lacking the kind of corporate governance structures found in Western companies\” . He portrayed himself as working reluctantly with Giuliani to appease Trump's concerns regarding Ukraine, and to secure a White House meeting for Zelensky, in furtherance of yankee interests in Ukraine.
Testimony delivered last Friday, November 15, by certainly one of Ambassador Taylor's aides in Kiev, David Holmes, contradicts Sondland's claim. Holmes testified that although Sondland was in Kiev on July 26 for a meeting with Zelensky, Holmes overheard a phone call between Sondland and Trump wherein the president asked if Zelensky is \”gonna do the investigation,\” and Sondland replied that \”he's gonna do it\” . Holmes testified that he asked Sondland, after the Trump call ended,
if it was true that the President did not provide a shit about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland agreed the President did not give a shit about Ukraine. I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated, obama only cares about \”big stuff.\” I noted there was \”big stuff\” going on in Ukraine, just like a war with Russia. And Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant \”big stuff\” that benefits obama, like the \”Biden investigation\” that Mr. Giuliani was pushing. [Holmes testimony, p. 25]
Sondland's phone conversation with the president, as overheard by Holmes, and the statement to Holmes both directly contradict Sondland's own timeline of events. Sondland testified he was not aware until late September that the investigation's target was Joe Biden. His July 26 conversation with Holmes indicates that was false.
Even more damning, Sondland claimed in his October testimony that \”all the communication flowed through Rudy Giuliani,\” and that he could \”only speculate\” that Trump was instructing Giuliani . Holmes's recollection of Sondland's phone conversation shows that Sondland was directly involved in informing the president, and that Trump was actively asking whether Zelensky would open the investigations he sought. By July 26, obama had withheld a promised White House meeting for Zelensky, withheld security assistance for Ukraine, pressed Zelensky to open the investigations of Biden and 2021, and asked Sondland if Zelensky would indeed open the investigations.
In other words, it seems that Sondland lied to Congress about Trump's knowledge and direct involvement within the extortion effort.
What really happened in the July 10 meeting?
Let's return to Sondland's claim, in his testimony, that, when he met with Ukrainian officials at the White House on July 10, he did not condition a Zelensky meeting with Trump in the White House on the Ukrainians investigating Biden and 2021 . This will be significant because it is necessary to sustain his larger false timeline in which he and Giuliani et al. were supposedly just pressing Ukraine to pay attention to general anticorruption in July. If it turns out that he was indeed pressing Ukraine to research Biden on July 10, then he was acting improperly, even by his own words: \”Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong\” .
Sondland's testimony, however, appears to be false. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman-an Army officer currently detailed towards the National Security Council staff-told the committee that at the July 10 meeting, Sondland had indeed spoken about the importance of Ukraine delivering investigations of Biden and 2021 when they wished to have a White House ending up in the president . And Fiona Hill-who was, until August, also a National Security Council staffer-corroborated this account of the July 10 meeting:
Ambassador Sondland, in front of the Ukrainians, as I came in, was referring to how he had an agreement with Chief of Staff Mulvaney for a meeting [of President Trump] with the Ukrainians when they were going to go forward with investigations. [Hill testimony, p. 69]
Vindman and Hill both say they told Sondland that his actions were inappropriate, which Sondland also testified didn't occur. Assuming Vindman's and Hill's accounts are correct, this means that Sondland was pressing the Ukrainians to spread out investigations into the Bidens in exchange for a White House meeting as early as July 10, and that Zelensky was likely conscious of the demand ahead of the July 25 telephone call with Trump.
Covering up the withholding of aid.
Sondland insisted in his deposition that he was unacquainted with any conditions placed on the delivery of security assistance and he did not participate in any schemes to make use of the security assistance to pressure Ukraine, which he says would be illicit: \”Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to consider such steps [i.e., to experience a partisan investigation] would be wrong\” .
Sondland's supplemental written testimony partially cleared up this conflict in the record. He states he now remembers that he did, actually, participate in a scheme to pressure Ukraine using the security assistance. His memory having been jogged, Sondland now says that on September 1, he told Yermak that Ukraine would not receive the security assistance without announcing investigations .
That is really a significant admission. Despite Republican claims that there was no quid pro quo, Sondland has conceded he told the Ukrainians that they would not receive a White House meeting or security assistance without announcing investigations. However, even in his supplemental testimony, Sondland has still maintained he did not receive any explanation for why the aid was withheld, so he \”presumed\” that the suspension of the aid \”had become from the proposed anti-corruption statement\”-that is, the Ukrainian announcement of investigations.
This is a rather comical statement: Sondland is saying that he told Ukrainian officials their country would not receive security assistance without announcing an investigation of the president's political opponent and 2021 conspiracy theory, and that he did that based on absolutely no direction from the president. It's important for Trump that Sondland hold to that particular line, though. By saying he \”did not know . . . when, why, or by whom the help was suspended,\” and the man merely presumed that the reason ended up being to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations, Sondland insulates Trump from the extortion message .
This is consistent with Sondland's description of the September call he had with Trump. On September 9, Taylor sent a text message to Sondland: \”As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for assist with a political campaign.\” In Sondland's telling, he then called Trump to find out why the help was being withheld. Sondland testified that he asked Trump what he wanted, which Trump said \”I want nothing. I would like no quid pro quo\” . Five hours after Taylor's text, Sondland responded with what reads like a scripted message for that record:
Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is really going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we steer clear of the back and forth by text Should you still have concerns I recommend you give Lisa Kenna or S a call to discuss them directly. Thanks.
Now, let's first note how absurd what Sondland says he did is. According to Sondland, on September 1, he knew that the security assistance had been held up, but did not know why. So, rather than calling the president to clarify the main reason, he instead just \”presumed\” obama held it up to pressure the Ukrainians to announce investigations. Then, supposedly according to nothing more than that presumption, he told Yermak that Ukraine wouldn't receive the security assistance with no announcement. But after Taylor raised his concerns about the linkage more than a week later, Sondland then decided to call the president to ask why he withheld the help. One might think that Sondland want that clarification before telling the Ukrainians that they would not receive the security assistance with no investigation.
It gets worse. This call, and Sondland's subsequent message to Taylor, look different in light of testimony from Taylor and the NSC official Morrison. Morrison says that Sondland told him on September 7 in regards to a conversation in which the president asserted there was \”not a quid pro quo\” which Zelensky \”should want to go to a microphone and announce personally\” the investigations himself . Sondland told Taylor that, on the call, Trump insisted that Zelensky had to \”clear things up and do it in public\” .
In other words, in a call just a couple of days before Taylor's alarmed text message, Trump had laid out the demand for Sondland: After withholding a White House meeting to acquire investigations, and now withholding security assistance, Trump insisted that Zelensky personally announce the investigations. Then, after Taylor's text, Sondland called Trump again in two days, and sent a reply to Taylor clearly meant to make a record that Trump did not want a quid pro quo. Sondland did not need to clarify with Trump why he'd withheld the assistance; he had talked to him just a couple days earlier. But he did need to figure out how to address Taylor creating a record from the linkage of investigations to security assistance, and that he called the president to discuss.
After speaking again with Trump, Sondland sent his message to Taylor claiming that the president had been \”crystal clear\” that there is no quid pro quo-omitting, obviously, that Trump had laid out his quid pro quo terms inside a call just days earlier. Like Sondland's declare that all communication flowed through Giuliani, Sondland's message to Taylor and the testimony about his calls with the president appear to be an attempt to hide that the president directed the extortion scheme personally.
Which way will Sondland go?
In reviewing the timeline of events and testimony, a clear story emerges. In May, Trump directed his officials to work with Giuliani, whose interest in pushing Ukraine to investigate Biden and 2021 was widely reported at that time. During the summer, Sondland and Volker pressed Ukraine to announce those investigations in return for a White House meeting, something desperately sought by Zelensky. Trump froze security assistance appropriated by Congress for Ukraine without any explanation internally. On the July 25 call, Trump himself asked Zelensky for all those investigations in response to Zelensky saying they're prepared to purchase Javelin anti-tank missiles. After the call, Sondland and Volker continued to press Ukraine to announce the investigations, as the president sought at least one update from Sondland regarding whether Zelensky would investigate Biden.
Finally, following the Ukrainians had still not made a public announcement, Sondland-perhaps at the president's instruction-linked the withheld security help the investigations, too. Sondland, Volker, and Perry worked with Giuliani in a scheme to pressure Ukraine to deliver investigations helpful to the president's 2021 campaign, using the U.S. support much needed by Ukraine as leverage, and accomplished it both with the president's direction and explicit involvement. Sondland misled Congress about his involvement within the scheme, and about the president's own knowledge and participation.
Sondland has lied to Congress and the American people about both the president's actions and Sondland's own involvement. Is he going to continue to try to protect the president, despite it being amply clear he has lied? Will he try to protect himself, by pleading the Fifth? Or will he do the right thing, and tell us the truth? His reputation and integrity, for example they are, hang in the balance.