Sondland Backs Away From Trump and Giuliani in Impeachment Probe

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(Bloomberg) -- Ambassador Gordon Sondland sought to distance himself from Donald Trump and said he was uncomfortable with Rudy Giuliani’s role in Ukraine policy although he only learned later about efforts by Trump’s personal lawyer to get Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe Biden.

Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a generous Trump donor, told House impeachment investigators he was never on board with Giuliani’s plan to dig up dirt on Biden, a leading Democratic candidate, and his son. According to Sondland’s opening statement delivered behind closed doors, he said he also disapproved of the White House decision to withhold foreign aid that Congress designated for Ukraine.

“Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong,” he said in the statement. “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.”

Sondland said he was “disappointed” that he was instructed to work with Giuliani because he thought foreign policy should be led by the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer.

He also sharply disagreed with Trump’s description of former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. Sondland said she was “a delight to work with,” even though Trump called the career diplomat “bad news” in his phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

In her own testimony last week, Yovanovitch told House committees she was abruptly removed from her post without cause in May. Sondland said Thursday he was “never a part of any campaign to disparage or dislodge her.”

Any hope that Sondland would provide cover for the president in the House impeachment inquiry began to dissipate with his opening statement and could crumble further as he faces tough questions about his objectives in the region.

Republicans were surprised when the State Department initially blocked Sondland’s testimony, scheduled for last week. They were caught off guard by the abrupt cancellation and complained directly to Trump that they couldn’t defend him if they were kept out of the loop on White House strategy.

In the days since Sondland’s original appearance was canceled, other witnesses have testified that Sondland himself was at the center of parallel, back-channel efforts led by Giuliani to pressure Ukraine into politically charged investigations that Trump wanted -- allegations that have become the main focus of the impeachment probe.

The Committees on Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight are leading the impeachment inquiry, now in its third week. Sondland’s testimony began as scheduled Thursday, even after the unexpected death of Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.

Political Fallout

Sondland, a Portland businessman and Republican mega-donor, had no diplomatic experience before being appointed by Trump to the ambassadorship after using a series of companies to donate $1 million to the president’s inaugural committee.

Now that plum assignment has landed him in the middle of the House impeachment investigation. The political fallout has followed him back home, where there is a movement to boycott the hotel chain he founded, Provenance Hotels.

Trump has defended his administration’s refusal to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, calling the whole process illegitimate and politically motivated. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone communicated that position in a letter to Congress on Oct. 8, the same day Sondland was supposed to testify.

‘Navigate’ Trump Demands

Sondland will be pressed about his discussions with other American officials regarding pressure on Ukraine to investigate Biden’s son Hunter, and his participation on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

Those allegations burst into public view last month when the White House released the text of a whistle-blower complaint that raised concerns about the events surrounding a July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy.

The whistle-blower, who remains anonymous, cited Sondland as one of the officials who “reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelenskiy.”

More light was shed on Sondland’s involvement when the committees gained access to text messages provided by former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. Those messages show Sondland at least acting as a go-between in Trump and Giuliani’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, with U.S. military aid used as leverage.

One key message was sent to Sondland by William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Referring to a White House visit, Taylor asked: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?”

Taylor added in a later text message: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Nearly five hours later, Sondland responded: “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.”

Sondland said Thursday he responded only after speaking with Trump. He said Trump said there was no “quid pro quo” regarding an investigation of the Bidens and the Ukrainian aid that was being withheld.

“The president repeated: ‘no quid pro quo’ multiple times,” Sondland said in his testimony. “This was a very short call. And I recall the president was in a bad mood.”

Unofficial Channels

Sondland will get more questions on his involvement with Giuliani in any unofficial foreign policy apparatus regarding to Ukraine -- allegedly intended to bypass normal diplomatic channels.

In testimony offered this week, George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state, said Sondland, Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry were designated to accomplish Trump’s side goals and bypass formal U.S.-Ukraine policy.

That development came from a May 23 meeting called by Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and the group came to be known as “the three amigos,” according to the description of Kent’s testimony by Representative Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat.

Perry, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Wednesday night, said that Trump had asked him to contact Giuliani to discuss corruption in Ukraine. Perry led the U.S. delegation for Zelenskiy’s inauguration.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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