Trump Impeachment Defense Undercut as Envoys Detail Giuliani’s Role
(Bloomberg) -- Rudy Giuliani’s back-channel attempts to pressure Ukraine for investigations linked to Donald Trump’s top political rival deeply unsettled two of the president’s top envoys, providing fresh evidence that undercuts White House efforts to portray the episode as innocent and routine.
In transcripts released Tuesday by the House impeachment panels, Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor serving as ambassador to the European Union, said “there was very little they could do about it if the president decided he wanted his lawyer involved” and pointed out that even Secretary of State Michael Pompeo “rolled his eyes” about Giuliani’s role.
In more than 700 pages of transcripts, Sondland and another Trump loyalist, Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, said Giuliani’s role as a conduit between the president and a new Ukraine government started out as perplexing and “kept getting more insidious” as he demanded public pledges from Ukraine’s government to investigate a company linked to Joe Biden’s son.
The transcripts undermine the assertions by Trump and his allies that there was no quid pro quo in the administration’s interactions with Ukraine, which are now at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry. They add to indications that Giuliani was working at Trump’s direction to leverage the new Ukraine president’s desire for an Oval Office meeting to get him to publicly announce investigations that would benefit Trump politically.
Worse for Trump, Sondland submitted revised testimony Monday acknowledging he came to presume by early September that the withholding of nearly $400 million in aid for Ukraine was tied to getting an announcement of those investigations and that he communicated that to a Ukrainian official.
|More impeachment coverage|
Neither Sondland nor Volker said Trump ever explicitly tied a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy or the aid package to the investigations, but they spent weeks hoping to assuage Giuliani -- and therefore Trump -- even as they sought to distance themselves from his activities.
“I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement,” Sondland said in his revised statement. Sondland said he now recalls linking the two in a conversation on Sept. 1 with a top Zelenskiy aide. “I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
Sondland testified that in his “short conversations” with Giuliani after Zelenskiy’s May inauguration, “Giuliani emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President Zelenskiy committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues.”
“Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election, including the DNC server, and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the president,” Sondland said. He insisted he did not immediately piece together a connection between Burisma Holdings and the Bidens, but recognized it later.
Biden’s son Hunter Biden had served on Burisma’s board. The mention of the Democratic National Committee server was a reference to a push for an investigation into whether Ukraine, not Russia, was behind the hack of the DNC email servers during the 2016 campaign.
The pressure on Ukraine had been building since Zelenskiy took office in May. Volker said that when he met with Zelenskiy in Canada on July 3, he told him there is a “negative narrative about Ukraine” in the administration that “and that this is being amplified by Rudy Giuliani.”
Volker said he didn’t listen to Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy and only got superficial readouts about the conversation, in which Trump mentioned Biden by name. So when he was negotiating the draft of a statement by the Ukrainians in August, he was unaware that Trump wanted Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens, but his Ukraine counterparts were familiar with that request.
However, he also said he didn’t think the Ukrainians were aware that the military assistance was being blocked, “so there was no leverage implied.”
White House Visit
Beyond the aid, though, the Ukraine government was seeking a White House meeting for the new president as a gesture that would confer credibility and support at a time when Ukraine remains under threat from Russia.
Volker also defended Biden’s efforts as vice president to pressure Ukrainian authorities to fire Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin.
“He was executing U.S. policy at the time and what was widely understood internationally to be the right policy,” Volker said, according to the transcript.
The White House seized on Sondland and Volker saying they did not know first-hand why the aid was delayed.
“I did not know (and still do not know) when, why or by whom the aid was suspended,” Sondland said in his revised statement.
“Both transcripts released today show there is even less evidence for this illegitimate impeachment sham than previously thought,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. She said Sondland couldn’t identify the source of his presumption of a quid pro quo and that Volker testified that he didn’t believe the Ukrainians knew about the hold on military aid until late August, when it was reported by Politico.
Sondland and Volker are two of the “three amigos” tapped by the White House to work with Giuliani on Ukraine. The third, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, has been invited to testify on Wednesday, but his spokesman has said Perry would not appear for that closed-door questioning, without department counsel, and is challenging the committees to ask him questions in public.
Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a top ally of Trump’s who has been a lead participant in the private depositions, emphasized that neither Sondland nor Volker testified that Trump instructed them to carry out a quid pro quo. Like the White House, he noted Sondland testified that the link between the aid and an anti-corruption statement was an assumption.
“The Volker/Sondland transcripts lay it out: @realDonaldTrump wanted to clean up corruption in Ukraine, and ensure taxpayer funded aid wasn’t going to corrupt causes,” Meadows tweeted.
Meadows also cited Volker’s answer no when asked whether Trump personally withheld a meeting with Zelenskiy in order to get a statement about investigations.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who is leading the inquiry, described “a larger operation to redirect our foreign policy to benefit Donald Trump’s personal and political interest, not the national interest.”
“The witnesses have testified about the extent to which certain levers of government power were used in the service of the president’s political interests,” he wrote in USA Today.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.