Sondland, whose testimony to lawmakers is shaping up to be the most consequential as Democrats build a case that Trump used the power of his office to pressure Zelensky to investigation his political rivals — and possibly condition nearly $400 million of military aid and a White House meeting to bend the newly elected Ukrainian president to his will.
Sondland plans to tell members of the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that he “later came to believe” that the security assistance — which had been frozen at Trump’s direction over the summer — would not be delivered to Ukraine unless the country publicly committed to pursuing Trump’s desired investigations.
Sondland also plans to tell lawmakers that he told Vice President Mike Pence on Sept. 1 that he was concerned that the delay in military assistance was tied to “the issue of investigations.”
Ukraine, lawmakers have noted, depends on military assistance from the United States to fight a war with Russia, which has invaded and attempted to annex Crimea. The legitimacy conferred by a White House visit would have also been extremely valuable to Zelensky as he sought to establish his bona fides in a country with a legacy of corruption.
Sondland attributed much of his concern to Trump’s “directive” that his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani be involved in any Ukraine effort. Giuliani had been publicly calling for Ukraine to investigate Biden, as well as to probe a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked a Democratic Party server in 2016. He also fomented a smear campaign against the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the time, Marie Yovanovitch, who was widely respected across the foreign policy establishment.
But Giuliani wasn’t freelancing, Sondland plans to emphasize.
“We all understood that these pre-requisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements,” he says. “Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky. Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma.”
Burisma is a reference to the energy company for which Biden’s son Hunter sat on the board, and several State Department officials have indicated they came to understand that Trump’s demand for an Burisma investigation was code for going after the Bidens.
Sondland intends to say he has no doubt Giuliani was “expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the President.” He also plans to say he had no desire to work with Giuliani but felt it was a requirement imposed by Trump and would be the only way to conceivably convince Trump to adopt a more productive posture toward Ukraine.
“We had no desire to set any conditions on the Ukrainians,” he plans to say. “I believed then, as I do now, that the men and women of the State Department, not the President’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for Ukraine matters.”
For Sondland, this is the third attempt at providing a complete account of his role in the unfolding Ukraine saga. His closed door testimony to lawmakers last month omitted crucial details that he later added in a written supplement. But his opening statement appears to be a more full accounting of his activities and will surely be picked apart by Trump’s defenders, who once counted him as a potential ally.
Sondland acknowledged that his memory “has not been perfect,” adding that he does not regularly take notes and that the State Department has not given him access to all of his phone records and emails. He said the process would have been “more transparent” if the State Department would have provided the documents.
He also indicated that the White House only recently confirmed that he did in fact speak with Trump on July 26, buttressing an account by former State Department official David Holmes who recalled Trump and Sondland spoke by phone while Sondland was at a restaurant in Kyiv.
Trump has publicly denied the existence of such a phone call. But Sondland detailed the conversation to lawmakers, saying he had “no reason to doubt” that “this conversation included the subject of investigations.”
Holmes told investigators that he overheard Trump loudly discussing the investigations he wanted Zelensky to launch, and Sondland confirmed that Zelensky had promised to deliver. After the call, Holmes said Sondland revealed that Trump didn’t “give a shit” about Ukraine except as a vehicle to advance the Biden probe. Sondland says he has no reason to dispute that account though he can’t recall some details.
“I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the president’s concerns,” Sondland said. “However, I have no recollection of discussing Vice President Biden or his son on that call or after the call ended.”
Sondland has been cast as a potentially decisive witness to the allegations central to the impeachment inquiry. Unlike other witnesses who have appeared before House impeachment investigators, Sondland was in regular contact with the president, and he sat in on nearly every meeting being scrutinized by investigators.
He often reminded colleagues of his direct line to Trump, and his central role in Ukraine policy — not typically in the purview of the EU ambassador — troubled senior officials in the State Department and National Security Council. Some colleagues in the Trump administration even worried that his conduct made him a counterintelligence risk.
Democrats have already questioned Sondland’s honesty, noting that he couldn’t recall crucial moments during his closed-door testimony — but those moments were described richly by others. The top Trump ally has already amended his testimony once, and other depositions have raised doubts about whether he omitted evidence of a phone call with Trump that other witnesses recalled as potential evidence of the most damning charges against Trump.
Some Republicans, too, have wondered whether Sondland, who contributed $1 million to the president’s inaugural committee, was acting on his own when he muscled his way into meetings on the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. Sondland’s testimony seeks to disabuse them of that notion.