Sondland, Defiant, Says He Followed Trump’s Orders to Pressure Ukraine

Sondland, Defiant, Says He Followed Trump’s Orders to Pressure Ukraine

WASHINGTON — An ambassador at the center of the House impeachment inquiry testified on Wednesday that he was following President Trump’s orders with the full knowledge of several other top administration officials when he pressured the Ukrainians to conduct investigations into Mr. Trump’s political rivals, detailing what he called a clear “quid pro quo” directed by the president.

Gordon D. Sondland, a wealthy Republican megadonor appointed by Mr. Trump as the ambassador to the European Union, told the House Intelligence Committee that he reluctantly followed Mr. Trump’s directive. He testified that the president instructed him to work with Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, as he pressured Ukraine to publicly commit to investigating former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and an unsubstantiated theory that Democrats conspired with Kyiv to interfere in the 2016 election.

“We followed the president’s orders,” Mr. Sondland said.

In testimony that amounted to an act of defiance by an official who has been described by other witnesses as a point man in the push to extract the investigations, Mr. Sondland linked the most senior members of the administration to the effort — including the vice president, the secretary of state, the acting chief of staff and others. He said they were informed of it at key moments, in an account that severely undercut Mr. Trump’s frequent claims that he never pressured Ukraine.

Instead, Mr. Sondland described an expansive effort at the highest levels of his administration to help the president do just that.

Later on Wednesday, a Defense Department official testified that Ukrainian officials may have known as early as late July that a $391 million package of security assistance was being withheld by the Trump administration. The testimony by Laura K. Cooper called into question another central element of the president’s defense in the Ukraine matter: that he could not have been using the funding as leverage to pressure the country for investigations because Ukrainian officials were unaware that the money was frozen.

Almost two months after House Democrats began their impeachment inquiry, Mr. Sondland’s account came as close as investigators have gotten to an admission from an official who dealt directly with Mr. Trump. But it came with the blemishes of Mr. Sondland’s shifting accounts, which have evolved since the committee first deposed him in October, opening him up to criticism from Republicans who claimed he was unreliable and not credible.

Mr. Sondland has repeatedly claimed not to have recalled key episodes and conceded before the committee that he did not take notes that could give him certainty about precisely what happened. He blamed the State Department for not providing him with all his emails, call logs and other records.

Still, the revelations he offered, along with emails corroborating them, were stunning.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed off on parts of the pressure campaign, Mr. Sondland testified, and Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, was deeply involved. They understood, as he did, that there was a quid pro quo linking a White House meeting for President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to a promise by him to announce investigations into Mr. Trump’s political rivals, he said.

“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?” Mr. Sondland said. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

“Everyone was in the loop,” he said. “It was no secret.”

Mr. Sondland testified that he came to believe that there was another linkage being made by Mr. Trump, between vital military assistance approved by Congress for Ukraine and a public commitment by its president to investigate Mr. Trump’s political adversaries. Mr. Sondland said he informed Vice President Mike Pence of his concern about that connection during a Sept. 1 meeting in Warsaw.

Ms. Cooper testified Ukrainian officials had reached out to the State and Defense Departments with questions about the status of the military funding on July 25, just hours after Mr. Trump pressed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine during a phone call to investigate the Bidens and 2016. Republicans have insisted that Ukraine did not know about the hold until it was reported in the press in late August.

Beyond the evolving timeline, Mr. Sondland’s testimony raised questions about whether the other top administration figures he mentioned — including Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Mulvaney and John R. Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser — will come forward to testify in the inquiry and push back on Mr. Sondland’s version of events. Mr. Pence’s office was quick to counter Mr. Sondland’s account on Wednesday.

The Trump administration tried to block the testimony of Mr. Sondland, Ms. Cooper, and David Hale, the No. 3 State Department official who also appeared on Wednesday, and refused to allow Mr. Sondland access to certain documents, he said, which it also withheld from the committee despite a subpoena.

Democrats pointed to the administration’s stonewalling as yet another piece of evidence for an impeachment article against Mr. Trump for obstruction of Congress. And they quickly seized on what Mr. Sondland did say as bombshells.

“It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery, as well as other potential high crimes and misdemeanors,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters during a brief break in the hearing.

Republicans, moving to discredit Mr. Sondland, seized on his assertion that Mr. Trump never personally or explicitly told him about preconditions on the White House meeting or the security assistance being released.

“President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on the investigations,” Mr. Sondland said under questioning, adding that he came to the conclusion on his own.

Representative Michael R. Turner, Republican of Ohio, hammered on the point, his voice rising as he sharply questioned the ambassador.

“No one told you? Not just the president — Giuliani didn’t tell you, Mulvaney didn’t tell you, nobody?” Mr. Turner demanded. “Pompeo didn’t tell you?

“No one on this planet told you that President Trump was tying aid to investigations,” he added. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Mr. Sondland responded.

The ambassador, who smiled often during his appearance in the stately committee room and cheerfully admitted to a flair for colorful language and frequent use of “four-letter words” in his conversations with Mr. Trump, appeared to relish pulling other top officials into the spotlight with him after weeks of being cast by Republicans as a rogue actor.

“The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false,” he said, pointing to messages and phone calls in which he kept the White House and the State Department informed of his actions.

But some of the senior officials who figured promptly in Mr. Sondland’s testimony quickly challenged his account.

Standing on the South Lawn of the White House while Mr. Sondland was still at the witness table, Mr. Trump tried to distance himself from the ambassador.

“I don’t know him very well — I have not spoken to him much,” Mr. Trump told reporters before departing on a trip to Texas.

Holding a page of notes scrawled in marker in large block letters, Mr. Trump read aloud from a section of Mr. Sondland’s closed-door deposition in which the ambassador described a phone call in which the president had told him he did not want a quid pro quo.

“This is the final word from the president of the United States,” Mr. Trump said, shouting to be heard over the hum of helicopter rotors. “‘I want nothing.’”

The White House press secretary later put out a statement saying that Mr. Sondland’s testimony “Completely Exonerates President Trump of Any Wrongdoing.”

Through an aide, Mr. Pence denied that the two men had spoken in a one-on-one setting.

“There was never a time when Sondland was alone with the vice president in Warsaw and if he’s recalling the pre-briefing, I was in that, and he never said anything in that venue either,” said Marc Short, Mr. Pence’s chief of staff.

Defying the State Department’s wishes, Mr. Sondland shared previously unseen emails and texts that demonstrated how he kept Mr. Pompeo and other administration officials apprised of his efforts to push the Ukranians. They showed that Mr. Sondland told Mr. Pompeo about a statement the Ukranians were considering putting out that would commit them to the investigations, and a plan to have Mr. Zelensky speak directly with Mr. Trump about the matter.

“The contents will hopefully make the boss happy enough to authorize an invitation,” Mr. Sondland wrote in an email to Mr. Pompeo.

A week and a half later, Mr. Sondland sent Mr. Pompeo another email asking whether he should arrange a meeting in Warsaw for Mr. Trump where Mr. Zelensky would “look him in the eye” and promise him the investigations, to break the “logjam” in relations between the two countries.

Mr. Pompeo issued a statement that appeared designed to deny Mr. Sondland’s testimony, but which did not directly address the ambassador’s assertion that the secretary of state knew and approved of his efforts.

“Gordon Sondland never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the president was linking aid to investigations of political opponents,” according to the statement from Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman.

Mr. Sondland even took shots at Mr. Bolton, who other witnesses have said harbored deep concerns over the ambassador’s actions and repeatedly instructed subordinates to report them to White House lawyers.

“Curiously — and this was very interesting to me — on August 26, shortly before his visit to Kyiv, Ambassador Bolton’s office requested Mr. Giuliani’s contact information from me,” said Mr. Sondland, who repeated himself and then paused to smirk before continuing with his testimony.

One of the more dramatic moments of the day occurred in the final hour in an exchange between Mr. Sondland and Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York, who elicited a grudging admission from the ambassador that the investigations that Mr. Trump wanted would benefit him politically.

“See? It didn’t hurt a bit,” Mr. Maloney said, drawing a testy response from Mr. Sondland, who said he was trying to be “forthright.”

“It didn’t work so well the first time, did it?” Mr. Maloney shot back, referring to the multiple changes Mr. Sondland has made to his story.

“We appreciate your candor,” Mr. Maloney said, “but let’s be really clear on what it took to get it out of you.”

Reporting was contributed by Michael D. Shear, Emily Cochrane, Maggie Haberman and Zach Montague.

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