Sondland brings impeachment inquiry to White House doorstep

Sondland brings impeachment inquiry to White House doorstep
© Aaron Schwartz

Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandTop Zelensky aide refutes Sondland testimony Mulvaney: 'Politics can and should influence foreign policy' Controversy on phone records intensifies amid impeachment MORE, President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate US sending 20,000 troops to Europe for largest exercises since Cold War Barr criticizes FBI, says it's possible agents acted in 'bad faith' in Trump probe MORE’s ambassador to the European Union, brought the impeachment inquiry closer to the White House on Wednesday.

Sondland implicated some of the president’s key allies in his testimony, saying Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump administration imposes sanction on Saudi diplomat over Khashoggi killing Mulvaney: 'Politics can and should influence foreign policy' The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - Democrats to release articles of impeachment today MORE, Vice President Pence, White House acting chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyMulvaney: 'Politics can and should influence foreign policy' The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - Democrats to release articles of impeachment today Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing MORE and outgoing Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryNew Energy secretary cancels Paris trip amid mass strikes against Macron proposal Mellman: The 'lane theory' is the wrong lane to be in Overnight Energy: Critics call EPA air guidance 'an industry dream' | New Energy secretary says Trump wants to boost coal | EPA looks to speed approval of disputed industry pollution permits MORE were all aware of efforts to secure a commitment from Ukraine to conduct investigations seen as benefiting the White House.

Sondland’s testimony proved dramatic from the outset, as he confirmed publicly that a White House meeting was conditioned on Ukraine launching investigations into 2016 election interference and Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian gas company that employed former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Top Zelensky aide refutes Sondland testimony The great AI debate: What candidates are (finally) saying about artificial intelligence MORE’s son Hunter Biden on its board. 

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He said he kept officials at the White House and State Department apprised of his efforts, furnishing the committee with a July 19 email he sent to Pompeo, Mulvaney and Perry about Ukraine being prepared to “run a fully transparent investigation.” 

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

Sondland also provided fodder for Democrats to accuse the Trump administration of obstructing the impeachment inquiry, telling the committee that the State Department and White House had refused to provide him or his lawyers with materials relevant to his testimony.

“In the absence of these materials, my memory has not been perfect,” the hotelier and Trump donor said.

Sondland’s testimony is contributing to a circular firing squad of sorts as White House and administration officials seek cover from potentially damaging allegations — some of it coming from their colleagues or even the White House itself.

On Tuesday, the White House sought to fend off critical testimony about Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s president from two White House aides who witnessed it — including by questioning the motives of Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanImpeachment sets up Ukrainian Americans for 2020 political role Director of National Intelligence Maguire should stand for the whistleblower Adam Schiff's star rises with impeachment hearings MORE, a top Ukraine expert working on the National Security Council who won a Purple Heart for service to his country, but has been attacked as a loyalist to Ukraine. Vindman came to the United States as a toddler from a Soviet state. 

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On Wednesday, Trump and his allies sought to distance themselves from Sondland — a big-time donor who communicated regularly with top government officials.

“I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though,” Trump said, offering a defense he has repeatedly used.  

Ahead of testimony from Jennifer Williams, who works on Pence’s national security staff, the vice president’s office issued a statement describing her as a State Department official.

Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, the national security adviser to Pence, issued a statement on Tuesday highlighting that Williams did not raise her concerns about Trump’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian president to the vice president or her supervisor.

And Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short flatly denied Sondland’s testimony that he raised concerns to the vice president on Sept. 1 about Ukraine aid being tied to investigations.

Pompeo, who is in Europe for NATO meetings, told reporters he had not watched Sondland’s testimony. The secretary has long been viewed as one of Trump’s closest allies, but the damaging testimony delivered by State Department officials in recent weeks has strained that relationship and called into question Pompeo’s leadership of the agency.

Trump’s personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - Democrats to release articles of impeachment today Controversy on phone records intensifies amid impeachment Tempers flare at tense Judiciary hearing on impeachment MORE, who has repeatedly been put by witness testimony at the center of the controversy, was the most combative of the officials implicated by Sondland. He batted down the diplomat’s testimony and took issue with the GOP counsel’s line of questioning. 

“Republican lawyer doesn’t do his own research and preparation, and is instead picking up Democrat lies, shame,” Giuliani tweeted. “Allow me to inform him: I have NO financial interests in Ukraine, NONE! I would appreciate his apology.”

Giuliani is under scrutiny in the impeachment inquiry for pressing representatives of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open the political probes under the pretense that it was to fight corruption. He is also reportedly under criminal investigation for his financial dealings. 

Sondland said that he, Perry and Kurt VolkerKurt VolkerPush to investigate Bidens sets up potential for Senate turf war Senate confirms Brouillette to replace Perry as Energy secretary How Democrats' missing witnesses could fill in the Ukraine story MORE, the then-U.S. envoy to Ukraine, didn’t want to work with Giuliani but that they “all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine.”

“So we followed the president's orders,” Sondland said. 

But Giuliani took issue with the testimony, claiming that it was Volker who had recruited him to work on Ukraine foreign policy.

Public testimony on Thursday from State Department staffer David Holmes and former National Security Council (NSC) official Fiona Hill is likely to keep the White House on the defensive. 

Hill, a top Russia expert on the NSC, raised objections in her closed-door deposition about the dealings of Giuliani, Sondland and Mulvaney, while Holmes overheard a key phone call between Sondland and Trump in which the president allegedly mentioned investigations. Hill was also critical of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky, describing it as evidence of an effort to “subvert the national security process.” 

Marvin Kalb, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution who has known Hill for two decades, described her as a serious professional who likely understands the “political whirlpool” she is currently wrapped up in.

“I think she’ll be very serious, which is the kind of person that she is,” Kalb said in an interview. “I think she will always tell the truth.” 

Sondland was hardly an ideal witness for either party. His credibility has faced questions after he corrected his prior closed-door testimony to Congress, saying other witness accounts have refreshed his memory about certain events at the center of the inquiry.

Still, Democrats viewed his testimony as strengthening their narrative that the president’s actions do not match his words.

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“My colleagues seem to be under the impression that unless the president spoke the words ‘Ambassador Sondland, I am bribing the Ukrainian president,’ that there’s no evidence of bribery,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffCBS's Major Garrett: Democrats walking away from bribery, extortion allegations against Trump 'in full public view' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by UANI — House Dems charge Trump with abuse, obstruction of Congress in impeachment articles Trump, White House rip Democrats over impeachment articles MORE (D-Calif.). “If he didn’t say ‘Ambassador Sondland, I’m telling you I’m not going to give the aid unless they do this’ that there’s no evidence of a quid pro quo on military aid.”

“Nonetheless, ambassador, you’ve given us a lot of evidence of precisely that conditionality of both the White House meeting and the military assistance,” Schiff said.