Democrats set to grill ambassador embroiled in Ukraine controversy

Democrats set to grill ambassador embroiled in Ukraine controversy
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Democrats are plowing ahead with their impeachment inquiry Tuesday, as lawmakers prepare to question the U.S. ambassador to the European Union over his role in President TrumpDonald John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries MORE’s dealings with Ukraine.

Gordon Sondland — a wealthy hotelier, longtime Republican donor and, more recently, Trump convert — is scheduled to testify behind closed doors before members of three House committees as part of a fast-moving investigation into allegations that Trump leveraged military aid to Ukraine in return for political favors from the country's president, Volodymyr Zelensky.


Sondland is the third Trump official to face questioning from lawmakers surrounding the Ukraine affair, following last week's closed-door testimony from Kurt VolkerKurt VolkerGOP senators request details on Hunter Biden's travel for probe Yovanovitch retires from State Department: reports Live coverage: Senators enter second day of questions in impeachment trial MORE, Trump's former envoy to Kiev, and Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the nation's intelligence community.

Tuesday’s testimony might prove to be the most politically animated, as the E.U. ambassador has emerged as a vocal Trump loyalist who quickly defended the president’s Ukraine dealings in the face of concern from other leading U.S. diplomats.

Sondland has no previous diplomatic experience, and Democrats are sure to press him about his divergent interpretation of events, as well as his request — revealed last week in publicized text message conversations provided to lawmakers by Volker between top State Department officials — that the diplomats discussing Trump’s intentions shift from texts to phone calls, where there would be no record of what was said.

“They're confusing international cooperation on economic and military and security objectives with the president converting the office of the presidency into an instrument of reelection and an instrument of private self-enrichment,” Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinHouse Democrats launch probe into NIH and FBI suspecting Chinese Americans of espionage Barr to testify before House Judiciary panel The Hill's Morning Report - Sanders, Buttigieg do battle in New Hampshire MORE (D-Md.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN on Monday, referring to Trump’s GOP defenders. “That's what this president has done.”


In the messages that Volker provided to Congress, Sondland rejected concerns from a career diplomat, William Taylor, that Trump wanted the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on domestic political opponents like former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Biden'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate Sanders nabs endorsement from Congressional Hispanic Caucus member Poll: Sanders holds 7-point lead in crucial California primary MORE.

"As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold assistance for help with a political campaign," Taylor wrote in a Sept. 9 message.

Hours later, Sondland replied, "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. The president is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign. I suggest we stop the back and forth by text," Sondland wrote.

Trump’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill are leaning on Sondland’s text message as evidence that the president did nothing wrong in his dealings with Ukraine — an argument they’re sure to amplify surrounding the ambassador’s private testimony on Tuesday.

“You know what Ambassador Volker told us about that text message? He said, we knew that was the truth, and he was speaking for us all, and that had been — that had been the case throughout the negotiations,” Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTrump adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify Booker, Merkley propose federal facial recognition moratorium Ex-Ohio State wrestler claims Jim Jordan asked him to deny abuse allegations MORE (Ohio), the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Despite his message to Taylor, the Wall Street Journal reported that Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonWhistleblower retaliation: Stop confusing unlawful attacks with politics Congress looks to strengthen hand in State Department following impeachment Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony MORE (R-Wis.) was told by Sondland that the Trump administration was demanding Ukraine launch an investigation in exchange for the military aid. But Johnson said that Trump denied that was the case when he followed up with the president on his own.

Sondland is shown defending Trump in other text messages that Volker provided to Congress.

In one message from just days before the Trump-Zelensky call on July 25, Taylor warned that "Zelensky is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics."

Sondland replied, "Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative."

On Sept. 1, Taylor asked Sondland about the prerequisites for a White House visit by Zelensky.

"Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Taylor asked.

"Call me," Sondland replied.

A week later, Sondland texted Volker and Taylor that there had been "multiple convos with Ze, Potus" and suggested they speak over the phone to discuss.

"The nightmare is they give the interview and don't get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit.)," Taylor wrote.

Sondland is also mentioned in the intelligence community whistleblower complaint, which said Sondland accompanied Volker to meetings in Kiev with Zelensky and other Ukrainian political figures providing advice about how to "navigate" Trump's demands.

The complaint also said Sondland and Volker had spoken with Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiKerry responds to Trump accusation he violated Logan Act: 'Another presidential lie' Giuliani worked for Dominican Republic candidate amid Ukraine efforts: report Democratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe MORE, in an effort to "contain the damage" to national security. The two diplomats allegedly met with members of the Ukrainian government to help them understand the different messages they were receiving from "official U.S. channels on the one hand and from Mr. Giuliani on the other."

Sondland wasn't always so aligned with Trump.

In the 2016 cycle, he initially backed Jeb Bush in the GOP primary, giving $25,000 to the PAC supporting the former Florida governor. And in an episode widely reported by local news outlets at the time, Sondland was among several regional executives to cancel an appearance at a Trump fundraiser in Seattle just months before the elections, largely to protest Trump's attacks on the parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.

When Trump won the White House, Sondland changed his tune, donating $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee. He was nominated for the E.U. ambassador post in May 2018, and the Senate confirmed him with bipartisan support a month later.

Sondland has lent financial support to both political parties, spanning almost four decades, though the donations have tilted heavily toward Republicans, to whom he has given more than $450,000, according to the Federal Election Commission.

The three House committees — Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight — are still trying to secure dates for depositions with other potential witnesses for their impeachment inquiry, including George Kent, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, and State Department Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl.

They have also requested depositions with three of Giuliani’s business associates — Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman and Semyon Kislin — but so far none have been confirmed. The attorney for Parnas and Fruman said Monday that they would not comply with the requests.

But Marie Yovanovitch, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until May when the Trump administration recalled her from the post, is set to testify in closed session on Friday, committee aides said.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Trump ordered Yovanovitch’s removal after Giuliani and other outside allies said she was undermining efforts to persuade the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden.

“We need to learn more about what exactly was done within the State Department to visit retribution on people who weren't on the Giuliani train,” Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesHouse Republicans boycott public Intelligence panel hearing Democrats criticize Medal of Freedom for Limbaugh as 'slap in the face' Twitter users invoke Merrick Garland after McConnell, Graham comments on impeachment trial MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC on Monday.

“We've got to get to the bottom of that.”