Ambassador Gordon Sondland arrives on Capitol Hill for testimony in impeachment inquiry

Ambassador Gordon Sondland arrives on Capitol Hill for testimony in impeachment inquiry
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The U.S. ambassador to the European Union arrived on Capitol Hill on Thursday morning to testify on the administration’s controversial dealings with Ukraine, becoming the latest witness in the Democrats’ quickly evolving impeachment investigation into President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes MORE.

Gordon Sondland, a wealthy hotel magnate, GOP mega-donor and late Trump convert, was escorted shortly after 9 a.m. into the secure room in the Capitol basement where three House committees — Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs — are leading the impeachment inquiry launched by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Stone judge under pressure over calls for new trial MORE (D-Calif.) just three weeks ago.

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Sondland was a central player in the administration’s campaign to pressure Ukrainian leaders to find dirt on Trump’s domestic political rivals. The campaign led to the ouster of Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, in May, apparently because she’d expressed concerns that the administration was seeking foreign help to influence elections at home.

Sondland did not comment as he was shuttled into the Capitol.

Democrats are eager to press Sondland on his involvement in the Ukraine affair, as they seek to determine whether the Trump administration used financial aid as leverage to press Kiev to investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Hillicon Valley: Dems cancel surveillance vote after pushback to amendments | Facebook to ban certain coronavirus ads | Lawmakers grill online ticketing execs | Hacker accessed facial recognition company's database Vulnerable Democrats brace for Sanders atop ticket MORE, a leading 2020 presidential contender, and his son, Hunter.

Sondland is the sixth witness to be deposed by the three committees since Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry late last month. While Democrats, through much of the year, had focused their investigative efforts on Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, they’ve shifted their sights since a government whistleblower alleged that Trump threatened to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Ukraine if its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, declined to investigate the Bidens.

Text messages turned over to Congress this month by 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, the administration’s former special envoy to Ukraine, revealed a conversation last month between Sondland, Volker and William Taylor, currently the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, in which Taylor seemed to express grave concerns that Trump was hinging the release of U.S. military aid to Ukraine on Zelensky’s willingness to investigate the Bidens.

“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 — and reportedly after Sondland spoke directly with Trump — he pushed back on the suggestion, replying that Taylor was “incorrect.” The administration was interested in fighting Ukrainian corruption in general, Sondland said, not the Bidens in particular.

“The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind,” Sondland wrote. “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.”

The Wall Street Journal, however, reported this month that Sondland had told Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonCongress eyes killing controversial surveillance program Whistleblower retaliation: Stop confusing unlawful attacks with politics Congress looks to strengthen hand in State Department following impeachment MORE (R-Wis.) that the administration had dangled the military aid in return for the investigation — a report that’s sure to be of interest to Democrats questioning Sondland on Thursday.

In his opening remarks, Sondland is expected to separate himself from the efforts of Trump's personal attorney, Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiGiuliani: Bloomberg 'jeopardized' stop and frisk by 'overusing it' Giuliani asked for post-9/11 mayoral election to be canceled so he could stay in office: book House panel says key witness isn't cooperating in probe into Yovanovitch surveillance MORE, and say he took steps to connect Trump with Zelensky at the direction of the president. But he will deny knowledge of efforts to withhold aid as leverage and the extent to which the pressure campaign for a Biden probe went.

“Let me state clearly: Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong. Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong,” he will say, according to a copy of his opening remarks, which were obtained by The Hill.

“I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings,” he will add. “In my opinion, security aid to Ukraine was in our vital national interest and should not have been delayed for any reason.”

--This report was updated at 10:09 a.m.