Sondland testimony looms over impeachment hearings this week

Dramatic testimony from U.S. diplomats working in Ukraine have significantly raised the stakes for this week’s impeachment inquiry appearance from Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandGOP chairman vows to protect whistleblowers following Vindman retirement over 'bullying' Top Democrat slams Trump's new EU envoy: Not 'a political donor's part-time job' Trump names new EU envoy, filling post left vacant by impeachment witness Sondland MORE, the mega-donor to President TrumpDonald John TrumpUPS, FedEx shut down calls to handle mail-in ballots, warn of 'significant' problems: report Controversial GOP Georgia candidate attempts to distance from QAnon Trump orders TikTok parent company to sell US assets within 90 days MORE who is now the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

Sondland is expected to come under tough questioning from Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday after shifting his initial statement in the inquiry to acknowledge it was his belief that Trump linked Ukrainian security assistance to that country announcing investigations into former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenOn The Money: Economists flabbergasted after Congress leaves with no deal | Markets rise as the economy struggles | Retail sales slow in July Congress exits with no deal, leaving economists flabbergasted Trump touts NYC police union endorsement: 'Pro-cop all the way' MORE and his son Hunter.

Testimony last week from William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, has also put a new spotlight on Sondland. Taylor testified that one of his staffers overheard Sondland speaking with Trump about the desired investigations into Biden and 2016 election interference.

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The staffer, David Holmes, then testified about what he heard to House lawmakers in a closed-door deposition on Friday. In his opening statement, first reported by CNN, Holmes said that he heard Trump ask if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is "gonna do the investigation," to which Sondland replied that Zelensky will do "anything you ask him to."

Tim Morrison, the top Russia adviser on the White House National Security Council, also revealed in closed-door testimony unveiled over the weekend that Sondland said he was getting direction from Trump to push for the investigations. He will take the stand the day before Sondland, adding pressure on the ambassador to clear up his side of the story.

Democrats have expressed unhappiness with Sondland’s changing story and questioned his credibility.

"I think he shaves a lot of truth from his answers, and I think he's going to have to pay for it. He certainly is going to have to come in and try and rehabilitate himself. But there's probably going to be questions on both sides of the aisle as to whether or not he's capable of telling the truth," said Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog to weigh probe of Trump advancements on Pebble Mine | Interior finalizes public lands HQ move out West over congressional objections | EPA to issue methane rollback: report Watchdog to weigh probe of Trump administration advancements of Pebble Mine Congress must enact a plan to keep government workers safe MORE (D-Calif.), an Intelligence Committee member.

Republicans may do little to defend the ambassador, who is one of the few witnesses who has spoken directly to Trump about the aid to Ukraine.

Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsChris Wallace rips both parties for coronavirus package impasse: 'Pox on both their houses' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump goes birther again; no deal on COVID-19 package Overnight Health Care: Senate leaves until September without coronavirus relief deal | US records deadliest day of summer | Georgia governor drops lawsuit over Atlanta's mask mandate MORE (R-N.C.), a top Trump ally who sat in on Sondland’s deposition as a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, described Sondland as “the wild card for everybody.”

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“They're all wondering what Sondland's going to say and how he's going to say it,” Meadows said.

GOP lawmakers have repeatedly faulted impeachment witnesses so far for their second- or thirdhand accounts of Trump’s Ukraine policies, but Sondland potentially offers a chance to cut through the game of “telephone.”

“He's important because he's a first-person witness, and he is a direct link to the president. So he's going to be very important,” said Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesMany Democrats want John Bolton's testimony, but Pelosi stays mum SEC's Clayton demurs on firing of Manhattan US attorney he would replace Democrats face tough questions with Bolton MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the Intelligence Committee.

The challenge, Himes said, will be to pin Sondland down on precise details. In his closed-door testimony last month, Sondland repeatedly responded to investigators’ questions by saying that he did not recall events or details that allegedly transpired.

“It is interesting that Sondland's testimony in the deposition was perhaps not complete. What we don't have evidence of is of him outright lying,” Himes said. “I think that imposes a burden on us to be particularly specific in the questioning.”

Republicans repeatedly dismissed testimony last week from Taylor, as well as George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, as only secondhand with limited direct knowledge of Trump’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to open the investigations he wanted.

Taylor revealed during his testimony before the cameras that one of his staffers overheard a phone call between Sondland and Trump on July 26, the day after Trump spoke with Zelensky about looking into the Biden family.

But Meadows predicted that Sondland would not offer evidence of Trump telling him that the aid to Ukraine was conditioned on opening the investigations into the Bidens and a conspiracy theory about 2016 election interference.

“I think what you’ll find is that anytime he had direct contact with the president of the United States, and not Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiTrump touts NYC police union endorsement: 'Pro-cop all the way' Feehery: Weak mayors destroy America's great cities Coronavirus concerns emerge around debates MORE or others, that the message was clear: There was no condition placed on aid, nor was there any conditionality expected,” Meadows said.

Still, Meadows downplayed the centrality of Sondland’s involvement despite his firsthand interactions with Trump.

“I don't see Ambassador Sondland as being the key to whether this president is impeached or not,” he said.

Sondland originally testified during a closed-door deposition in mid-October that he did not definitively know why the aid to Ukraine was withheld. He also told lawmakers that he asked Trump in an early September phone call what he wanted from Ukraine. Trump, according to Sondland, said: "I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing."

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"And I said: 'What does that mean?' And he said: 'I want him to do what he ran on.' And that was the end of the conversation. I wouldn't say he hung up on me, but it was almost like he hung up on me," Sondland added.

But Sondland later revised his testimony after reviewing statements from other witnesses that "refreshed [his] recollection about certain conversations." Sondland stated that he "presumed" that the suspension of military aid to Ukraine was in fact linked to the Ukrainian government announcing the desired investigations.

He also said that he told a top adviser to Zelensky that the aid would likely not resume until Ukraine moved forward with the probes.

"I now recall speaking individually with Mr. [Andrey] Yermak, where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks," Sondland said.

The inconsistency has raised eyebrows in both parties.

“He has some questions to answer with regards to the addendum that he submitted,” said Rep. Lee ZeldinLee ZeldinDemocrat Nancy Goroff wins NY primary to challenge Lee Zeldin Congress pulls punches on Russian bounties firestorm US lawmakers call on EU to label entire Hezbollah a terrorist organization MORE (R-N.Y.), a House Foreign Affairs Committee member who attended Sondland’s closed-door deposition.

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Sondland won’t be the only witness with direct knowledge of Trump’s actions on Ukraine to testify this week.

Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanVindman describes 'campaign of bullying, intimidation and retaliation' by Trump, allies in op-ed Vindman marks 1 year since call that led to Trump's impeachment White House officials alleged Vindman created hostile work environment after impeachment testimony: report MORE, the director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, a foreign service officer assigned to Vice President Pence’s office, were both on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky and will testify on Tuesday morning.

Vindman also testified that he heard Sondland say during a meeting that “the Ukrainians would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens.”

Later Tuesday, former special envoy to Ukraine 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, who worked closely with Sondland and participated in a May meeting with Trump, as well as Morrison, will testify before the public.

After Sondland testifies on Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee will hear from Defense Department official Laura Cooper and David Hale, the under secretary of State for political affairs. 

Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia, is scheduled to be the last to testify publicly on Thursday. 

Mike Lillis contributed.