House Democrats announce staffer who described Trump-Sondland phone call will testify publicly this week
US Ambassador Sondland says Trump directed officials to work with Giuliani on Ukraine
U.S. diplomat Gordon Sondland will tell House lawmakers on Thursday that President Trump directed administration officials to work with his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, on Ukraine matters, according to his prepared remarks for testimony as part of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry.
The U.S. ambassador to the European Union offers a forceful rebuke as he seeks to distance himself from Trump and Giuliani's efforts to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate one of the president's top 2020 political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden.
"We were also disappointed by the President's direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani. Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the President's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine," he will say, according to a copy of his opening statement obtained by The Hill.
"However, based on the President's direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region; or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President's concerns," his remarks continue.
Sondland maintains that Trump stressed during phone conversations there was no quid pro quo for the Ukraine financial aid, a matter that has come under intense scrutiny by Democrats who are seeking to determine whether the resources aimed to help Ukraine combat Russian aggression were withheld as leverage to press for a Biden probe.
Trump has previously said he withheld it in order to pressure more European countries to contribute, and his defenders on Capitol Hill have forcefully disputed claims to the contrary.
"Taking the issue seriously, and given the many versions of speculation that had been circulating about the security aid, I called President Trump directly. I asked the President: 'What do you want from Ukraine?' The President responded, 'Nothing. There is no quid pro quo.' The President repeated: 'no quid pro quo' multiple times," Sondland adds in his statement, recalling that the president was in a "bad mood."
Sondland's testimony, which presents an opportunity for the diplomat to offer his side of events, comes amid growing scrutiny of his involvement in the Ukraine affair, particularly after previous witnesses like Fiona Hill, a former top Russia expert, reportedly testified that he was a counterintelligence threat as a result of his inexperience, not bad intentions.
Hill also told House investigators that former national security adviser John Bolton was so alarmed by news of the Ukraine contacts that he asked Hill to instruct her to notify the chief lawyer for the National Security Council about the efforts of Giuliani, Sondland and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, The New York Times reported Monday.
"I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up," Bolton told Hill, according to her reported testimony.
But Sondland in his testimony strongly condemns efforts to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, stating that he did not take part in such efforts.
"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 says.
"I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings. In my opinion, security aid to Ukraine was in our vital national interest and should not have been delayed for any reason," Sondland adds.
Sondland's opening remarks are also a forceful blow to Republicans, who hoped that the wealthy hotel magnate and GOP mega-donor would support the president, rather than pile onto the testimonies that have sharply criticized Trump and Giuliani for their Ukraine efforts.
While Sondland does say Trump told him there was no quid pro quo for the aid, he condemns the actions of the president and Giuliani, suggesting a growing split in support for the president as witnesses involved in the matter to clear their name from the scandal.
His testimony comes as Democrats are rapidly interviewing witnesses about Trump's push for a Biden investigation and questions as to whether he withheld financial aid as leverage for such an investigation.
Democrats had witnesses lined up each day this week, as they hurdle to collect evidence about Trump's Ukraine efforts before the end of the year.
Updated at 11:06 a.m.