Gordon Sondland To Testify He Took Trump’s Denial Of Ukraine Quid Pro Quo At His Word

WASHINGTON, DC -- The U.S. ambassador to the European Union plans to tell Congress that President Trump personally assured him that there was no quid pro quo relationship between a package of aid for Ukraine and Mr. Trump’s request that the Ukrainians open investigations, including into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, according to a person familiar with the ambassador’s planned testimony.

The ambassador, Gordon Sondland, is expected to testify that he relied entirely on Mr. Trump’s assurances when he told a State Department colleague that there were “no quid pro quo’s of any kind” linking U.S. security assistance to Ukrainian investigations and that he couldn’t independently verify the president’s assertion, this person said.

The interactions between Mr. Trump and top diplomats working on issues related to Ukraine are at the center of a controversy that has sparked an impeachment inquiry by the Democratic-led House of Representatives.

Mr. Sondland is scheduled to be interviewed by several committees on Thursday as part of that inquiry. 

The Washington Post earlier reported on the planned testimony.

The White House had no immediate comment.

In one text exchange released by congressional Democrats last week between Mr. Sondland and William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv, Mr. Taylor expressed concern that there appeared to be a link between a delay in sending almost $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine by the administration and Mr. Trump’s political interests.

Mr. Taylor texted Mr. Sondland in September: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Mr. Sondland wrote back five hours later: “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”

He added: “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”

Before sending that text message, Mr. Sondland spoke to the president for about five minutes by phone to ask whether there was any link between the aid and Ukraine’s agreement to launch investigations, according to the person familiar with the matter.

Mr. Trump “assured him that the aid cut off was not tied in the manner Taylor suggested,” the person said.

During that call, the president seemed to Mr. Sondland preoccupied and unhappy about a matter unrelated to Ukraine, the person said.

Mr. Trump and his allies have pointed to the exchange between the two diplomats as evidence that there was never any political motive in delaying the aid package.

Mr. Sondland’s congressional testimony won’t offer any independent corroborating facts for the assertions of Mr. Trump and his allies, the person said.

The ambassador wasn’t involved in putting a hold on the aid and therefore wasn’t aware if the president was telling the truth or not, the person said.

Mr. Trump ordered the aid put on hold by the White House.

After complaints from lawmakers, it was released last month.

The person suggested that Mr. Sondland accepted the president’s statement as true when he heard it, or wouldn’t have passed it on to Mr. Taylor.

Mr. Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have pushed to have the Ukrainian government reopen an investigation into Mr. Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of an energy company called Burisma Group while the then-vice president was leading an international anticorruption effort in Ukraine.

Mr. Trump raised the issue in a call with the new Ukrainian president July 25, asking him to “look into” Mr. Biden and his son, according to a rough transcript released by the White House last month.

In that call, Mr. Trump didn’t explicitly make the aid contingent on Ukrainian cooperation on that and another investigation, according to the rough transcript, though he did remind his counterpart: “We do a lot for Ukraine.”

Mr. Sondland is expected to face several hours of questioning before congressional committees on his tenure as ambassador—including one incident where he met with Mr. Giuliani on the possibility of reopening a Burisma investigation.

Mr. Sondland and other U.S. diplomats learned in August that Ukraine was drafting a statement saying it would reopen investigations into possible election interference and other matters, The Wall Street Journal has reported.

Mr. Giuliani pressed Mr. Sondland and another diplomat to make sure that it named Burisma Group. 

The statement was never issued over concerns in Ukraine about being perceived as wading into U.S. electoral politics, among other matters, the Journal has previously reported.

Mr. Biden is a Democratic 2020 presidential hopeful.

Mr. Sondland is expected to tell House lawmakers that he understood that Ukraine issuing the statement was a condition for a White House visit for President Volodymyr Zelensky, the person familiar with his testimony said.

“In that sense, it’s a quid pro quo, although all diplomacy is quid pro quo in that sense,” the person said.

Mr. Sondland didn’t view that arrangement as troubling because it was understood that combating corruption in Ukraine was a key element of U.S. foreign policy toward the country, the person said. 

Nominated as ambassador in May 2018, Mr. Sondland is a former hotel executive and major donor to President Trump with no prior diplomatic experience.

In February, weeks after Russia seized a Ukrainian navy ship, he unofficially added Ukraine—which isn’t an EU member—to his portfolio.

Over the next seven months, Mr. Sondland traveled to Ukraine or met with its top leaders repeatedly, presenting himself as a direct line to the White House, according to Ukrainian officials and documents released in the impeachment inquiry.

Mr. Sondland’s role continued to grow after Mr. Trump in May ordered the removal of the ambassador to Ukraine after Mr. Giuliani raised concerns she was undermining Mr. Giuliani’s efforts there.

That ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, told Congress on Friday she was pushed out by what she called a “concerted campaign” led by Mr. Giuliani and other allies of Mr. Trump.

Mr. Giuliani couldn’t be reached for immediate comment.

Source: The Wall Street Journal