WASHINGTON (CN) – U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified Wednesday in the latest round of an inquiry to gather impeachment evidence against President Donald Trump. Here are the key takeaways from his marathon day before the House Intelligence Committee:
Sondland says there was a ‘quid pro quo’
Using more direct language today than in private testimony he ultimately amended, Sondland went through the terms that Ukraine was expected to meet to obtain a $400 million military aid package from the U.S. and a White House visit.
Sondland said Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani made it clear the White House meeting was conditioned on the announcement of investigations into the 2016 U.S. election and Burisma, the energy company where Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, sat on the board.
As for the aid, Sondland said he was not explicitly told the aid was conditioned on investigations, but that he eventually deduced as much. He agreed when House Intelligence Committee counsel Dan Goldman asked if it was like adding two plus two.
Still, Sondland on multiple occasions said he was not aware at the time of the connection between investigations into Burisma and an investigation of the former vice president, who hopes to unseat Trump in the 2020 election.
Perhaps just as significant as Sondland’s admission was what Democrats did with it.
In his time for questioning Sondland, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff walked the ambassador through the elements of the federal bribery statute, showing the shift in Democrats’ description of the Ukraine scheme from the Latin “quid pro quo” to bribery.
Federal bribery law requires a showing of a scheme that involves a public official and a “thing of value” offered in exchange for some official act.
Using Sondland’s testimony, Schiff made Trump the public official, the announcement of the investigations the “thing of value,” and the military aid and White House meeting the official act. Sondland agreed with some of Schiff’s contentions, asked in the form of leading questions, though he said he did not want to “characterize” why Trump wanted the investigations or whether they were valuable.
“This is not President Trump’s personal bank account he’s writing a check from,” Schiff said. “This is $400 million of U.S. taxpayer money, is it not? And there was a logjam in which the president would not write that U.S. check, you believed, until Ukraine announced these two investigations the president wanted, correct?”‘
“That was my belief,” Sondland responded.
The shift in focus by Democrats is significant as bribery is one of the crimes explicitly listed in the Constitution as an impeachable offense.
“Sondland’s testimony makes clear that President Trump solicited a bribe — threatening to withhold an official act unless he was given a personal benefit,” Sam Berger, vice president of the Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress and a former policy adviser in the Obama White House, said in an email. “The Constitution makes clear the remedy for such an action by a president: impeachment.”
‘Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.’
Sondland broadened the reach of the scheme to have Ukraine announce the investigations well beyond the “three amigos” that have to this point been at the center of the inquiry. Specifically, Sondland said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was aware of the work the team was doing with Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and that Pompeo was directing former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker to talk with Giuliani as late as Sept. 24.
The ambassador read from a series of emails mentioning the ongoing efforts in Ukraine, including one in which Sondland asked Pompeo if he should set aside time for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Trump to “help break the logjam.”
“I mentioned at the outset that throughout these events, we kept State Department leadership and others apprised of what we were doing,” Sondland testified. “State Department was fully supportive of our engagement and was aware that a commitment to investigations was among the issues we were pursuing.”
Sondland also said he told Vice President Mike Pence ahead of a Sept. 1 meeting with Zelensky in Warsaw that Sondland was concerned the aid package was tied up with the investigations. When Sondland told Pence about his understanding, the vice president nodded “like he heard what I said.”
Sondland also said Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and other senior administration officials were aware of what was happening in Ukraine.
Giuliani forced on the ‘three amigos’
The former mayor of New York City has been a constant character in the testimony of most officials to appear before lawmakers this month. Prior witnesses have uniformly said Giuliani’s role in setting U.S. policy was inappropriate at best.
Sondland said he, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Volker did not want to work with Giuliani, but that Trump ordered them to do so. “We played the hand we were dealt,” Sondland said, to advance U.S. policy in Ukraine.
Sondland said he did not immediately see that Giuliani’s role was improper, but acknowledged that he did not know at the time about Giuliani’s dealings in Ukraine, particularly with Giuliani’s now-indicted associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.
The ambassador said they understood the requests Giuliani made were consistent with Trump’s “desires and requirements.” It was through Giuliani that Sondland and others came to understand the importance of the investigations and that the White House meeting was conditioned on the announcement of the investigation.