WASHINGTON (CN) – A former hotelier who landed a big diplomatic post following a $1 million donation to President Trump’s inaugural committee, Ambassador Gordon Sondland took a startling about-face Wednesday as he confirmed a “quid pro quo” directed by Trump and executed by the president’s attorney Rudy Giuliani.
“We weren’t happy with the president’s directive to talk with Rudy,” Sondland testified this morning, reciting opening remarks circulated ahead of the hearing. “We did not want to involve Mr. Giuliani.”
Behind closed doors at the House last month, Sondland testified that he never thought the White House caused the delay of military aid to Ukraine. As witness after witness in the impeachment inquiry contradicted that testimony, however, the ambassador to the European Union is now dramatically reversing his testimony.
“Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” Sondland said, referring to Ukraine’s head of state. “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president.”
Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence leading the impeachment inquiry, seized upon that admission in his lawyerly examination of Sondland.
“Let me get to the top line here, Ambassador Sondland,” Schiff said, going on to recite the statutory language of the federal bribery statute: the exchange of an “official act” in return for a “thing of value.”
Schiff perceives that trade in Trump’s offer of a White House visit in exchange for two political investigations, one sowing confusion about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections and another undermining Trump’s likely rival Joe Biden.
Sondland explained that these sought-after investigations were only for show.
“[Ukrainian President Zelensky] had to announce the investigations,” the ambassador said. “He didn’t actually have to do them.”
Multiple times, Sondland clarified these actions had been “directed by” the president, and the ambassador said that the president’s desires were a matter of simple math.
“Trump never told me directly the aid was conditioned on meetings,” Sondland conceded before adding: “The only thing we got directly from Giuliani was that the Burisma/2016 elections were conditioned on the White House meeting. The aid was my own personal guess. To use an analogy: two plus two equals four.”
After a recess, Schiff told reporters that Sondland’s testimony went “right to the heart” of the bribery issue, as well as high crimes and misdemeanors.
“The veneer has been torn away,” the chairman said.
Sondland’s admission that there was quid pro quo involved in Trump and Giuliani’s dealings with Ukraine spurred a waterfall of headlines as the committee took a brief recess. Republican Representative Mike Conaway lambasted these reports as proceedings resumed, citing how the Washington Post gave Sondland’s testimony Wednesday afternoon a rating of “three Pinocchios” on its truthfulness scale.
Democratic Representative Jackie Speier took the floor next. As she reiterated Sondland’s admission, Conaway interrupted her, saying that the Washington Post still rated it “three Pinocchios.”
Without missing a moment, Spier shot back: “The president of the United States has five Pinocchios on a daily basis, so let’s not go there.”
Public spectators in the chamber burst into applause then and again after a particularly tense exchange where Democratic Representative Sean Maloney of New York pushed Sondland about who would benefit from an investigation of Biden.
Maloney lost patience when Sondland replied that it would be “the person” who asked for the investigation.
“This isn’t a hypothetical,” Maloney said, the passion in his voice rising.
“President Trump,” Sondland replied, his voice now softer.
As the public impeachment proceedings opened last week, Ambassador Bill Taylor swore under oath that Sondland told him President Donald Trump “cared more about the investigations into Biden and Burisma” than preserving Ukraine’s national security or sovereignty.
Sondland confirmed Taylor’s testimony that quoting him as stating Trump wanted Zelensky “in a public box.”
Foreign service officer David Holmes testified that Sondland agreed that Trump “did not give a shit about Ukraine.” Trump cared about “big stuff,” Sondland told him, which Holmes took to mean the “Biden investigations” pushed by Giuliani.
Sondland largely corroborated those accounts, including Holmes’ testimony that the ambassador had told Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass.”
“Yeah, it sounds like something I would say,” Sondland conceded, laughing. “That’s how President Trump and I communicate — lots of four-letter words.”
“In this case, three letters,” Sondland corrected himself.
President Trump meanwhile tried to distance himself from Sondland, talking to reporters at the White House as the House proceedings were underway.
“I don’t know him very well,” Trump insisted. “I haven’t spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though.”
As diplomat Tim Morrison testified Tuesday, however, paper trails suggest otherwise. Morrison said he kept a record each time he suspected Sondland and Trump might be meeting or discussing issues related to Ukraine foreign policy — or any other matter.
Following his usual habit in opening statements, Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, showed more interest in discrediting the proceedings than presenting his party’s perspective on the testimony.
Perhaps expecting the witness’s testimony to be more friendly to President Trump, Nunes warned: “Ambassador Sondland, you are here today to be smeared.”
What followed that introduction would be devastating to the president, repeatedly underlining the central claims against him.
“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’” Sondland told Congress. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
However, Sondland said he never heard Trump himself condition the military aid on an investigation of Biden.
“I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement of investigations,” he testified.
Asked by Republicans about a conversation he had with Trump in which he asked the president what he wanted from Ukraine, Sondland said, “It was a very short, abrupt conversation. He was not in a good mood. And he just said, ‘I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.’”
House Democrats have ditched the Latin phrase, now describing Trump’s actions in Ukraine as bribery: a naked trade of security assistance in exchange for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenky’s announcement of political investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.
Sondland had multiple explanations for the stark contradictions between his closed-door and public testimony, describing his prior statements as a “mistake.”
Complaining about the State Department’s refusal to respond to record requests, the ambassador testified: “I have not had access to all of my phone records, State Department emails and other State Department documents, and I was told I could not work with my EU Staff to pull together the relevant files. Having access to the State Department materials would have been very helpful to me in trying to reconstruct with whom I spoke and met, when, and what was said.”
House Democrats also have cried foul about the State Department’s stonewalling of all records relevant to their impeachment inquiry. Schiff warned Trump to obstruct the probe “at your peril,” risking a new article of impeachment.
At the sidelines of the impeachment inquiry stands Ukraine, a former Soviet satellite at war with a Russian Federation bent on pulling the struggling democracy back into its autocratic orbit.
“I really regret that the Ukrainians were placed in that predicament, but I do not regret doing what I could to try to break the logjam and to solve the problem,” Sondland said.
Vice President Mike Pence traveled with Sondland to Warsaw, Poland, on Sept. 1, but today disputed that he was ever “alone” with Sondland during that trip.
“The vice president never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations,” the Office of the Vice President said in a statement Wednesday.
Representative Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., applauded the Democrats’ lawyer, Daniel Goldman, for pressing an evasive witness on his inconsistencies.
“I think it’s hard to have any meaningful inquiry, particularly with evasive witnesses, when they know that their questioner has a fixed, short period of time in which questions are easy to duck and dodge and filibuster,” Whitehouse told reporters.
Schiff delivered impassioned remarks to close the hearing, thanking Sondland for his testimony and his ability to withhold his own opinion over whether the president should be impeached or if he committed the legal definition of bribery.
That, as Schiff has oft-repeated, is the function of congressional checks and balances and ultimately something for the legislative branch of government to decide — not a State Department official or the president.
“I have a lot of strong feelings about the president,” Schiff said. “But I do not believe that President Trump would allow himself to be led by the nose by Rudy Giuliani or anyone else.”
Schiff noted that it was the president who was responsible for refusing the meeting with Zelensky that Sondland and other officials strongly believed should take place. It was the president who “stood in the way” of a meeting between the U.S. and Ukraine.
“Who was holding up the military assistance? Was it you? Was it Taylor? Volker? Kent? Secretary Pompeo? Who had to decide to release the aid? It was one person: Donald J. Trump, 45th president of the United States,” Schiff said.
The remarks brought public spectators to their feet and, for the third time on Wednesday, applause rang out in the chamber. The chairman posed a question to those watching at home, as well as those sitting beneath the sweeping chamber ceiling, dotted with stars and the busts of giant bald eagles.
“The question is: what are we prepared to do about it? Are we forced to conclude that this is just now the world we live in, when a president of the United States can withhold vital military aid from an ally at war with Russians — when we’re fighting our fight, too — to defend our country against Russian aggression,” Schiff said.
Then, referencing the press conference where Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney delivered his now famous advice, the Democratic chairman answered his own question.
“Are we prepared to say, in the words of Mick Mulvaney, get over it? Or get used to it?” Schiff said. “We are not prepared to say that.”