WASHINGTON (CN) - The White House is set to lose an ally Thursday as U.S. ambassador Gordon Sondland testifies before a congressional impeachment inquiry that he opposed President Donald Trump’s plan to use personal attorney Rudy Giuliani as his foreign-policy conduit in Ukraine.
According to opening remarks released ahead of his testimony, which began behind closed doors this morning, Sondland is expected to tell lawmakers on the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees that he was “disappointed” by the president’s choice to involve Giuliani and reached out himself to the president’s lawyer.
Sondland said it became clearer to him, once he and Giuliani spoke, that Trump sought to schedule a White House visit for Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelensky conditioned on Ukraine launching an investigation into his expected 2020 election opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.
Walking lawmakers through what transpired ahead of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, Sondland noted that he met with Trump in May to debrief him after Zelensky’s inauguration, an event that Sondland had attended with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, U.S. special envoy Kurt Volker and Alex Vindman, director of European affairs for the National Security Council.
Sondland said he emphasized in this chat the importance of strengthening U.S. ties and meeting longstanding U.S. foreign-policy goals in Ukraine. Then, he asked for a “working phone call” to set up an Oval Office visit.
“However President Trump was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption and he directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Mr. Giuliani, his personal attorney, about his concerns,” Sondland said. “It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani.”
It was also Sondland’s understanding that Secretary Perry and Volker took the lead on reaching out to the president’s attorney.
Sondland emphasized several times how letdown he was about the president’s direction, saying he believed it was the State Department that should lead the way with Ukraine on matters of foreign policy.
“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,” Sondland said.
It would not come until “much later,” the ambassador said, but he finally realized Giuliani’s agenda in Ukraine may have also included motives to dig up dirt on the Bidens, with either the direct or indirect involvement of Ukrainian officials.
Sondland said he did not recall any discussions with the White House on withholding military aid from Ukraine to pressure its assistance with Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
Instead, he recalled a late July email with Ambassadors Volker and Taylor in which they all agreed President Zelensky “should have no involvement in 2020 U.S. Presidential election politics.”
Each believed strongly, he testified, that U.S. assistance should not be withheld.
The ambassador also insisted that he believed there was no quid pro quo involved because the president repeatedly reassured him there wasn’t.
“I asked the president: what do you want from Ukraine?” Sondland said. “The president responded, ‘Nothing. There is no quid pro quo.’ The president repeated: ‘no quid pro quo’ multiple times. This was a very short call. And I recall the president was in a bad mood.”
Though Sondland’s admissions are revelatory, there are still corroborating documents and other records that need congressional review. As of Thursday morning, however, the White House and State Department have continued to block Sondland from sharing them.
Sondland’s credibility is at odds with testimony delivered to lawmakers earlier this week by Fiona Hill, the former senior director for European and Russian affairs. Hill reportedly told lawmakers Sondland used a personal cell phone to conduct business, invited foreign officials to the White House informally and was someone whose overall inexperience with Ukraine was considered a liability in diplomatic missions.
A longtime donor to Republican presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and John McCain, Sondland was not always a Trump-first man. In the 2016 election, he first backed Jeb Bush and later, Marco Rubio.
Once Trump defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, however, Sondland invested $1 million in the president-elect’s inaugural committee and in 2017 took over the post of regional vice chairman for the Republican National Committee’s finance committee. It would be another year before Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin would refer Sondland to the administration for an ambassador role.
“Let me state clearly: inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong,” Sondland said Thursday. “Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong. 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.”
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.