Diplomats Tout Note-Taking After Sondland Testimony

WASHINGTON (CN) – U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor carried a notebook in his pocket last week when he testified to Congress. U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, on the flip side, told Congress on Wednesday he is “not a note taker. Never have been.”

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland listens as he testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump’s efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The admission echoed for hours through Sondland’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that he operated under the “express direction” of President Donald Trump to pressure Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden.

“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 the committee. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

But with no notes in hand, the ambassador often fell back on “I don’t recall” when probed for details to frame the events he witnessed firsthand that culminate into what Democrats argue is an impeachable offense by Trump.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., said the bombshell testimony from Sondland “was a John Dean moment,” referring to the Nixon White House counsel jailed for his role in the Watergate cover-up.

Even Dean, in his testimony to Congress, drew on contemporaneous notes.

Sondland blamed the State Department and the White House for stonewalling requests from his lawyers for access to unclassified notes and phone records.

“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,” Sondland said.

The State Department disputed the sworn statement hours later, saying Sondland retains “full access” to his diplomatic records, including his email account.

Pressed by Democrats on his inability to recollect calls from Trump to his personal cellphone, Sondland said the conversations “blend together.”

“I’m doing that all day long and I’m not saying it in a way of being braggadocio or anything like that. But it’s part of my routine day,” Sondland said.

Daily contact between an ambassador and the president, with no official record, is highly unusual.

Sondland’s predecessor, Ambassador Anthony Gardner, said a call with the president would be “a rare occurrence for almost anyone in government.”

He declined to comment on Sondland’s testimony or lack of notes.

“I would just simply say that for any of those kind of conversations that are clearly important, at high level, absolutely…a summary should be and would always be captured,” Gardner said.

While ambassadors typically move through diplomatic channels with a crew of aides, including designated note-takers, Gardner said ambassadors on rare occasions document their own recollections of meetings and calls.

“I would subsequently write a short note, that sometimes would be classified, and it would be circulated to a few people usually by classified email or in a cable,” Gardner said.

Last month, Ambassador Taylor told lawmakers he carries a notebook in his pocket at all times.

“I keep a little notebook where I take notes on conversations, in particular when I’m not in the office, so, in meetings with Ukrainian officials or when I’m out and I get a phone call I can keep notes,” Taylor testified behind closed doors, according to the now-public transcript.

Sondland faced a volley of questions from both Democrats and Republicans referring to handwritten records from Taylor, as well as notes penned by Tim Morrison, former top national security adviser to Trump, and memos by George Kent, a career foreign service officer.

“You have no reason to question Ambassador Taylor, or Mr. Morrison on what they wrote in their notes about your conversation?” Chairman Adam Schiff asked.

Sondland replied: “Could you kindly repeat what they wrote?”

Taylor, the career diplomat who in a text message to Sondland said, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a presidential campaign,” provided damning testimony as the first public official to testify publicly on what he called the “irregular policy channel” guided by the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Democrat lawyer Daniel Goldman probed Sondland with a veiled question on Sondland having amended his closed-door testimony from August, to add that Trump pushed a quid pro quo on Ukraine.

“In your opening statement, Ambassador Sondland, you detailed the benefits that you have gained from obtaining some additional documents over the past few weeks. Is that right?” Goldman asked.

“In terms of refreshing my recollection…correct,” Sondland said.

Under questioning from Goldman, Sondland acknowledged contemporaneous notes help jog memory.

But Democrats in the halls of Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon said they were sceptical that Sondland possesses zero such notes.

“Look, I’m trained as an attorney, so I tend to take notes on absolutely everything” Delaware Senator Chis Coons said. “I’d be surprised if on a meeting that important, he literally took no notes.”

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