Ukraine Aid Held Up for Biden Probe: Quid Pro Quo Confirmed

WASHINGTON (CN) –  Releasing a transcript of the closed-door deposition, impeachment investigators confirmed Tuesday that U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told Ukraine officials the country would not receive military aid unless it agreed to launch investigations sought by President Donald Trump.

Sondland also described Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as aware that Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was pushing Ukraine-U.S. policy outside of the formal State Department scope.

The information became public Tuesday as the House Intelligence Committee enters the public phase of Trump’s impeachment inquiry, releasing transcripts of confidential witness depositions that have taken place this fall.

Sondland testified under oath, the transcript shows, that he felt certain by early September that any military assistance to Ukraine came with a set of conditions.

The testimony conflicts with text messages Sondland sent to senior U.S. diplomat to Ukraine Bill Taylor, stating Trump was clear that no quid pro quo was occurring between he and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky and that he was not conditioning aid on the launch of an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian energy firm where Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden served on the board.

Sondland had been one of the “three amigos,” as described last month in secret testimony from George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. According to an account of the interview by Representative Gerry Connolly, D-Va., Kent testified he was instructed to “lay low” and leave issues involving Ukraine diplomatic policy to Sondland and fellow amigos Energy Secretary Rick Perry and the special envoy to Ukraine at the time, Kurt Volker.

“You know, this whole thing was sort of a continuum starting at the May 23 meeting, ending up at the end of the line when the transcript of the call came out,” Sondland said in the closed hearing. “And as I said to counsel, it started as talk to Rudy, then others talk to Rudy. Corruption was mentioned. Then, as time went on and again, I can’t nail down the dates – then let’s get the Ukrainians to give a statement about corruption. And then no, corruption isn’t enough, we need to talk about the 2016 elections and the Burisma investigations.”

The ambassador also told lawmakers the investigation was “always described” to him as a project that was ongoing and but one that Trump was reigniting after the previous administration stopped it.

“And then finally at some point, I made the Biden-Burisma connection and then the transcript was released,” Sondland told lawmakers, referring to the summary released by the White House of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky.

Describing a Sept. 1 conversation with Zelensky’s top aide, Sondland said he told Andriy Yermak, the adviser to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, that  the assistance would not resume until Ukraine provided “the anti-corruption statement” officials had discussed for several weeks.

There was a chaotic back-and-forth unfolding at different levels of the National Security Council and Office of Management and Budget as well, according to the ambassador’s remarks.

The disorder often left him confused about who at the respective agencies was aware of what was actually happening with the aid freeze.

“I kept getting different answers from different people. … There was never any clear – any clear articulation by anyone of, is there even a hold, is it a review, is it an audit, is it the Europeans?” Sondland said. “I could never get a straight answer out of anyone.”

Sondland’s testimony also offers some insight into how the State Department viewed meddling in U.S. policy by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Noting that he spoke in “general” terms to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Giuliani’s presence, Sondland Pompeo rolled his eyes and quipped, “Yes, it’s something we have to deal with.”

Along with transcripts from the Sondland and Volker interviews, lawmakers on Tuesday released the complete group of text messages provided by Volker of his conversations with Sondland and Taylor.

One of the messages shows Volker giving Yermak the exact language sought by the Trump administration when announcing the sought-after investigations.

“Special attention should be paid to the problem of interference in the political processes of the United States, especially with the alleged involvement of some Ukrainian politicians,” Volker texted Yermak.

Zelensky was expected to continue: “I want to declare that this is unacceptable. We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections, which in turn will prevent the recurrence of this problem in the future.”

The road to negotiations over the announcement was hard fought, according to Volker’s testimony, which described how officials worked to convince Trump that Ukraine could be trusted.

“They are all corrupt, they are all terrible people. And they tried to take me down,” Volker recalled Trump saying of Ukraine.

Trump believed Ukraine was responsible for undermining his election in 2016 and those ideas flourished with the help of Giuliani, Volker testified.  

When the envoy broached U.S.-Ukraine policy with the president, he said he was rebuffed and told, if he wanted to know more, he would have to consult Giuliani.

It was Giuliani who would know who to talk to and what “bad people” surrounding Zelensky to avoid, Volker recalled of his conversation with the president.

Volker had the chance to speak with Giuliani over breakfast one July morning, a week before the Trump-Zelensky call. 

During the meeting, Giuliani rehashed news reports and floating conspiracy theories that Joe Biden improperly called for the removal of Ukraine’s top prosecutor during the time his son Hunter sat on the board.

The allegation didn’t seem credible to Volker, and he made it known to Giuliani.

“I’ve known him a long time, he’s a person of integrity and that’s not credible,” the envoy said of Biden. “On the other hand, whether Ukrainians may have sought to influence our elections or sought to buy influence, that’s entirely plausible.”

Ultimately, Volker admitted to lawmakers he wasn’t opposed to the idea of Zelensky releasing a statement discussing the 2016 elections or a forthcoming review of Burisma.

But he never connected the dots with the effect mentioning Biden may have, or the implications.

To his mind, the Bidens, Burisma and the 2016 election were three separate issues. His involvement, he testified, was motivated by a desire to put Ukraine in a good position – one that wouldn’t involve talking about anything other than its own citizens, a Ukrainian company and whether Ukrainian citizens had anything to do with the 2016 election.

Publicizing transcripts of Sondland and Volker’s testimony Tuesday is a critical move for House Democrats who centered the earliest stages of the impeachment inquiry around text messages first provided to Congress by Ukraine envoy Volker.

The messages between Volker, Sondland, Yermak, senior diplomat on Ukraine Bill Taylor and Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani showed a weekslong campaign to dangle a coveted White House visit for Ukraine on the condition that it announce the launch of investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian energy firm that hired Joe Biden’s son Hunter in 2014.

The text messages also showed moves by the Trump administration to condition roughly $400 million in military aid on Ukraine’s willingness to cooperate with the United States.

Though the messages showed it was Sondland who led the push to get Zelensky’s team aboard, Sondland testified in October that it would take time for him to fully realize the key role Giuliani played in Ukraine matters. As with many of the witnesses, insight to their sealed testimony has been made possible through access to opening statements and accounts of their testimony by lawmakers.

Testimony from other administration officials like Fiona Hill, Trump’s former adviser on Russia and Europe, has cast doubt on Sondland’s retelling of events. Hill told lawmakers she raised concerns about Giuliani going rogue and inserting himself in State Department matters tied to Ukraine. Hill told lawmakers she raised the alarm to Sondland.

But Sondland testified that “nothing” was ever raised to him about concerns regarding U.S. policy toward Ukraine.

As for Volker, who resigned as envoy to Ukraine in September, he told lawmakers he worked closely with Giuliani only after realizing there was no way to soften a rapidly hardening and poor perception Trump had of U.S. ally Ukraine. That perception was driven by Giuliani, Volker told investigators.

“I therefore faced a choice: do nothing and allow this situation to fester or try to fix it. I tried to fix it,” Volker said in opening remarks.

Though Volker reportedly told lawmakers no one — including the president — ever asked him to do “anything wrong,” Volker also said he actively pushed for a reset of U.S.-Ukraine relations by helping Giuliani arrange a meeting with a Zelensky aide. That meeting was meant to lead to a visit to the Oval Office for Zelensky, but the meeting never came to pass.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, the White House spun the transcript release to match a narrative it has offered since the whistleblower first approached lawmakers about concerns with the July 25 call.

“Both transcripts released today show there is even less evidence for this illegitimate impeachment sham than previously thought,” the White House said. “Ambassador Sondland squarely states that he ‘did not know, (and still does not know) when, why or by whom the aid was suspended.’ He also said he ‘presumed’ there was a link to the aid — but cannot identify any solid source for that assumption. By contrast, Volker’s testimony confirms there could not have been a quid pro quo because the Ukrainians did not know about the military aid hold at the time. No amount of salacious media-biased headlines, which are clearly designed to influence the narrative, change the fact that the president has done nothing wrong.”

The impeachment probe was scheduled to proceed Tuesday with appearances by Michael Duffey, deputy director of national security programs at the Office of Management and Budget, and Wells Griffith, a White House aide to the National Security Council.

House Democrats believe Duffey’s insights could expose the chronology behind the administration’s decision to halt $400 million in military aid to Ukraine. Wells Griffith, serves as both special assistant to President Trump and director on energy and environment issues for the National Security Council.

An hour before Sondland and Volker’s transcripts were released, House lawmakers issued a letter requesting testimony from Mick Mulvaney, acting chief of staff for the White House and director of the Office of Management and Budget. The White House declined on Mulvaney’s behalf late Tuesday.

Mulvaney has been in the administration’s crosshairs for weeks after making a stunning admission to quid pro quo in a press conference, saying that the White House had withheld aid to Ukraine in exchange for a political investigation. When he walked back those remarks later, Mulvaney railed against media distortion.

The OMB’s acting director Russ Vought stonewalled his own request for testimony in the impeachment investigation, and Secretary Perry refused to comply as well. He will resign as head of the Energy Department on Dec. 1.

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