It seems hard to believe that anyone could forget telling the Ukrainian government that if they wanted military aid, they should publicly commit to investigations President Donald Trump wanted.
But that is what Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union and a close Trump ally, claims happened.
In an addendum to his original sworn testimony in the House impeachment inquiry submitted this week, Sondland said he now does “recall” that he told a top Ukrainian presidential adviser this on September 1.
This was widely interpreted as a cleanup statement attempting to address some omissions, if not outright falsehoods, in Sondland’s earlier testimony from October 17. Democrats have widely viewed Sondland as the least credible witness testifying so far, and some have even mused that Sondland could be vulnerable to a perjury prosecution.
Sondland’s admission corroborates what several other witnesses had alleged, finally making it indisputable: The Ukrainians were told by the Trump administration about a quid pro quo involving hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance. That is, Sondland told a top Ukrainian official that if they wanted the aid, they should make a public statement committing to investigating Burisma (the natural gas company Hunter Biden sat on the board of) and purported Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
Yet Sondland’s memory continues to conspicuously fail him on several key topics — most notably, the military aid holdup, the Bidens, and Donald Trump’s personal involvement in all this.
Indeed, if you look closely at Sondland’s new statement, he isn’t really offering any new information — he is simply admitting the truth of (some of) what other witnesses and documents have clearly established.
Even in Sondland’s modified version of events, the quid pro quo push came late, it was mainly Rudy Giuliani’s fault, and Trump’s involvement is murky. Sondland even says that he just “presumed” the aid holdup was linked to investigations — he doesn’t admit to being told that by anyone.
Yet other witnesses have testified that Sondland was saying very different things this summer — that he was suggesting a much more concerted effort, that had the support of President Trump and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and that the saga unfolded over months.
Other witnesses say Sondland touted a quid pro quo early on. Sondland says he can’t recall this.
One major discrepancy between Sondland’s account and others’ involves a July 10 meeting held at the White House between top Trump administration officials and counterparts from Ukraine.
According to other witnesses’ reported testimony, several things happened during and after this meeting:
- Sondland told the Ukrainians that, if they wanted to get a meeting with Trump, they had to deliver certain investigations. He said this was part of an agreement he had with Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff.
- After those demands were made, National Security Adviser John Bolton cut the meeting short. He told National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill to report this to the NSC’s lawyers, and to say, “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up.”
- Administration officials then had a debriefing afterward, at which, NSC staffer Alexander Vindman testified, Sondland “emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma.”
- Vindman says first he and then, Fiona Hill, told Sondland that these statements about investigations were inappropriate. Both of them also say they reported their concerns to the NSC’s top lawyer, John Eisenberg, afterward.
Sondland, however, testified that he does not recall any of this. Asked if he brought up investigations at the July 10 meeting, he said, “I don’t remember that.” Asked about witness testimony that he said he had an “agreement” with Mulvaney on this topic, Sondland said, “That I do not recall at all.”
“Neither Ambassador Bolton, Dr. Hill, nor anyone else on the NSC staff ever expressed any concerns to me about our efforts” or “any concerns that we acted improperly,” Sondland testified. He added: “I thought it was a great meeting and we all left happy.”
Sondland’s updated statement does not address this topic. And it’s a big deal, because his narrative has been that the push for Ukrainian investigations was coming from Rudy Giuliani. Vindman and Hill, however, say that Sondland was pushing it himself in early July, and that he claimed he had Mulvaney’s sign-off. (This likely means Mulvaney had Trump’s sign-off.)
Another witness, State Department diplomat Bill Taylor, testified that Sondland talked about the ”investigations” link even earlier — on June 27. Shortly before that, Taylor had asked Sondland to inquire with the White House about why they weren’t scheduling a visit for Zelensky. Sondland reported back to Taylor by phone that (in Taylor’s phrasing) Zelensky “needed to make clear to President Trump” that he “was not standing in the way of ‘investigations.’” Again: purportedly coming from the White House, not Giuliani.
Sondland claims he was clueless that investigating Burisma meant investigating Biden for a while, and is vague about when he learned that
Sondland also made the rather remarkable claim in his testimony that, for quite some time, he had no idea that Giuliani’s demand for an investigation into the company Burisma had anything to do with the Biden family.
“I did not understand until much later that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son,” he said.
Many viewed this repeated claim as rather far-fetched because, well, Giuliani had been extremely clear in his public statements about the Biden angle, as far back as May, and President Trump was extremely clear about the Biden connection in his call with the Ukrainian president in July. More broadly, Sondland would have to be rather clueless to engage in months of conversations about this topic without understanding a key fact about it.
But that is Sondland’s testimony — that Giuliani only ever used the word “Burisma” (not Biden) during their conversations.
Sondland does say he eventually learned about “the Biden-Burisma connection,” but it wasn’t until some unspecified “much later” date.
“I don’t recall when I finally put it together. I don’t recall what the date was or the place was or the time was,” Sondland testified. “I don’t recall.” And he doesn’t elaborate in his newer statement.
Sondland now admits that he started telling several people that the aid was linked to investigations — but he’s still notably forgetful about Trump’s role
In late August, the news finally broke that the Trump administration was holding up hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid that Congress had approved for Ukraine. Lots of people wanted to know why. And Gordon Sondland provided them an answer: It was being held up until the Ukrainians committed to investigations Trump wanted.
- Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said publicly that Sondland told him this during an August 30 phone conversation.
- NSC aide Tim Morrison testified that, on September 1, he saw Sondland tell Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak that the aid wouldn’t come unless Ukraine publicly committed to investigations.
- Diplomat Bill Taylor testified that, on September 1, after he sent an alarmed text to Sondland, Sondland told him by phone “that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.” Sondland added, per Taylor, that “everything” (including the aid) was dependent on that commitment, and that Trump wanted Zelensky “in a public box.”
- Taylor testified that, on September 7, Morrison told him of a conversation that day between Trump and Sondland, at which Trump was adamant that Zelensky had to publicly commit to the investigations. Morrison said he told the NSC’s lawyers about this call.
- Taylor also testified that, on September 8, Sondland told him that Trump was adamant about the public statement from Zelensky. Sondland said he had conveyed that to Yermak and President Zelensky, telling them that they’d be at a “stalemate” if there was no public statement.
Sondland, in his initial testimony, failed to mention any of this.
And in his cleanup statement, he only acknowledges some of it.
Reading the Taylor and Morrison opening statements, Sondland says, “refreshed my recollection about certain events.” He now recalls that around this time, he “presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement.”
Of the above conversations, he specifically says he now recalls the September 1 talk with Yermak. He doesn’t specifically confirm any of the others, but vaguely says “It would have been natural for me to have voiced what I had presumed to Ambassador Taylor, Senator Johnson, the Ukrainians, and Mr. Morrison.”
But note the vagueness of Sondland’s claim that he simply “presumed” this. The other witnesses say he was claiming that he talked to Trump about it several times. Again, it seems Sondland may be trying to minimize Trump’s role in a way that’s at odds with other testimony.
The only interaction with Trump that Sondland has acknowledged is one on September 9. Then, in response to another alarmed text from Taylor, Sondland called Trump. He then wrote back a seemingly scripted text to Taylor hours later saying there was no quid pro quo.
“He was in a very bad mood. It was a very quick conversation. He said: I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing,” Sondland said.
Yet Sondland allows in his new statement that this may not have been the only time they talked during this period. “As of this writing, I cannot specifically recall if I had one or two phone calls with President Trump in the September 6-9 time frame,” he writes.
Stay tuned to find out whether his memory improves further.