The U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, testified before the joint House committee considering the impeachment of President Donald Trump today in a closed-door session.
Sondland, 62, a Portland hotel owner and investor whom President Donald Trump nominated to an ambassadorship in 2018, follows a half dozen career diplomats who have already testified in front of the panel investigating whether Trump should be impeached.
Some of those who proceeded him have placed Sondland at the center of efforts to get the Ukrainian government to launch an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, who oversaw U.S. relations with Ukraine while his son, Hunter, worked for a controversial Ukrainian energy company. On Oct. 16, the New York Times reported that a former top White House aide, Fiona Hill, earlier told the impeachment panel that Sondland was "a potential national security risk because he was so unprepared for his job."
Sondland's attorney, Jim McDermott, shared a copy of Sondland's prepared statement, which Sondland told the panel he not shown to the White House or the State Department before beginning his testimony at 9:30 am eastern time today.
In his 18-page statement, Sondland distanced himself from Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, said he didn't know about efforts to convince the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and was unaware that some of his diplomatic colleagues were allegedly deeply concerned about his actions regarding Ukraine.
Here is Sondland's prepared statement.
In his statement, Sondland sought to re-frame the narrative of his participation in Ukrainian communications, which he called "inaccurate and unsourced speculation regarding my work."
Contrary to prior assertions that he inserted himself into Ukrainian dealings despite Ukraine not being a member of the E.U., Sondland said it had been part of is assignment from when he moved to Brussels in July 2018.
Sondland detailed his visits to Ukraine and spoke positively of the career diplomats he worked with, including Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was allegedly force out her post as a result of the informal diplomacy led by Giuliani.
"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 is my understanding that Energy Secretary Perry and Special Envoy Volker took the lead on reaching out to Mr. Giuliani, as the President had directed."
Sondland said he, Perry and Volker debriefed Trump about Ukraine at the White House May 23, 2019 but were dismayed by the reception they got.
"We were also disappointed by the President's direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani," Sondland said. "Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the President's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine."
Sondland tried to distance himself from Giuliani's alleged attempt to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, an effort previous witnesses have reportedly said Sondland was a key part of.
"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 or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President's 2020 reelection campaign," Sondland said.
Sondland also addressed a New York Times report that said former National Security Advisor John Bolton became so concerned about the tenor of a July 10 meeting with Sondland and Ukrainian officials that he asked Hill, who was also part of the meeting to notify White House lawyers.
"Neither Ambassador Bolton, Dr. [Fiona] Hill, nor anyone else on the NSC staff ever expressed any concerns to me about our efforts, any complaints about coordination between State and the NSC, or, most importantly, any concerns that we were acting improperly," Sondland testified.
Sondland also addressed the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which is a crucial part of the impeachment investigation.
"I was not on that July 25, 2019 call and I did not see a transcript of that call until September 25, 2019, when the White House publicly released it," Sondland testified. "None of the brief and general call summaries I received contained any mention of Burisma or former Vice President Biden, nor even suggested that President Trump had made any kind of request of President Zelensky."
That claim goes to the heart of the central question in front of the impeachment panel: did Trump seek to compel Ukraine to investigate Biden, his leading Democratic rival in 2020, and did he withhold $391 million in U.S. aid to convince the country to do so?
Sondland also downplayed his relationship with Giuliani. "There has been much press speculation about my own interactions with Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani," Sondland testified. "To the best of my recollection, I met Mr. Giuliani in person only once at a reception when I briefly shook his hand in 2016. This was before I became Ambassador to the EU. In contrast, during my time as Ambassador, I do not recall having ever met with Mr. Giuliani in person, and I only spoke with him a few times." Sondland added that he recalled speaking to Guliani on the phone "no more than two or three times."
One of those conversations, Sondland said, did touch on Burisma, the energy company that employed Hunter Biden as a director.
"In these short conversations, Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anticorruption issues. Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anti- corruption investigatory topics of importance for the President," Sondland said.
Sondland, however, subtly slammed Giuliani and disavowed any discussion of the Biden-Burisma connection.
"I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters," Sondland said. "However, given the President's explicit direction, as well as the importance we attached to arranging a White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, we agreed to do as President Trump directed."
"Given many inaccurate press reports," Sondland continued, "Let me be clear about the following: I do not recall that Mr. Giuliani discussed Former Vice President Biden or his son Hunter Biden with me. Although Mr. Giuliani did mention the name "Burisma" in August 2019, I understood that Burisma was one of many examples of Ukrainian companies run by oligarchs and lacking the type of corporate governance structures found in Western companies. I did not know until more recent press reports that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma."
Sondland also denied that he'd halted text message communications with his diplomatic colleagues to avoid documenting their discussions about Ukraine.
"Media outlets have misinterpreted my text messages where I say "stop texting" or "call me," Sondland said. "Any implication that I was trying to avoid making a record of our conversation is completely false."
Sondland recounted a phone call he had with Trump about Ukraine that he said was the basis for a text message of his that was released earlier by Congress.
"Given the many versions of speculation that had been circulating about the security aid, I called President Trump directly," Sondland said. "I asked the President: "What do you want from Ukraine?" 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."
Sondland concluded his prepared remarks with a blanket denial of personally having done anything inappropriate.
"Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong," he said. "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."