US ambassador to the EU broke from the president in his opening statement to Congress
Donald Trump instructed US diplomats to go through his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to make the Ukrainian presidents access to the White House dependent on launching investigations into Trumps political opponents, the US ambassador to the EU has testified.
In his opening statement to Congress on Thursday, Gordon Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and Trump donor, sought to distance himself from the president, saying he had been disappointed Trump had chosen to conduct an important strategic relationship through his lawyer.
But Sondland insisted he only realised later that the aim of the investigations Trump was demanding was to target the Democratic party and the a potential rival for the presidency in 2020, Joe Biden.
He claimed, for example, he was not aware at the time of his negotiations with the Ukrainians that Burisma, an energy company that Giuliani specifically named, had employed Hunter Biden, the former vice-presidents son.
Sondland is the sixth US official to give evidence at impeachment hearings, and all the more significant because he was a Trump loyalist who was at the centre of deliberations on how to deal with Ukraine. His statement reflects a defection from Trumps ranks and a further sign that the presidents efforts to gag public servants have failed.
Sondland had been first been due to give testimony on 8 October but was blocked from appearing by the Trump administration. After the House committees issued a subpoena, Sondland defied state department orders, saying he was keen to testify.
The ambassador to the EU testified that Trump personally directed the drive to make the investigation a condition for a phone call from Trump to Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and a White House visit for the new Ukrainian president. It is a significant point in the impeachment proceedings being held by three House committees, which are looking for evidence Trump abused his office for political gain.
The key event in Sondlands narrative is a 23 May White House meeting with Trump attended by Sondland, former Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker and the energy secretary, Rick Perry. The three had just returned from Zelenskiys inauguration and were trying to persuade Trump to have a telephone conversation with his new Ukrainian counterpart and invite him to the White House, as a mark of US support.
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 presidents mind on Ukraine was Mr Giuliani, a hotelier and Trump donor.
Indeed, Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I were disappointed by our 23 May 2019 White House debriefing, Sondland said. We strongly believed that a call and White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelenskiy was important and that these should be scheduled promptly and without any preconditions.
We were also disappointed by the presidents direction that we involve Mr Giuliani, Sondland added. Our view was that the men and women of the state department, not the presidents personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of US foreign policy towards Ukraine.
However, based on the presidents direction, we were faced with a choice, Sondland argued. The choice was between abandoning their efforts to strengthen US-Ukrainian ties, or we could do as President Trump directed.
But the ambassador insisted: I did not understand, until much later, that Mr Giulianis 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 presidents 2020 re-election campaign.
When the diplomats talked to Giuliani, the lawyer said the two anticorruption investigatory topics of importance for the president was the allegation that a Democratic National Committee internet server had been located in Ukraine during the 2016 election election (a far-right conspiracy theory) and Burismas activities.
Sondland added: [M]y understanding was that the president directed Mr Giulianis participation, that Mr Giuliani was expressing the concerns of the president.
He also claimed he was not aware at the time that $400m in US military aid had been withheld from Ukraine to add to the pressure on Zelenskiy.
Sondland stated such actions would be wrong but insisted he did not participate in them.