WASHINGTON — The U.S. ambassador to the European Union said Thursday that President Donald Trump directed him and other envoys to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on Ukraine policy and that he disagreed with the directive.
Gordon Sondland's closed-door testimony to House impeachment investigators was aimed at distancing himself from Trump and Giuliani's efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Sondland said he was disappointed Trump instructed him to work with Giuliani, a directive that sidestepped the role of the State Department and the National Security Council. He also said he believed it was wrong to invite a foreign government to conduct investigations to influence American elections.
The ambassador was the latest in a series of witnesses to be privately interviewed by three House committees conducting the impeachment investigation. He was one of several current and former Trump administration officials who have provided new information — and detailed diplomats' concerns — about Trump and Giuliani and their attempts to influence Ukraine.
The investigators will continue apace next week, when they have tentatively scheduled at least eight additional interviews with a mix of State Department diplomats and White House aides. Democrats believe those witnesses can shed more light on Trump's dealings with Ukraine. One of the scheduled witnesses is the current top official at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, who exchanged text messages with Sondland this past summer as diplomats attempted to navigate Trump's demands.
Sondland's attempts to stand apart from Trump and Giuliani are notable since, unlike other career civil servants who have testified in the impeachment inquiry, he is a hand-picked political appointee of the president who contributed $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee. His appearance was especially anticipated since the text messages and other witness testimony place him at the center of a foreign policy dialogue with Ukraine that officials feared circumvented normal channels and that is now at the center of the House impeachment inquiry of Trump.
In prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press, Sondland aimed to untether himself from any effort by the Republican president or Giuliani to have a political rival investigated, joining other current and former administration officials who have communicated to Congress misgivings about the administration's backchannel dealings with Ukraine.
But Sondland's pivotal role in the dialogue, including discussions about a quid pro quo in which Ukraine's leader would get a coveted White House visit in exchange for satisfying Trump's push for corruption-related investigations, may make those assertions tough for House Democrats to accept.
Sondland said he was disappointed by a May 23 White House meeting with Trump, who spurned calls by the ambassador and others to arrange a phone call and White House visit for the new Ukraine leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The president was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reform and curbing corruption and, instead of arranging the meeting his envoys wanted, directed them to talk to Giuliani, Sondland said.
"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 resident's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine."
The envoys, he said, had a choice: They could abandon the goal of a White House meeting with Zelenskiy, something they saw as important in fostering U.S.-Ukraine relations, or they could do as Trump asked and work with Giuliani. He said he did not know until much later that Giuliani intended to push for the Biden probe.
When the phone call finally did occur, on July 25, Trump repeatedly prodded Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens at the same time that the U.S. was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from Ukraine. Sondland said he was not on the call.
"Let me state clearly: Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong," Sondland 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."
Sondland, whose name surfaced in a whistleblower complaint in August that helped spur the impeachment inquiry, is certain to be asked about text messages that were provided to the committees earlier this month by former Ukrainian envoy Kurt Volker.
The messages show Sondland, Volker and Taylor discussing an arrangement in which Ukraine's leader would be offered a White House visit in exchange for a public statement by Ukraine committing to undertake investigations into the 2016 U.S. presidential election and into Burisma, the gas company linked to Hunter Biden. Sondland said he did not know until recently that Hunter Biden sat on the company's board.
One text exchange that has attracted particular attention involves Taylor telling Sondland he thought it was "crazy" to withhold military aid from Ukraine "for help with a political campaign." Sondland replied that Trump had been clear about his intentions and that there was no quid pro quo.
Now, Sondland told lawmakers that Trump told him by phone before he sent the text that there was no quid pro quo and that he was simply parroting those reassurances to Taylor.
"I asked the President: 'What do you want from Ukraine?'" Sondland said. "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 testified three days after Fiona Hill, a former White House aide, said that his actions so unnerved then-national security adviser John Bolton that Bolton said he was not part of "whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up," a reference to White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
But Sondland said that neither Hill nor Bolton personally raised concerns about the Ukraine work directly with him.
In addition to Taylor, impeachment investigators have invited several other officials to testify next. It is unclear how many of them will show up, as Trump has said his administration won't cooperate. Several witnesses, including Sondland, are appearing only after the committee issued a subpoena.
Among the witnesses invited for testimony next week, according to a person familiar with the committees' schedule: State Department officials Philip Reeker and Suriya Jayanti; Office of Management and Budget Officials Russell Vought and Michael Duffey; National Security Council officials Alexander Vindman and Timothy Morrison and Defense Department official Kathryn Wheelbarger.
The person was not authorized to discuss the committees' plans and was granted anonymity.
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