'The answer is yes': Sondland affirms 'quid pro quo' in Ukraine dealings

Source: Politico | November 20, 2019 | Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio

His credibility is likely to come under fire.

President Donald Trump’s handpicked Ukraine adviser Gordon Sondland said Trump conditioned a valuable White House meeting for Ukraine’s new president on his willingness to launch investigations into Trump’s Democratic adversaries, including former Vice President Joe Biden.

“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’” said Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, a close Trump ally and GOP donor, in his opening remarks Wednesday to impeachment investigators. “The answer is yes.”

Sondland framed the matter as widely understood across the Trump administration, indicating that senior officials and even cabinet secretaries were aware of the arrangement — and that it was carried out at the “express direction” of the president .

“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said, according to his prepared remarks. And he directly communicated the quid pro quo to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Sondland said. He specifically cited a July 19 email copied to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and “a lot of senior officials.” In that email, he reveals that he “just talked to Zelensky” and secured a commitment for a “fully transparent investigation.”

Six days later, Trump spoke directly to Zelensky and referenced his request for a Biden investigation during a phone call on July 25 that has become the central focus of the impeachment inquiry.

Sondland, whose testimony to lawmakers is shaping up to be the most consequential as Democrats build a case that Trump used the power of his office to pressure Zelensky to investigation his political rivals — and possibly condition nearly $400 million of military aid and a White House meeting to bend the newly elected Ukrainian president to his will.

Sondland told members of the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that he “later came to believe” that the security assistance — which had been frozen at Trump’s direction over the summer — would not be delivered to Ukraine unless the country publicly committed to pursuing Trump’s desired investigations.

Sondland also told lawmakers that he told Vice President Mike Pence on Sept. 1 that he was concerned that the delay in military assistance was tied to “the issue of investigations.”

Ukraine, lawmakers have noted, depends on military assistance from the United States to fight a war with Russia, which has invaded and attempted to annex Crimea. The legitimacy conferred by a White House visit would have also been extremely valuable to Zelensky as he sought to establish his bona fides in a country with a legacy of corruption.

Sondland attributed much of his concern to Trump’s “directive” that his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani be involved in any Ukraine effort. Giuliani had been publicly calling for Ukraine to investigate Biden, as well as to probe a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked a Democratic Party server in 2016. He also fomented a smear campaign against the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the time, Marie Yovanovitch, who was widely respected across the foreign policy establishment.

But Giuliani wasn’t freelancing, Sondland emphasized.

“We all understood that these pre-requisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements,” he said. “Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky. Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma.”

Burisma is a reference to the energy company for which Biden’s son Hunter sat on the board, and several State Department officials have indicated they came to understand that Trump’s demand for an Burisma investigation was code for going after the Bidens.

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