WASHINGTON — President Trump directed top U.S. officials to work with his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, on efforts to get Ukraine to launch politically helpful investigations, according to Trump’s EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland.
Sondland said he was “disappointed” at Trump’s request to work with Giuliani, according to a copy of his prepared remarks to congressional committees obtained by VICE News on Thursday.
Sondland’s hotly-awaited testimony on Capitol Hill Thursday marks a key moment in Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, which is looking into whether Trump abused his power by pressing Ukraine for politically helpful investigations while withholding hundreds of millions in military aid to Ukraine.
Sondland said Trump told him and other diplomats to work with Giuliani on his concerns about “corruption” — and that Giuliani told him Trump wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine would investigate a company linked to Trump’s 2020 rival Joe Biden’s son called Burisma Holdings.
Giuliani also told Sondland that Trump wanted an investigation into Ukraine’s possible role in the 2016 election, in an echo of a conspiracy theory that, if it weren’t already debunked, might take responsibility off Russia for hacking Democratic computers in an attempt to tilt the election in Trump’s favor.
“Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues,” Sondland said. “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 was name-dropped in the anonymous intelligence-community whistleblower’s complaint that launched the impeachment inquiry last month. The official said Sondland helped “navigate” the demands that Trump made of President Zelensky.
Sondland has called himself, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker the “three amigos” running Ukraine policy.
He said all three were “disappointed” by Trump’s direction to involve Giuliani, but that they were led to understand that involving Giuliani was the only way to develop stronger relations between Trump and Zelensky, including through a White House visit.
“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 toward Ukraine,” Sondland said.
“However, based on the president’s direction, we were faced with a choice,” Sondland continued. “We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region; or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the president’s concerns.”
Sondland said he only realized later that Giuliani might have in mind a plan to gin up politically-helpful investigations in Ukraine.
“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.
That claim has been disputed by other independent reporting, however. According to NBC, Sondland discussed Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company whose board Hunter Biden served on from 2014-2018, with Ukrainian officials at the White House, and continued that conversation in a separate meeting even after National Security Adviser John Bolton called that discussion inappropriate.
Sondland sought to cast his interactions with Giuliani as minimal, and claimed he had no idea that Giuliani's focus was on the Bidens. His prepared testimony says he only talked to Giuliani a handful of times, and while he admitted that Giuliani mentioned Burisma in a call, he claimed he took it as Trump's lawyer just giving one example of a corrupt company in Ukraine and not singling it out.
Sondland's testimony is brutal for the White House, though it's unclear whether he's being wholly transparent with the committees and how much of his testimony is aimed at protecting himself from legal jeopardy while shifting the blame wholly to Giuliani. The whistleblower’s complaint that triggered the impeachment proceedings said that Sondland had helped “‘navigate’ the demands that the president had made of" Ukraine’s president.
Cover: Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, arrives to the Capitol for his deposition as part of the House's impeachment inquiry on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)