Last week, Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the E.U., testified in closed-door House impeachment inquiry hearings about the White House's apparent effort to leverage military aid to Ukraine in return for favors that would benefit Donald Trump politically. Sondland's opening statement distanced him from the work on that front of Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has by almost all accounts pursued a private foreign policy agenda on behalf of the president.
"I do not know what official or unofficial role, if any, [Giuliani] has with the State Department," Sondland told Congress.
Phone and text conversations between VICE and Giuliani predating Sondland's testimony, however, when combined with publicly available documents and reports, suggest this can't be true. They also suggest that Sondland misled Congress, at least by omission, when he said that, to the best of his knowledge, Giuliani’s work was exclusively at Trump's direction.
(The State Department did not respond to requests for comment about inconsistencies in Sondland's testimony.)
According to Giuliani's claims, and testimony before Congress that backs them, a group of senior U.S. officials at State and elsewhere, including Sondland, set up an off-the-books policy-making apparatus that employed Giuliani in, at the least, an unofficial diplomatic role that involved taking direction from State in service of obtaining political favors from the Ukrainian government. It's an arrangement that seems as bizarre to experts as to anyone else.
"As for directing unofficial envoys and insisting on explicit actions from foreign governments," said Nancy McEldowney, a longtime State official now at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, "there's no precedent I'm aware of for that activity."
Senior U.S. officials—Sondland most egregiously—seem to be providing an incomplete account of their work with Giuliani in the events surrounding a pivotal meeting the State Department facilitated in Madrid between the president's lawyer and Andrey Yermak, a close adviser to the Ukrainian president. (Yermak did not respond to requests for comment.)
The complicated timeline involves several players, all of whom seem to have reason to muddy the nature of their interactions with Giuliani. Here's what we know now.
The August 2 meeting in Madrid
In mid-July of this year, then-U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker helped lay the groundwork for a meeting between Giuliani and Yermak, which happened August 2 in Madrid. This meeting has since become a focus of congressional impeachment investigations. While officials have denied that Giuliani worked in any capacity for the State Department, his involvement in this meeting, and the collaborations with diplomatic and foreign officials that followed, strongly suggest otherwise.
Follow-up text message conversations held between Sondland, Volker, Giuliani, and Yermak after the Madrid meeting resulted in a draft statement ghostwritten for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. According to conversations with Giuliani and the above-mentioned text chains—which were released in conjunction with Volker's testimony—that statement would have publicly committed Ukraine to opening investigations that would target Trump's political rivals in exchange for a White House meeting for the Ukrainian leader.
According to Volker's testimony, Yermak told Volker he couldn't accept language specifying Ukraine's commitment to investigating "Burisma" and "2016," references to debunked conspiracy theories about the Bidens and the Democratic National Committee. In response, Volker, who elsewhere in testimony suggested those investigations needn't be political in nature, connected them directly to Trump's campaign. "I agreed [with Yermak]," Volker told Congress, "and further said that I believe it is essential that Ukraine do nothing that could be seen as interfering in 2020 elections." The statement got shelved.
(Volker did not immediately respond when asked for comment.)
In his prepared testimony, Sondland failed to mention the Madrid meeting entirely; he also never mentioned the name of Yermak, a regular point of contact. This is the context within which his denial of knowing Giuliani’s role needs to be understood.
"My best recollection is that I spoke with Mr. Giuliani for the first time in early August 2019," Sondland told Congress. "My recollection is that Mr. Giuliani and I actually spoke no more than two or three times by phone, for about a few minutes each time."
What the ambassador omitted, at least in the portion of his testimony that went public, is the full content of these conversations.
In a phone call with VICE a week before Sondland's testimony, Giuliani described his conversations with Volker and Sondland. "I called them back the day of the [Yermak] meeting. Briefed both of them; called them back two days later; talked to them about four times after the meeting while they were going through whatever negotiations or discussions they were having."
He claimed, "I wasn't talking to the president at that point about it."
A "request" from the State Department
Volker's prepared testimony—offered after Giuliani told VICE in a text conversation that he'd recapped his meeting to both Volker and Sondland—appears to corroborate Giuliani's claims. ("Later," Volker said, "possibly on August 7, Mayor Giuliani called both me and Amb. Gordon Sondland to provide a more detailed readout [of Giuliani's August 2 meeting with Yermak].")
Giuliani further described his mission as envoy in an interview with VICE. "[Volker] told me about [the State Department's] evaluation of the people around Zelensky," he said. "I was to listen to his explanation of the people around President Zelensky and report back the result of that or my opinion on what [Yermak] said." He said the State Department's analysis included admonitions about specific members of Zelensky's inner circle.
Giuliani told VICE he interpreted this as a "request” from Volker, and said "it was understood I would tell them the result of the conversation [in Madrid]."
Volker's story matches up. He told Congress that in his July 19 meeting with Giuliani, "I stressed that I thought it was important that [Giuliani] get the facts straight from [Zelensky's] new team, not from the outgoing Prosecutor General or others who have a different self-interest."
The provisional nature of this arrangement is inherently unusual: "Often senior envoys, people who aren't full-time government employees, are brought in to serve a role," said McEldowney. "In every case I'm aware of, they're given a status within the U.S. government, they're credentialed, given security clearances, and participate in the normal channel of policy deliberation and debate so there's transparency about what they’re doing and why."
Giuliani, though, expressed confidence, telling VICE, "I walked away pretty comfortable that Yermak wasn't going to get himself into a situation where he was dealing with a bunch of crooks."
"Sondland went over the whole thing with me."
In congressional testimony on Tuesday, career diplomat Bill Taylor described a group comprising Sondland, Volker, Giuliani, and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry as "an irregular, informal channel of U.S. policy-making." That group, he said, at first worked with other committed U.S. officials towards strengthening the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. But by August, Taylor said, they had "diverged in their objectives."
(Secretary Perry, in a lengthy Wall Street Journal interview, described a call he had this spring with Giuliani, but has not explained when he realized the extent of Giuliani's work or what, if anything, came of their interactions. Perry's office did not reply when asked for comment about communications with Giuliani and State officials.)
Sondland pleading ignorance to Giuliani's diplomatic role takes on additional significance when we consider what the group appears to have worked on in August: A quid pro quo with a foreign government to increase Trump’s chances at re-election.
A series of texts after the Madrid meeting show a joint effort between senior diplomats and Giuliani to co-author a public statement with Zelensky's office. The U.S. team repeatedly insisted the statement include Zelensky's commitment to opening investigations that would damage Trump's political rivals; for that favor, they promised, Zelensky would receive the honor of a White House visit.
"When we got into the question of the statement," Giuliani told VICE, "Sondland went over the whole thing with me."
It's unclear whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed off on Giuliani's involvement. In September, a "senior administration official" told the Washington Post that "Pompeo and the State Department never authorized what Giuliani was doing." In an official statement this August, the Department underscored that Giuliani was acting solely in his personal capacity and "does not speak on behalf of the U.S. government." And when asked in September on CBS' Face the Nation whether the State Department had been supporting Rudy's efforts, Pompeo replied, "So I'm not — I'm not going to talk about that." He dodged again in a radio interview this Thursday.
Sondland testified that "all my actions involving Ukraine had the blessing of Secretary Pompeo." Presumably this would involve his hand-in-glove work with Giuliani.
Secretary Perry, for his part, has refused to comply with a subpoena from congressional investigators.
The quid scores no pro
Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), a former ambassador who now sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, told Politico last week, "It's painful to me to see this kind of amateur diplomacy riding roughshod over our State Department apparatus."
And that's the kicker: It's not clear if the diplomatic concessions to Giuliani met with any success. Zelensky didn't release the statement that Giuliani, Volker, Sondland, and Trump all wanted. Nor does he appear to have begun in earnest the political investigations Giuliani and Trump covet. And though Zelensky still hasn't received the honor of a White House meeting, Ukraine did get its military aid—with a $141 million bonus from the State Department.
The Giuliani quid, in other words, doesn't seem to have scored a Zelensky quo.
"We were also disappointed by the president's direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani," Sondland told Congress. "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."
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