Washington: The US Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, Wednesday became the first witness with a direct line of communication to President Donald Trump to testify in public to the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry. Here are some questions about Sondland and his importance to the impeachment inquiry:
What did Sondland say at the hearing?
Sondland told House impeachment investigators Wednesday that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was pushing a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine that he had to go along with it because it’s what the US President wanted.
“Mr Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president,” Sondland testified. “We did not want to work with Mr Giuliani,” the ambassador said.
But he said Trump told him and other diplomats working on Ukraine issues “talk with Rudy” on those matters. “So we followed the president’s orders.” Quid pro quo is a Latin term meaning a favour exchanged for a favour.
What about keeping Pence and Pompeo in the loop?
Sondland also confirmed he spoke with Trump on a cell phone from a Kiev restaurant the day after Trump prodded Ukraine’s leader to investigate former US vice-president and Trump’s political rival Joe Biden
And Sondland said he kept US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top administration officials aware of what was going on. He said he specifically told Vice-President Mike Pence he “had concerns” that US military aid to Ukraine “had become tied” to the investigations. “Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said. “It was no secret.”
What is the Burisma investigation all about?
Sondland spoke to Trump half a dozen times from mid-July to mid-September, according to the testimony of other witnesses, and shed light on whether Trump abused his power by making US security aid to Ukraine contingent on Kiev’s agreement to investigate Burisma, an energy company on which Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, had served as a board member.
He faced tough questioning from Democratic and Republican lawmakers following his revision of previous closed-door testimony to say there was a link between $391 million (Dh1.43 billion) in aid that was withheld and the investigations Trump wanted. Initially, he testified that he knew of no preconditions to the assistance.
What role has Sondland played in US-Ukraine ties?
Sondland was one of three officials who largely took over US-Ukraine policy in May. Career US diplomats have portrayed Sondland in their testimony as a central figure in what became a shadow Ukraine policy operation, undercutting official channels and pressing Kiev to investigate the Bidens.
But his involvement was viewed as a problem by some White House National Security Council (NSC) officials. Trump named him to the post after Sondland, a hotel entrepreneur, donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.
What is the big deal about Trump calling up Zelensky?
Democrats have heard testimony that Sondland has had frequent contact with Trump and can provide a first-hand account of Trump’s interest in pressing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into the Bidens.
Lawmakers are also likely to delve into the phone conversation between Sondland and Trump on July 26 in which a witness says Sondland reassured Trump the Ukrainians would agree to investigate the Bidens. The call took place the day after Trump’s phone conversation with Zelensky that is at the heart of the inquiry.
David Holmes, a US embassy staffer, testified that Sondland told him after the July 26 call that Trump only cared about “big stuff” in Ukraine, like “the Biden investigation.” He may also be asked about a July 10 White House meeting where, according to the testimony of one NSC official, Sondland made clear that the Ukrainians would have to agree to investigate the Bidens, as well as Burisma, for Zelensky to get an Oval Office meeting with President Trump.
How has Sondland’s story changed?
Sondland told lawmakers during closed door testimony in October that he did not know about any preconditions on US security aid to Ukraine government, which was approved by Congress to help it fight Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
But on November 4, he sent the congressional committees an addendum, saying statements from other witnesses had refreshed his recollection about certain conversations from early September. In his addendum, he said he now remembered that he had told an aide to the Ukrainian president in early September that the US “likely” would not send the aid until Ukraine provided an anti-corruption statement they had been discussing.
Sondland referred to prepared testimony by William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, about a conversation he had with Tim Morrison, a former National Security Council official. In that conversation, according to Taylor, Sondland told an aide to the Ukrainian president that the security money would not come until Ukraine agreed to investigate Burisma.