In a significant reversal, a top US diplomat revised his testimony to impeachment investigators to admit there was a quid pro quo linking US aid to Ukraine with an investigation into President Donald Trump’s political rivals.
US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland sent the committee a three-page addition to his testimony on Monday, saying he had remembered a September 1 conversation that occurred on the sidelines of a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he told a top aide to Zelensky that the security aid and investigations were linked.
“I now recall speaking individually with Mr. (Andriy) Yermak, where I said resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland said.
Sondland’s new testimony, which was included in the public release of his closed-door deposition transcript on Tuesday, adds to Democrats’ evidence that the President connected the freezing of US security aid to Ukraine to investigations into the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden, which cuts to the heart of their impeachment case against Trump.
The House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees released deposition transcripts of Sondland and former US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker on Tuesday as they shifted toward the public phase of their impeachment inquiry.
In his deposition last month, Sondland testified that he did not ultimately know why the aid to Ukraine was withheld. But he told lawmakers that efforts from the President’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to persuade Ukraine to open an investigation into Trump’s political rivals “kept getting more insidious” as time went on, and he suggested Giuliani’s efforts might have been illegal, according to the deposition transcript.
Sondland testified that it would be “improper” for Giuliani to push the Ukrainians to investigate Biden or get involved in the 2020 election. Asked if it was illegal, Sondland said: “I’m not a lawyer, but I assume so.”
In his testimony, Volker said that the Ukrainians had asked to be put in touch with Giuliani — whose efforts have been described by other witnesses as a shadow foreign policy outside of State Department channels — because they believed “that information flow would reach the President.” He said he was surprised and troubled by what was said on the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“It creates a problem again where all of the things that we’re trying to do to advance the bilateral relationship, strengthen our support for Ukraine, strengthen the positioning against Russia is now getting sucked into a domestic political debate in the U.S., domestic political narrative that overshadows that. And I think that is extremely unfortunate for our policy with Ukraine,” Volker said.
Still, Volker’s testimony also provided Trump and his allies with fodder, as they’ve been pushing for it to be released publicly. Volker told lawmakers that he didn’t know about any “quid pro quo” linking US military assistance to the announcement of Ukrainian investigations into Biden and the Democrats.
“You asked what conversations did I have about that quid pro quo, et cetera,” Volker said. “None, because I didn’t know that there was a quid pro quo.”
He testified that after learning about the holdup of US military aid, Volker worked to get the assistance resumed, and that he never believed it was linked to Trump’s desire for a probe of the Bidens.
Volker also said that the Ukrainians didn’t know about the holdup of military assistance until after the Trump administration stopped pressing them to announce an investigation into the Bidens. This testimony bolsters a key tenet of Trump’s defense — that there was no “quid pro quo” with Ukraine because the new government in Kiev was not aware that military aid was being withheld.
“To my knowledge, the news about a hold on security assistance did not get into Ukrainian Government circles, as indicated to me by the current foreign minister, then diplomatic adviser, until the end of August,” Volker said. “And by the time that we had that, we had dropped the idea of even looking at a statement.”
But Volker appeared to be unaware that on September 1, Sondland told Zelensky’s political aide that the security aid and the announcement of a public investigation were in fact linked.
House Democrats have now released transcripts from four of the 13 closed-door deposition they’ve conducted thus far as Democrats shift toward public hearings in the impeachment inquiry, which could begin as soon as next week.
Volker and Sondland, along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, dubbed themselves the “three amigos” who handled US-Ukraine policy. Text messages provided to Congress from Volker, who resigned last month from his post as the Ukraine scandal was unfolding, show his exchanges with Giuliani and senior State Department diplomats. He denied participating in any effort to dig up political dirt on Biden, but the texts revealed that he had talked to Ukrainian officials about launching politically charged investigations.
Democrats seek clarification from Sondland
Democrats, meanwhile, have called on Sondland to clarify his testimony after he appeared behind closed doors on October 17. Sondland’s initial testimony appears to have been contradicted by at least two other witnesses, according to CNN reporting and publicly released statements. At the heart of the discrepancy, which Sondland’s clarification appears attempting to address, is whether Sondland ever explicitly linked US actions to requests for Ukraine to launch investigations into the Bidens, and whether he had dangled White House visits or US military aid as a potential quid pro quo.
In his October testimony, Sondland said the President had told him directly that “there is no quid pro quo.”
But Sondland told the House committees that he eventually became aware that Ukraine aid was held up to entice Ukrainian corruption investigations, and eventually realized the investigation was linked to the Bidens.
“Finally at some point I made the Biden-Burisma connection, and then the transcript was released,” Sondland said during his testimony. He said he couldn’t remember specific dates, and for some time hadn’t made the connection between the Bidens and Burisma, the Ukrainian natural resources company for which Hunter Biden sat on the board.
Sondland described “a continuum,” beginning with a May 23 meeting and “ending up at the end of the line when the transcript of the call came out.”
“It started as talk to Rudy, then others talk to Rudy,” he explained. “Corruption was mentioned. Then, as time went on— and, again, I can’t nail down the dates — then let’s get the Ukrainians to give a statement about corruption. And then, no, corruption isn’t enough, we need to talk about the 2016 election and the Burisma investigations.”
Former US envoy illuminates key meeting
Volker’s testimony provided more detail into the May 23 meeting with Trump in which the President directed his aides to “talk to Rudy” about Ukraine. In that meeting, Volker and other administration officials recommended Trump schedule an Oval Office meeting with the newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But Trump was skeptical.
“They are all corrupt, they are all terrible people,” Volker recalled Trump saying. “I don’t want to spend any time with that.”
Volker said he became aware of the hold on aid on July 18 — before the Trump-Zelensky call — but he did not find out the reason for the hold.
“Nobody ever gave a reason why,” Volker said.
Volker explained that he advised the Ukrainians to drop a public announcement of an investigations into the 2016 election and Burisma after learning that the Justice Department had not requested them, despite what Giuliani was promoting.
“It died. I mean, no one—once we started seeing a tempo of engagement with Ukraine, we had first the sense that Rudy was not going to be convinced that it meant anything, and, therefore, convey a positive message to the President if it didn’t say Burisma and 2016,” Volker said. “I agreed with the Ukrainians they shouldn’t do it, and in fact told them just drop it, wait till you have your own prosecutor general in place. Let’s work on substantive issues like this, security assistance and all. Let’s just do that. So we dropped it.”
Volker testified that he personally told Giuliani that the source of many of those theories was “not credible.” Giuliani has spent much of this year spreading theories about former Vice President Biden and the Democrats peddled by former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsnko.