In seeking to deny the existence of a quid pro quo that’s become the center of an impeachment inquiry, President Donald Trump is relying on the testimony of Gordon Sondland, a hotel magnate who secured his position as ambassador after giving $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.
Sondland is set to publicly testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday in what has the potential to be the most consequential day of the impeachment saga thus far. Sondland, other officials have testified, was a key figure in the apparent plot to condition the release of U.S. military aid on the Ukrainians announcing an investigation into 2020 political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
The first week of hearings in the impeachment inquiry largely featured testimony from cooperative witnesses. As the White House blocked certain primary witnesses from testifying, Republicans complained that the witnesses who did appear lacked firsthand knowledge of the alleged scheme.
Sondland does have firsthand knowledge of key facts, and his testimony could be combative. The self-described lifelong Republican already had to correct the record following closed-door testimony on Oct. 17, and several other government officials have offered accounts that contrast with Sondland’s.
Sondland, whom Trump named U.S. ambassador to the European Union, took on a major role in Ukrainian policy. He was in communication with Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who was working with two indicted Ukrainian Americans who sought the ouster of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
Sondland, in his testimony last month, sought to portray himself as disappointed by Giuliani’s involvement in foreign relations. Sondland told lawmakers that Trump was “skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption” and that it was “apparent” that Giuliani was “the key to changing the President’s mind on Ukraine.”
He claimed he was “disappointed” by Trump’s instructions to involve Giuliani but that he “did not understand until much later that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate [former] Vice President Biden or his son, or to involve Ukrainians directly or indirectly in the President’s 2020 reelection campaign.”
Sondland, who said he believed he spoke to Trump five or six times since becoming ambassador, claimed he had “no idea” that Trump had brought up the Bidens in the call until the White House released a summary of Trump’s July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
But testimony from other officials raised doubts about Sondland’s story. One key scene took place at a restaurant in Kyiv over the summer, when Sondland called up the president after Trump’s call with Zelensky.
“So, he’s going to do the investigation?” Trump asked, according to testimony from State Department official David Holmes, who will testify publicly on Thursday. “He’s going to do it,” Sondland told Trump, according to Holmes. After the Sondland-Trump calls, Holmes said Sondland agreed that Trump didn’t “give a shit about Ukraine” and cared only about the “big stuff.”
Holmes said he’d “never seen anything like” what he witnessed: someone calling the president from a cellphone in a restaurant in a foreign country and having such a candid conversation.
Holmes said he was surprised that the sensitive conversation took place on a non-secure cellphone call in the middle of a restaurant. “We generally assume that mobile communications in Ukraine are being monitored.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that Sondland kept White House officials informed of his activities, and Sondland emailed acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Energy Secretary Rick Perry ahead of a call between Zelensky and Trump and said the Ukrainian president would assure Trump “that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone.’”
For Democrats, Sondland is a compelling antagonist in the impeachment drama. They can portray him as an unqualified political appointee who had no diplomatic experience before he essentially bought a key position in the Trump administration and acted as Trump’s yes man as he tried to use U.S. military aid for political gain.
CORRECTION: This article previously misstated that Sondland’s phone call to the president from the restaurant took place prior to Trump’s call to Zelensky.