Ambassador Gordon Sondland told House impeachment investigators on Thursday that he didn’t know President Donald Trump’s interest in Ukraine had anything to do with 2020 rival Joe Biden. Sondland’s explanation is hard to believe.
In his opening statement, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union said he only recently learned that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani may have tried to get Ukrainian officials to probe the former vice president’s dealings in the country.
But it would have been almost impossible for someone working at the highest levels of diplomacy, who claimed Ukraine was an important part of his portfolio, to ignore the signs ― or the headlines.
Even before Trump’s now-infamous July 25 phone call in which he requested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky launch an investigation into Biden, there was a deluge of press coverage about his son Hunter Biden’s work at gas company Burisma Holdings, and Trump’s interest in it. If that weren’t enough, Giuliani and other Trump associates had spent months openly pushing conspiracy theories involving Biden and Ukraine.
In Sondland’s account of events, Trump held a meeting with him, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and then-special representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker on May 23 in which it became clear that Giuliani would be the president’s point person on 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 stated.
But it shouldn’t have been hard for Sondland to guess Trump and Giuliani’s interest in Ukraine: Giuliani openly told The New York Times on May 9 that he was traveling to Kyiv to push for an investigation into Biden and Burisma. Giuliani was then forced to cancel his trip amid a public backlash and allegations he was seeking to influence the 2020 election. He blamed the cancellation on “enemies of the president” he claimed were in the current Ukrainian administration.
Days before Giuliani canceled his trip, it was also front-page news in The New York Times that Trump and his associates were focused on the Bidens’ history in Ukraine as they looked at Joe Biden as a potential opponent in 2020. The May 2 report specifically highlighted Giuliani’s role in the effort, pointing out that he had met with both current and former top prosecutors in Ukraine to ask about the Burisma investigation.
“Mr. Giuliani has spearheaded the effort among conservatives to publicize and encourage the new investigation in Ukraine,” the Times reported.
Allegations that Biden had sought to quash an investigation into Burisma had been swirling around conservative media for months after John Solomon, an opinion columnist for The Hill, promoted a series of dubious and poorly fact-checked claims from a former Ukrainian prosecutor. His piece on Biden was shared over 37,000 times and prompted far-right outlets such as The Gateway Pundit to run with the story in multiple follow-up articles.
Solomon, now a contributor for Fox News, was also a frequent guest of Trump favorites on the network such as Sean Hannity. Trump even tweeted out, “John Solomon: As Russia Collusion fades, Ukrainian plot to help Clinton emerges,” following one of Hannity’s shows in March — the title of a column claiming a conspiracy between Democrats and Ukrainian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The scrutiny of the Bidens in Ukraine and Giuliani’s role in pushing for an investigation intensified in the months after The New York Times story, with The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Washington Times, BuzzFeed and others all publishing substantial reports on the subject.
Beyond the media coverage, Trump’s most vocal supporters and advisers had made Biden and Ukraine a frequent talking point. Trump 2020 communications director Tim Murtaugh, senior adviser Katrina Pierson and rapid response director Andrew Clark all tweeted about the accusations against Biden, as did various other conservative figures and far-right activists.
Despite the wealth of information on Ukraine, the Bidens, and Guiliani’s rabid pursuit of conspiracy theories related to them, Sondland supposedly missed this entire part of the Trump administration’s efforts. He even told Congress that although Giuliani directly mentioned Burisma to him in August, the company’s name didn’t stand out as worth noticing.
His carefully worded statement also neglected to mention exactly when he finally did come to understand that Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine included pushing for an investigation. If you believe his account, it’s a wonder he ever learned about it at all.