If Kurt Volker’s testimony to House impeachment investigators was bad, Gordon Sondland’s may be even worse.
Transcripts from both men’s depositions were released on Tuesday. Volker told lawmakers that Rudy Giuliani was warned repeatedly that his sources in Ukraine (specifically, Yuri Lutsenko) were “not credible”. Giuliani was also told that the allegations against Joe Biden “simply” weren’t true.
Volker and Sondland were two of the “three amigos” – Rick Perry was the third – tasked with effectively bridging the gap between Giuliani’s clandestine push to pressure Ukraine into opening investigations into Trump’s political foes and official US policy towards Kyiv.
Sondland’s opening statement (released last month concurrent with his testimony) contained multiple references to “disappointment” in Giuliani’s role. Sondland also sought to “explain” a series of highly questionable text messages between himself and Chargé d’Affaires Bill Taylor which were turned over to Congress by Volker. You can read them all here, but this is the exchange which House Democrats were keen to hear more about when Taylor testified:
Thanks to Sondland’s deposition, we know that Trump effectively dictated that latter text.
“Taking the issue seriously, and given the many versions of speculation that had been circulating about the security aid, I called President Trump directly. I asked the President: ‘What do you want from Ukraine?’”, Sondland said, in his prepared statement. “The President responded, ‘Nothing. There is no quid pro’. The President repeated: ‘no quid pro quo multiple times’”.
That call (which, again, informed the last text message shown above) was “very short”, Sondland told lawmakers, adding that as he recalls, “the President was in a bad mood”.
The transcript of that deposition released on Tuesday makes it abundantly clear that Sondland knew there was, in fact, a quid pro quo. Sondland describes Giuliani’s demands as “insidious”.
Mr. Giuliani’s demands “kept getting more insidious” as Ambassador Sondland “became aware that there might be a link between the White House visit and aid to the Ukraine that was being held up.” (Page 91-92, 240, 253-254)
Q: When did you first get an inkling of what Mr. Giuliani was interested in?
A: You know, this whole thing was sort of a continuum, starting at the May 23rd meeting, ending up at the end of the line when the transcript of the call came out. And as I said to counsel, it started as talk to Rudy, then others talk to Rudy. 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. And it was always described to me as ongoing investigations that had been stopped by the previous administration and they wanted them started up again. That’s how it was always described. And then finally at some point I made the Biden-Burisma connection, and then the transcript was released. So I can’t tell you on that continuum when, what dates, but that’s kind of what happened. … Because the first time I recall hearing about 2016 and Burisma was during the negotiations of the press statement. Again, unless there’s some text that I’ve completely have [sic] forgotten about, that’s when I first remember getting into those issues. It was always just about corruption prior to that. It kept—it kept getting more insidious as [the] timeline went on, and back in July, it was all about just corruption. … The continuum was, first of all, an unconditional phone call and an unconditional invitation to the White House, and then I believe the next part of the continuum was some kind of a commitment to investigate corruption generally. And then the next part of the continuum was talking about the Burisma and the 2016 election, which as I recall, was heavily discussed during the negotiation of the short-lived press statement, which only lasted a few days, and then it died. And then at the end of that continuum I became aware that there might be a link between the White House visit and aid to the Ukraine that was being held up when I couldn’t get a straight answer as to why the aid was being held up, both Senator Johnson and Ambassador Taylor raised the possibility that there might be a link. And then the aid was released, and then this whole thing blew up. That’s the best I can recall the sort of progression.
That bolded bit would appear to be extremely damning for the White House. It suggests that Sondland – a Trump donor and someone the president has variously suggested would exonerate him – in fact told lawmakers that over the course of several months, it became increasingly clear that at the least, a White House visit for Volodymyr Zelensky was contingent upon a public announcement of investigations into Joe Biden and Democrats.
What’s also apparent from the transcript is that Sondland “doesn’t recall” a lot. Specifically, he “doesn’t recall” the following:
- …having a call with President Zelensky, Ambassador Volker, Ambassador Taylor, and Secretary Perry on June 28, 2019, but he did recall “negotiating a public statement to get a Burisma, 2016 … the language that was being proposed by Giuliani.”
- …if he had a conversation with Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney about a potential White House visit for President Zelensky or whether he had ever stated that there was an agreement to schedule a White House visit if Ukraine agreed to open specific investigations.
- …details about a July 10, 2019, White House meeting with Ukrainian officials, including whether he had requested that Ukraine conduct specific investigations. (Page 109-110, 112-114)
- … if the word “Burisma” was mentioned in the meetings
- …whether, as publicly reported, he had told Senator Ron Johnson that the freezing of U.S. security assistance was linked to the specific investigations that President Trump and Mr. Giuliani wanted.
Crucially – and this is the bombshell – a footnote in the transcript shows that Sondland revised his testimony after it was refuted by Taylor. To wit:
2 In his supplemental declaration, Ambassador Sondland stated that “by the beginning of September 2019, and in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement” and “it would have been natural for me to have voiced what I had presumed to Ambassador Taylor, Senator Johnson, the Ukrainians, and Mr. Morrison.” Ambassador Sondland acknowledged telling one of President Zelensky’s advisors in Warsaw that “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.” (Decl. Page 2)
So, Sondland initially suggested it was only the White House visit that was contingent on the investigations. Bill Taylor disputed that. Sondland then revised his testimony to admit he was aware of a second quid pro quo – that tied to the military aid.
In other words, both the White House visit and the aid were contingent on investigations into the Bidens and Democrats.
“Sondland [said] he had failed to recall the episode when he testified in person last month”, Politico notes, adding that Sondland “had a direct line to Trump, was a major donor to his 2016 presidential campaign, and had previously indicated he was not aware of any effort to connect military aid to Trump’s demand for politically motivated investigations”.
And it gets worse. Below, find selected excerpts from the transcript.
With respect to the “demands” made by President Trump and Rudy Giuliani to investigate the 2016 election and Burisma, “those conditions would have to be complied with prior to getting a meeting.” (Page 280, 282-283)
Q: There were demands, weren’t there, that an investigation take place of 2016 or Burisma? Ultimately those were demands, were they not? A: Ultimately, yes.
Q: And it’s fair to say that you had to navigate those demands, you had to accommodate what the President and his lawyer wanted, if you were going to set up this meeting you thought very important? A: I think that’s fair.
Q: But I think you said, Ambassador, that over time things got more and more insidious. I think those were your words. It started out with no condition, and then there was a condition for investigation into the corruption, and then there was a condition of an investigation into 2016 and Burisma, and then on the call itself it became clear the condition was investigation of 2016 and the Bidens. I think you described that as becoming more and more insidious, correct? A: That’s correct.
Q: And isn’t it also fair to say that because there were added conditions to this meeting that Ukraine desperately wanted and that you wanted to make happen, that that meeting wasn’t going to happen unless Ukraine played ball in meeting the demands of the President and Mr. Giuliani? Isn’t that a fair use of that colloquial expression? A: Well, that expression came up in previous testimony, and I’d never heard the term “play ball.”
Q: But you understand what that means, right? A: If you mean that those conditions would have to be complied with prior to getting a meeting, that was my understanding.
With respect to President Trump’s demand that Ukraine investigate the Bidens, “whatever the Ukrainians were going to promise in any context, he wanted it public.” (Page 142-143)
A: I believe that what Mayor Giuliani passed on, or I believe what I heard from Ambassador Volker, likely coming from Mayor Giuliani, because the President never made that statement directly to me or to anyone, to the best of my knowledge, was that whatever the Ukrainians were going to promise in any context, he wanted it public.
Q: You also mentioned that in going through the chronology with the minority counsel, that over time, you learned more and more about what the President and his lawyer truly wanted from Ukraine. And there was an evolution from generic interest in fighting corruption to an interest in Burisma, to finally the realization that what they were interested in was investigation of the Bidens. Is that a fair summary? A: Yes
The demands that Ukraine investigate the former Vice President’s son were “improper.” (Page 308)
Q: When you said in your statement, on page 8 of your statement, you 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, why did you—why do you think that either of those activities are problematic? A: Because I believe I testified that it would be improper to do that.
Q: And illegal, right? A: I’m not a lawyer, but I assume so.
Q: Sir, one last question, which is: Do you believe that, with regard to Burisma, that the effort by Giuliani to investigate Burisma, now that we know that it was actually intended to go after Mr. Biden’s son Hunter, was ever a proper inquiry? A: I mean, I think I testified to that at the beginning, that it would not be proper.
Q: And illegal, correct? A: Again, I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know the law exactly. It doesn’t sound good.
After Ambassador Bill Taylor texted Ambassador Sondland on September 9, 2019, that “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Ambassador Sondland called President Trump, and in response to a question “What do you want from Ukraine?” the President said: “I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing.” (Page 105-106)
Q: Okay. So when you telephoned the President, tell us what happened. A: Well, from the time that the aid was held up until I telephoned the President there were a lot of rumors swirling around as to why the aid had been held up, including they wanted a review, they wanted Europe to do more. There were all kinds of rumors. And I know in my few previous conversations with the President he’s not big on small talk so I would have one shot to ask him. And rather than asking him, “Are you doing X because of X or because of Y or because of Z?” I asked him one open-ended question: What do you want from Ukraine? And as I recall, he was in a very bad mood. It was a very quick conversation. He said: I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing. And I said: What does that mean? And he said: I want him to do what he ran on. And that was the end of the conversation. I wouldn’t say he hung up [on] me, but it was almost like he hung up on me.