[Editor’s note: Crucial passages are bolded]
Opening Statement before the United States House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
The Honorable Gordon D. Sondland U.S. Ambassador to the European Union
November 20, 2019
Thank you Mr. Chairman for the opportunity to speak again to the Members of this Committee.
First, let me offer my thanks to the men and women of the U.S. Department of State, who have committed their professional lives to support the foreign policy work of the United States. In particular, I want to thank my staff at the U.S. Mission to the European Union. Your integrity, dedication, and hardwork — often performed without public acclaim or recognition — serve as a shining example of true public service, and I am personally grateful to work beside you each and every day.
It is my honor to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. The U.S. Mission to the EU is the direct link between the United States and the European Union and its members, America’s longest-standing allies and one of the largest economic blocks in the world. Every day, I work to support a strong, united, and peaceful Europe. Strengthening our ties with Europe serves both American and European goals, as we together promote political stability and economic prosperity around the world.
I expect that few Americans have heard my name before these events. So before I begin my substantive testimony, please let me share some of my personal background.
My parents fled Europe during the Holocaust. Escaping the atrocities of that time, my parents left Germany for Uruguay, and then in 1953 emigrated to Seattle, Washington, where I was born and raised. Like so many immigrants, my family was eager for freedom and hungry for opportunity. They raised my sister and me to be humble, hardworking, and patriotic, and I am forever grateful for the sacrifices they made on our behalf.
Public service has always been important to me. As a lifelong Republican, I have contributed to initiatives of both Republican and Democratic administrations. In 2003, I served as a member of the transition team for Oregon Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski. Governor Kulongoski also appointed me to serve on various statewide boards. In 2007, President George W. Bush appointed me as a member of the Commission on White House Fellows. I worked with President Bush on charitable events for his foundation’s Military Service Initiative. And I also worked briefly with former Vice President Joe Biden’s office in connection with the Vice President’s nationwide anti-cancer initiative at a Northwest hospital.
And, of course, the highest honor in my public life came when President Trump asked me to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. The U.S. Senate confirmed me as Ambassador on a bipartisan voice vote, and I assumed the role in Brussels on July 9, 2018.
Although today is my first public testimony on the Ukraine matters, this is not my first time cooperating with this Committee. As you know, I have already provided ten hours of deposition testimony. I did so despite directives from the White House and the State Department that I refuse to appear, as many others have done. I agreed to testify because I respect the gravity of the moment and believe I have an obligation to account fully for my role in these events.
Lack of Documents
But, I also must acknowledge that this process has been challenging and, in many respects, less than fair. I have not had access to all of my phone records, State Department emails, and other State Department documents. And I was told I could not work with my EU Staff to pull together the relevant files. Having access to the State Department materials would have been very helpful to me in trying to reconstruct with whom I spoke and met, when, and what was said.
As Ambassador, I have had hundreds of meetings and calls with individuals. But I am not a note taker, nor am I a memo writer. Never have been. My job requires speaking with heads of state and senior government officials every day. Talking with foreign leaders might be memorable to some people. But this is my job. I do it all the time.
My lawyers and I have made multiple requests to the State Department and the White House for these materials. Yet, these materials were not provided to me. They have also refused to share these materials with this Committee. These documents are not classified and, in fairness, should have been made available. In the absence of these materials, my memory has not been perfect. And I have no doubt that a more fair, open, and orderly process of allowing me to read the State Department records would have made this process more transparent.
I don’t intend to repeat my prior opening statement or attempt to summarize ten hours of previous deposition testimony. However, a few critical points have been obscured by noise over the last few days, and I’m worried that the “bigger picture” is being ignored. So, let me make a few key points.
First, Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the President of the United States. We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the President’s orders.
Second, although we disagreed with the need to involve Mr. Giuliani, we did not believe that his role was improper at the time. As I previously testifed, if I had known of all of Mr. Giuliani’s dealings or of his associations with individuals now under criminal indictment, I would not have acquiesced to his participation. Still, given what we knew at the time, what we were asked to do did not appear to be wrong.
Third, let me say: precisely because we did not think that we were engaging in improper behavior, we made every effort to ensure that the relevant decision makers at the National Security Council and State Department knew the important details of our efforts. The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false. I have now identified certain State Department emails and messages that provide contemporaneous support for my view. These emails show that the leadership of State, NSC, and the White House were all informed about the Ukraine efforts from May 23, 2019, until the security aid was released on September 11, 2019. I will quote from some of those messages with you shortly.
Fourth, as I testified previously, Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky. Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the President.
Fifth, in July and August 2019, we learned that the White House had also suspended security aid to Ukraine. I was adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid, as the Ukrainians needed those funds to fight against Russian aggression. I tried diligently to ask why the aid was suspended, but I never received a clear answer. In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded. I shared concerns of the potential quid pro quo regarding the security aid with Senator Ron Johnson. And I also shared my concerns with the Ukrainians.
Finally, at all times, I was acting in good faith. As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the President. We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the President directed us to do so. We had no desire to set any conditions on the Ukranians. Indeed, my personal view — which I shared repeatedly with others — was that the White House meeting and security assistance should have proceeded without pre-conditions of any kind. We were working to overcome the problems, given the facts as they existed. Our only interest was to advance longstanding U.S. policy and to support Ukraine’s fragile democracy.
Now, let me provide additional detail specifically about Ukraine and my involvement.
From my very first days as Ambassador to the EU, starting in July 2018, Ukraine has featured prominently in my broader portfolio. Ukraine’s political and economic development are critical to the long-lasting stability of Europe. Moreover, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea remains one of the most significant security crises for Europe and the United States. Our efforts to counterbalance an aggressive Russia depend in substantial part on a strong Ukraine.
On April 21, 2019, Volodymr Zelensky was elected President of Ukraine in an historic election. With the express support of Secretary Pompeo, I attended President Zelensky’s inauguration on May 20, as part of the U.S. delegation led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The U.S. delegation also included Senator Johnson, Ukraine Special Envoy Kurt Volker, and Lt. Col. Alex Vindman of the National Security Council.
My attendance at President Zelensky’s inauguration was not my first involvement with Ukraine. As I testified previously, just four days after assuming my post as Ambassador in July 2018, I received an official delegation from the government of then-Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko. This meeting took place at the U.S. Mission in Brussels and was pre-arranged by my career EU Mission staff. Later, in February 2019, I worked well with U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in making my first official visit to Ukraine, for a U.S. Navy visit to the strategic Black Sea port of Odessa.
I raise these prior Ukraine activities — the meeting in Brussels and my visit to Odessa — to emphasize that Ukraine has been a part of my portfolio from my first days as U.S. Ambassador. Any claim that I somehow “muscled” my way into the Ukraine relationship is simply false.
During the Zelensky Inauguration on May 20, 2019, the U.S. delegation developed a very positive view of the new Ukrainian government. We were impressed by President Zelensky’s desire to promote a stronger relationship with the United States. We admired his commitment to reform. We were excited about the possibility of Ukraine making the changes necessary to support greater Western economic investment. And we were excited that Ukraine might, after years of lip service, finally get serious about addressing its well-known corruption problems.
With that enthusiasm, we returned to the White House on May 23 to brief President Trump. We advised the President of the strategic importance of Ukraine and the value of strengthening the relationship with President Zelensky. To support this reformer, we asked the White House for two things: first, a working phone call between Presidents Trump and Zelensky; and, second, a working Oval Office visit. In our view, both were vital to cementing the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, demonstrating support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, and advancing broader U.S. foreign policy interests.
Unfortunately, President Trump was skeptical. He expressed concerns that the Ukrainian government was not serious about reform. He even mentioned that Ukraine tried to take him down in the last election.
In response to our persistent efforts to change his views, President Trump directed us to “talk with Rudy.” We understood that “talk with Rudy” meant talk with Mr. Rudy Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer.
Let me say again: We weren’t happy with the President’s directive to talk with Rudy. We did not want to involve Mr. Giuliani. I believed then, as I do now, that the men and women of the State Department, not the President’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for Ukraine matters.
Nonetheless, based on the President’s direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the efforts to schedule the White House phone call and White House visit between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, which was unquestionably in our foreign policy interest — or we could do as President Trump had directed and “talk with Rudy.” We chose the latter course, not because we liked it, but because it was the only constructive path open to us.
Over the course of the next several months, Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and I were in communication with Mr. Giuliani. Secretary Perry volunteered to make the initial calls with Mr. Giuliani, given his prior relationship. Ambassador Volker made several of the early calls and generally informed us of what was discussed. I first communicated with Mr. Giuliani in early August. Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into corruption issues. Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two topics of importance to the President.
We kept the leadership of the State Department and the NSC informed of our activities. That included communications with Secretary of State Pompeo, his Counselor Ulrich Brechbuehl, and Executive Secretary Lisa Kenna within the State Department; and communications with Ambassador John Bolton, Dr. Fiona Hill, Mr. Timothy Morrison, and their staff at the NSC. They knew what we were doing and why.
July 10 — White House Meeting
On July 10, 2019, senior Ukrainian national security officials met with Ambassor Bolton, Ambassador Volker, Dr. Hill, Secretary Perry, myself, and many others in Washington, D.C. During that meeting, we all discussed the importance of the two action items I identified earlier: (1) a working phone call and (2) a White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky. From my perspective, the July 10 meeting was a positive step toward accomplishing our shared goals.
While I am now aware of accounts of the meeting from Dr. Hill and Lt. Col. Vindman, their recollections of those events simply don’t square with my own or with those of Ambassador Volker or Secretary Perry. I recall mentioning the pre-requisite of investigations before any White House call or meeting. But I do not recall any yelling or screaming as others have said. Instead, after the meeting, Ambassador Bolton walked outside with the group, and we all took pictures together on the White House lawn.
Most important, those recollections of protest do not square with the documentary record of our interactions with the NSC in the days and weeks that followed. We kept the NSC apprised of our efforts, including, specifically, our efforts to secure a public statement from the Ukrainians that would satisfy President Trump’s concerns.
For example, on July 13, just three days after the July 10 meeting, I emailed Tim Morrison. He had just assumed Dr. Hill’s post as NSC Eurasia Director, and I met him that day for the first time. I wrote to Mr. Morrison (with these exact words):
“The call between Zelensky and Potus should happen before 7/21. (Parliamentary Elections) Sole purpose is for Zelensky to give Potus assurances of ‘new sheriff’ in town. Corruption ending, unbundling moving forward and any hampered investigations will be allowed to move forward transparently. Goal is for Potus to invite him to Oval. Volker, Perry, Bolton and I strongly recommend.” Morrison acknowledged, said “Thank you,” and specifically noted he was “tracking” these issues.
Again, there was no secret regarding moving forward and the discussion of investigations.
Moreover, I have reviewed other State Department documents — some of which are not currently in the public domain — detailing Mr. Giuliani’s efforts. For example, on July 10, 2019 — the very same day that Ambassador Volker, Secretary Perry, and I were meeting with Ukraine officials in Washington — Ambassador Taylor received a communication that Mr. Giuliani was still talking with Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko. In WhatsApp messages with Ambassador Volker and I, Ambassador Taylor wrote to us as follows:
“Just had a meeting with Andriy and Vadym,” referring to Ukraine Foreign Minister Vadym Pristaiko. Taylor said the Ukrainians were, quote: “Very concerned about what Lutsenko told them — that, according to RG” — meaning Rudy Giuliani — “the ZEPOTUS meeting will not happen.” Volker responded, “Good grief. Please tell Vadym to let the official USG representatives speak for the U.S. [L]utsenko has his own self-interest here.” Taylor confirmed that he had communicated that message to the Ukrainians. He added, “I briefed Ulrich this afternoon on this,” referring to State Department Counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl.
Three things are critical about this WhatsApp exchange. First, while the Ukrainians were in Washington at the White House, Mr. Guiliani had been communicating with Ukrainians without our knowledge. Ambassador Taylor, Ambassador Volker, and I were all surprised by this. Second, Mr. Giuliani was communicating with the reportedly corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor Lutsenko and discussing whether a Zelensky-Trump meeting was going to happen, again without our knowledge. And third, with this alarming news, Ambassador Taylor briefed Ulrich Brechbuehl, who is the Counselor to Secretary of State Pompeo. Even as late as September 24, Secretary Pompeo was directing Kurt Volker to speak with Rudy Giuliani. In a WhatsApp message, Kurt Volker told me in part: “Spoke w Rudy per guidance from S.” S means the Secretary of State.
We tried our best to fix the problem, while keeping the State Department and the NSC closely apprised of the challenges we faced.
July 25 – Trump/Zelensky Call
On July 25, 2019, Presidents Trump and Zelensky had their official call. I was not on the call. In fact, I first read the transcript on September 25, the same day it was publicly released. All I had heard at the time was that the call had gone well.
Looking back, I find it very odd that neither I, nor Ambassador Taylor, nor Ambassador Volker ever received a detailed read-out of that call with the Biden references. Now, there are people who say they had concerns about that call. No one shared any concerns about the call with me at the time, when it would have been very helpful to know.
July 26 — Meeting with President Zelensky
On July 26, 2019, Ambassador Taylor, Ambassador Volker, and I were all in Kiev to meet with President Zelensky. The timing, immediately after the call between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, was entirely coincidental. The Kiev meetings had been scheduled well before the date of the White House call was eventually fixed. During our Kiev meeting, I do not recall President Zelensky discussing the substance of his July 25 call with President Trump. Nor did he discuss any request to investigate Vice President Biden (which we all later learned was discussed on the July 25 call). This is consistent with the reported comments from Ambassadors Volker and Taylor.
After the Zelensky meeting, I also met with Mr. Zelenksy’s senior aide, Andriy Yermak. While I do not recall the specifics of our conversation, I believe the issue of investigations was probably a part of the agenda.
July 26 — Call with President Trump
Also on July 26, shortly after our Kiev meetings, I spoke by phone with President Trump. The White House, which has finally shared certain call dates and times with my attorneys, confirms this. The call lasted five minutes. I remember I was at a restaurant in Kiev, and I have no reason to doubt that this conversation included the subject of investigations. Again, given Mr. Giuliani’s demand that President Zelensky make a public statement about investigations, I knew that the topic of investigations was important to President Trump. We did not discuss any classified information.
Other witnesses have recently shared their recollection of overhearing this call. For the most part, I have no reason to doubt their accounts. It is true that the President speaks loudly at times. It is also true that we discussed A$AP Rocky. It is true that the President likes to use colorful language. While I cannot remember the precise details — again, the White House has not allowed me to see any readouts of that call — the July 26 call did not strike me as significant at the time. Actually, I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the President’s concerns. However, I have no recollection of discussing Vice President Biden or his son on that call or after the call ended.
Quid Pro Quo
I know that members of this Committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a “quid pro quo?” As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.
Mr. Giuliani conveyed to Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and others that President Trump wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election. Mr. Giuliani expressed those requests directly to the Ukrainians. Mr. Giuliani also expressed those requests directly to us. We all understood that these prerequisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements.
Within my State Department emails, there is a July 19 email that I sent to Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Perry, Brian McCormack (Perry’s Chief of Staff), Ms. Kenna, Acting Chief of Staff and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney (White House), and Mr. Mulvaney’s Senior Advisor Robert Blair. A lot of senior officials. Here is my exact quote from that email:
“I Talked to Zelensky just now… He is prepared to receive Potus’ call. Will assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone’. He would greatly appreciate a call prior to Sunday so that he can put out some media about a ‘friendly and productive call’ (no details) prior to Ukraine election on Sunday.” Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney responded: “I asked NSC to set it up for tomorrow.
Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret. Everyone was informed via email on July 19, days before the Presidential call. As I communicated to the team, I told President Zelensky in advance that assurances to “run a fully transparent investigation” and “turn over every stone” were necessary in his call with President Trump.
Also on July 19, 2019, in a WhatsApp message between Ambassador Taylor, Ambassador Volker, and me, Ambassador Volker stated:
“Had breakfast with Rudy this morning — teeing up call w Yermak Monday. Must have helped. Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation — and address any specific personnel issues — if there are any.”
On August 10, 2019, Mr. Yermak (Zelensky’s Presidential Advisor) texted me as follows:
“Once we have a date, will call for a press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for the reboot of US-UKRAINE relationship, including among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations.”
The following day, August 11, I sent an email to Counselor Brechbuhl and Lisa Kenna, addressing Secretary Pompeo with the subject “Ukraine.” I wrote:
“Mike — Kurt and I negotiated a statement from Ze[lensky] to be delivered for our review in a day or two. The contents will hopefully make the boss happy enough to authorize an invitation. Ze plans to have a big presser on the openness subject (including specifics) next week.” Lisa Kenna replied: “Gordon, I’ll pass to S,” meaning Secretary Pompeo. “Thank you.”
Again, everyone was in the loop.
On August 26, shortly before his visit to Kiev, Ambassador Bolton’s office requested Mr. Giuliani’s contact information. I sent Ambassador Bolton the information directly.
I was first informed that the White House was withholding security aid to Ukraine during conversations with Ambassador Taylor on July 18, 2019. However, as I testified before, I was never able to obtain a clear answer regarding the specific reason for the hold, whether it was bureaucratic in nature — which often happens — or reflected some other concern in the interagency process. I never participated in any of the subsequent DOD or DOS review meetings that others have described, so I cannot speak to what was discussed in those settings.
Nonetheless, before the September 1 Warsaw meeting, the Ukrainians had become aware that the security funds had yet to be disbursed. In the absence of any credible explanation for the hold, I came to the conclusion that the aid, like the White House visit, was jeopardized. In preparation for the September 1 Warsaw meeting, I asked Secretary Pompeo whether a face-toface conversation between Trump with Zelensky could help break the logjam. Specifically, on Thursday, August 22, I emailed Secretary Pompeo directly, copying Secretariat Kenna. I wrote:
“Should we block time in Warsaw for a short pull-aside for Potus to meet Zelensky? I would ask Zelensky to look him in the eye and tell him that once Ukraine’s new justice folks are in place ([in] mid-Sept[ember), that Ze should be able to move forward publicly and with confidence on those issues of importance to Potus and to the US. Hopefully, that will break the logjam.”
Secretary Pompeo replied, “Yes.”
I followed up the next day asking to “get 10-15 min on the Warsaw sched[ule] for this.” I said, “I’d like to know when it is locked so that I can call Zelensky and brief him.
Executive Secretary Kenna replied, “I’ll try for sure.”
Moreover, given my concerns about the security aid, I have no reason to dispute that portion of Senator Johnson’s recent letter, in which he recalls conversations he and I had on August 30. By the end of the August, my belief was that if Ukraine did something to demonstrate a serious intention to fight corruption, specifically addressing Burisma and 2016 server, then the hold on military aid would be lifted.
September 1 — Warsaw Meeting
There was a September 1 meeting with President Zelensky in Warsaw. Unfortunately President Trump’s attendance at the Warsaw meeting was cancelled due to Hurrican Dorian. Vice President Pence attended instead. I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations. I recall mentioning that before the Zelensky meeting.
During the actual meeting, President Zelensky raised the issue of security assistance directly with Vice President Pence. The Vice President said he would speak to President Trump about it. Based on my communications with Secretary Pompeo, I felt comfortable sharing my concerns with Mr. Yermak. In a very brief pull-aside conversation, that happened within a few seconds, I told Mr. Yermak that I believed that the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on the public statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.
As my other State Department colleagues have testifed, this security aid was critical to Ukraine’s defense and should not have been delayed. I expressed this view to many during this period. But my goal, at the time, was to do what was necessary to get the aid released, to break the logjam. I believed that the public statement we had been discussing for weeks was essential to advancing that goal. I really regret that the Ukrainians were placed in that predicament, but I do not regret doing what I could to try to break the logjam and to solve the problem.
I mentioned at the outset that, throughout these events, we kept State Department leadership and others apprised of what we were doing. State Department was fully supportive of our engagement in Ukraine affairs, and was aware that a commitment to investigations was among the issues we were pursuing.
To provide just a couple of examples, on June 5, 2019, the day after the U.S. EU Mission hosted our Independence Day event, Acting Assistant Secretary Phillip Reeker sent an email to me, Secretary Perry, and others forwarding some positive media coverage of President Zelensky’s presence at our event. Mr. Reeker wrote:
“This headline underscores the importance and timeliness of Zelenskyy’s visit to Brussels, and the critical–perhaps historic–role of the dinner and engagement Gordon coordinated. Thank you for your participation and dedication to this effort.”
Months later, on Tuesday, September 3, 2019, I sent Secretary Pompeo an email to express my appreciation for his joining a series of meetings in Brussels following the Warsaw trip. I wrote:
“Mike, thanks for schlepping to Europe. I think it was really important and the chemistry seems promising. Really appreciate it.” Secretary Pompeo replied on Wednesday, September 4: “All good. You’re doing great work; keep banging away.”
State Department leadership expressed total support for our efforts to engage the new Ukrainian administration.
I’ve never doubted the strategic value of strengthening our alliance with Ukraine. And at all times, our efforts were in good faith and fully transparent to those tasked with overseeing them. Our efforts were reported and approved. Not once do I recall encountering objection.
It remains an honor to serve the people of the United States as their U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. I look forward to answering the Committee’s questions.