WASHINGTON - Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told House impeachment investigators on Thursday that President Donald Trump ordered diplomats to work with his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to get Ukraine to open investigations that would help Trump politically.
"Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President (Volodymyr) Zelenskiy committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues," Sondland said in a prepared statement.
Sondland, a major political donor to Trump before being named as the country's top diplomat in Brussels, said, "Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election," including whether Ukraine knew of the whereabouts of a computer server used by the Democratic National Committee in Washington three years ago, and energy company Burisma, "as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the president."
Hunter Biden, the son of one of Trump's key political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, until earlier this year held a lucrative position on the Burisma board. Both Bidens have denied wrongdoing, although the younger Biden this week acknowledged "poor judgment" in taking the Burisma position because of the political fallout affecting his father.
Sondland told the investigators he was disappointed that Trump directed diplomats to work with Giuliani, a former New York mayor, on Ukraine matters.
"Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the president's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine," Sondland said in the prepared remarks.
He said envoys had a choice after a May 23 meeting with Trump, abandon the goal of a White House meeting with Zelenskiy or do as Trump wanted, work through Giuliani to promote the Ukraine investigations. He said the envoys worked with Giuliani, but that he did not know "until much later" that Giuliani would push for a probe of Biden "or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the president's 2020 reelection campaign."
When Trump talked with Zelenskiy in a late July phone call, he prodded the Ukrainian leader to investigate Biden at the same time that the U.S. was withholding nearly $400 million in military aid from Ukraine. A whistleblower complaint regarding that phone call is at the center of the impeachment inquiry launched by House Democrats.
Sondland stressed that he was not on the call and did not see a transcript until the White House released a rough version of the call's content last month.
"Let me state clearly: Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong," Sondland said in his statement. "Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong. I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings." Trump eventually released the military aid to Kyiv.
The House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees are taking several closed-door depositions this week delving into Trump's actions pushing for the Ukraine investigations and his ouster of a well-regarded career diplomat, Marie Yovanovitch, as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing in the requests to Zelenskiy, but the Democratic-controlled House could impeach him in the coming weeks. That would lead to a trial in the Republican-majority Senate, although Trump's removal from office remains an unlikely outcome.
According to a U.S. intelligence whistleblower, Sondland and other diplomats exchanged a series of text messages in which the diplomats wondered why the military aid to Ukraine was frozen.
Reports say there was a five-hour-long gap between text messages, during which Sondland telephoned Trump.
The next message assured one diplomat there was no "quid pro quo" of any kind with Ukraine, followed by Sondland writing, "I suggest we stop the back and forth by text."
On Wednesday, a former top aide to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told House lawmakers that he quit last week in growing frustration over the politicization of the State Department, with the final straw being Trump's ouster of Yovanovitch.
In hours of congressional testimony, Michael McKinley, decried the agency's unwillingness to protect career diplomats like Yovanovitch from political pressure.
McKinley's statements, recounted by people familiar with his closed-door testimony, are the latest in a string of unflattering accounts about the behind-the-scenes operations of the country's foreign policy and national security agencies.
McKinley has served as the U.S. ambassador in four countries, and he had other global postings before returning to Washington as an aide to Pompeo.
His testimony, along with that of others, has helped buttress the account of the unnamed whistleblower.
Yovanovitch testified last week that Trump dismissed her based on "unfounded and false claims" after Giuliani had attacked her performance in Kyiv.
According to a rough recounting of the July conversation supplied by the White House, Trump told Zelenskiy, "The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news, so I just wanted to let you know that. The other thing, there's a lot of talk about Biden's son, and that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look in to it ... it sounds horrible to me."
Trump continued Thursday to attack the impeachment hearings against him, calling them "The Greatest Witch Hunt in American History!"
A day before, he contended, "Republicans are totally deprived of their rights in this Impeachment Witch Hunt. No lawyers, no questions, no transparency! The good news is that the Radical Left Dems have No Case. It is all based on their Fraud and Fabrication!"
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff defended the process in a letter Wednesday, saying Republicans have not been kept out of the process.
"Questions have been primarily asked by committee counsels for both the majority and the minority, but also by members of both parties. And the majority and minority have been provided equal staff representation and time to question witnesses, who have stayed until the majority and minority have asked all of their questions -- often late into the evening," Schiff wrote.
He said transcripts of closed-door interviews will be made public at a time when doing so will not jeopardize the investigation, and that "at an appropriate point" witnesses will be questioned in public sessions "so that the full Congress and the American people can hear their testimony firsthand."