The US ambassador to the EU has said that President Donald Trump directed him and other envoys to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on Ukraine policy – and that he disagreed with the directive.
Gordon Sondland’s testimony to House impeachment investigators was aimed at distancing himself from Mr Trump and Mr Giuliani’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Mr Sondland said he was disappointed Mr Trump instructed him to work with Mr Giuliani, a directive that sidestepped the role of the State Department and National Security Council.
He also said he believes it is wrong to invite a foreign government to conduct investigations for the purpose of influencing American elections.
Mr Sondland is the latest in a series of witnesses to be interviewed behind closed doors by lawmakers.
His appearance was especially anticipated since text messages and other witness testimony place him at the centre of a foreign policy dialogue with Ukraine that officials feared circumvented normal channels and that is now at the centre of the House impeachment inquiry.
Part of that effort involved pushing Ukraine to commit to politically charged investigations sought by Mr Trump, including into a gas company connected to Hunter Biden.
In prepared remarks obtained, Mr Sondland aimed to untether himself from any effort by the Republican president or Mr Giuliani to have a political rival investigated, joining other current and former administration officials who have communicated to Congress misgivings about the Trump administration’s backchannel dealings with Ukraine.
But Mr Sondland’s pivotal role in the dialogue, including discussions about a quid pro quo in which Ukraine’s leader would get a coveted White House visit in exchange for satisfying Mr Trump’s push for corruption-related investigations, may make those assertions tough for House Democrats to accept.
Mr Sondland said he was disappointed by a May 23 White House meeting with Mr Trump, who spurned calls by the ambassador and others to arrange a phone call and White House visit for the new Ukraine leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The president was sceptical that Ukraine was serious about reform and anti-corruption and, instead of arranging the meeting his envoys wanted, directed them to talk to Mr Giuliani, Mr Sondland said.
“We were also disappointed by the President’s direction that we involve Mr Giuliani,” Mr Sondland said. “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 US foreign policy towards Ukraine.”
The envoys, he said, had a choice – they could abandon the goal of a White House meeting with Mr Zelenskiy, something they saw as important in fostering US-Ukraine relations, or they could do as Mr Trump asked and work with Mr Giuliani.
Though he said the ambassadors chose the latter, he insisted that he did not know “until much later” that Mr Giuliani intended to push for a probe of Mr Biden “or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President’s 2020 reelection campaign”.
When the phone call finally did occur, on July 25, Mr Trump repeatedly prodded Mr Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens at the same time that the US was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from Ukraine.
Mr Sondland said he was not on the call, that he did not receive a transcript until the White House released a rough version last month, and that none of the summaries he reviewed mentioned Mr Biden.
“Let me state clearly: Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming US election would be wrong,” Mr Sondland said. “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.”