WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. diplomat said on Wednesday that “everyone was in the loop” about a Trump administration effort to get Ukraine to carry out investigations that might ultimately benefit U.S. President Donald Trump, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Testifying before the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland said he “followed the president’s orders” to work with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who in turn was pushing Ukraine to carry out two probes that could aid Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
Sondland’s appearance was significant in that it suggested that a wider array of top U.S. officials than previously known was aware of the pressure campaign against Ukraine, even though his comments prompted carefully worded denials.
A wealthy hotelier and Trump political donor, Sondland gave sworn testimony on the fourth day of public hearings in the inquiry.
The probe could lead the Democratic-led House of Representatives to approve formal charges against Trump - called articles of impeachment - that would be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial on whether to remove him from office. Few Republican senators have broken with Trump.
While Democrats said the envoy’s testimony had strengthened their case to impeach Trump, the White House and the president himself said it had exonerated him.
“I think it was fantastic. I think they have to end it now,” Trump told reporters of the impeachment inquiry.
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said in a statement: “Though much of today’s testimony by Ambassador Sondland was related to his presumptions and beliefs, rather than hard facts, he testified to the fact that President Trump never told him that a White House meeting or the aid to Ukraine was tied to receiving a public statement from (Ukrainian) President (Volodymyr) Zelenskiy,”
Sondland said he emailed officials including Pompeo, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Energy Secretary Rick Perry on July 19 that the new Ukrainian president was ready to assure Trump he would “run a fully transparent investigation” and “turn over every stone.”
“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said of the email he sent ahead of the July 25 telephone call between Trump and Zelenskiy that triggered the impeachment inquiry.
The inquiry is focusing on Trump’s request in the call that Zelenskiy investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival; his son Hunter Biden, who had served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma; and an unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election that brought Trump to office.
It is also examining whether Trump may have withheld $391 million in security aid to help Ukraine fight Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine as a way of pressuring Kiev to undertake the investigations.
Federal law prohibits candidates from accepting foreign help in an election.
Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the November 2020 presidential election. Trump has accused Biden of corruption without offering evidence. Biden has denied any wrongdoing.
Democrats accuse Trump of abusing his power by using the security aid and an offer to Zelenskiy of a prestigious visit to the White House as leverage to pressure a vulnerable U.S. ally to dig up dirt on domestic political rivals.
Sondland portrayed himself as a reluctant participant in the pressure on Ukraine and argued that he had kept his superiors at the State Department and White House abreast of his efforts.
The envoy quoted from an Aug. 22 email to Pompeo about his effort to get Zelenskiy to commit to undertake investigations, suggesting that might be a way to break the “logjam” over security aid as well as a Zelenskiy-Trump meeting.
Describing a group meeting he attended with Pence before the latter’s Sept. 1 meeting with Zelenskiy, Sondland said he had told Pence “that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations.”
In his testimony, Sondland said Pence had listened to his comments and nodded but did not reply.
Aides to Pompeo and Pence issued denials.
“The vice president never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations,” Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, said in a statement.
“Gordon (Sondland) never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the President was linking aid to investigations of political opponents. Any suggestion to the contrary is flat out false,” said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
Sondland described Trump in May telling him along with Perry and then-U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker to work with Giuliani - the former New York mayor who held no U.S. government job - on Ukraine policy.
“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,” Sondland said.
The efforts by Giuliani to get Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens “were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit” for the Ukrainian leader, Sondland said, using a Latin term meaning to exchange a favour for another favour.
Trump has said he did nothing wrong in the Ukraine matter and specifically denied any quid pro quo.
Republicans defended Trump by pointing to a statement by Sondland that he was presuming the security aid for Ukraine was tied to investigations, but that no one had actually told him that.
“This all is based on presumptions that turned out to be wrong,” Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, wrote on Twitter. “Why is this impeachment circus still going on?”
Asked in Brussels about Sondland’s testimony that he was in the loop, Pompeo told reporters: “I didn’t see the testimony.”
Sondland, tapped as Trump’s EU envoy after he donated $1 million to the president’s inauguration, said Trump told him on Sept. 9 there was no quid pro quo in the requests to Ukraine but that Zelenskiy should “do the right thing.”
The envoy also said Trump never told him directly the aid to Ukraine was conditioned on Kiev announcing investigations.
Sondland also said he eventually concluded that, absent any credible explanation for the aid suspension, the money would only flow when “there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded.”
At the end of Sondland’s roughly six hours of testimony, Democrat Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee leading the inquiry, said he thought Trump “was the one who decided whether a meeting would happen, whether aid would be lifted, not anyone who worked for him.”
At the opening of a second hearing on Wednesday, where Undersecretary of State David Hale and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Laura Cooper testified, Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the panel, described the inquiry as “an impeachment in search of a crime.”
Cooper testified that Ukrainian officials may have known that Washington was withholding military aid as early as July 25, undercutting a Republican defence of the president’s actions that they did not learn this until later.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Andy Sullivan; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Cornwell, Karen Freifeld, David Morgan, Andy Sullivan and Susan Heavey in Washington and Humeyra Pamuk in Brussels; Writing by Alistair Bell and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Will Dunham, Peter Cooney and Sonya Hepinstall