FILE PHOTO: Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union speaks with the White House Press Corps on Air Force One with Maros Sefcovic, Vice President of the European Commission for the Energy Union during a trip with U.S. President Donald Trump through Louisiana, U.S., May 14, 2019. P REUTERS/Leah Millis
October 17, 2019
By Karen Freifeld
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump directed senior U.S. officials to talk directly to his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, about U.S. policy in Ukraine, raising concern that the president was outsourcing American foreign policy to a private citizen, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union said on Thursday.
The envoy, Gordon Sondland, told lawmakers in the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry against Trump that he did not understand “until much later” that Giuliani’s agenda included a push for Ukraine to investigate a domestic political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
In prepared testimony to the Democratic-led inquiry, Sondland said he and two other officials – Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Ukraine Special Envoy Kurt Volker – were disappointed in Trump’s May order, but he followed it anyway. Sondland said he felt foreign policy should be the work of the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer.
Sondland, a Republican Trump political donor and a wealthy Oregon hotelier before being named by the president to his envoy post last year, also said that “inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong.”
His written testimony underscored the pivotal role of Giuliani in the Ukraine scandal. The impeachment inquiry centers on Trump’s request on a July telephone call that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy investigate Biden, a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination to face Trump.
Before the call, Giuliani had been working to persuade Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who had served as a director for Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
At issue is Trump pressing a vulnerable U.S. ally to dig up dirt on a domestic political opponent, inviting foreign meddling in an American election after Russia interfered in the 2016 election, according to U.S. intelligence agencies and a special counsel probe, to boost his candidacy.
The impeachment inquiry could lead to the House passing formal charges – known as articles of impeachment – which would prompt a trial in the Senate on whether to remove Trump from office. The Senate is controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, who have shown little inclination toward removing him.
Sondland said that on May 23, three days after Zelenskiy’s inauguration, U.S. officials who had attended debriefed Trump and key aides at the White House.
The ambassador said the officials taking part in the meeting emphasized the strategic importance of Ukraine and the importance of the relationship with Zelenskiy, who he called a reformer planning to fight corruption.
“We asked the White House to arrange a working phone call from President Trump and a working Oval Office visit. However, President Trump was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption, and he directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Mr. Giuliani, his personal attorney, about his concerns,” he added.
“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the President’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani,” he said.
Giuliani did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sondland’s testimony. He told Reuters on Wednesday that he did not talk to Sondland about the need for help from Ukraine in investigating the Bidens.
Sondland is the latest witness to speak to lawmakers about his knowledge of efforts by Trump to urge Ukraine to investigate Biden. Trump withheld $391 million in military aid to Ukraine before making the request.
“Please know that I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters,” Sondland said, but added that given Trump’s “explicit direction” that “we agreed to do as President Trump directed.”
Sondland became the latest in a series of current and former Trump administration officials to testify in the impeachment inquiry as lawmakers investigate whether Trump committed any “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
His testimony was the clearest sign yet that Trump’s efforts to erect a firewall around the White House and frustrate the Democratic-led inquiry’s efforts to interview administration officials are proving unsuccessful.
While he expressed misgivings in his testimony about Giuliani’s role, other witnesses have described Sondland as being among a trio of senior U.S. officials who were considered more reliable than career diplomats in pressing Ukraine to launch investigations that might help Trump’s re-election bid.
Sondland said Ukraine was part of his portfolio since the time he took the post in June 2018. He said he was never part of a campaign to remove Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled from the post in May by Trump.
“I found her to be an excellent diplomat with a deep command of Ukrainian internal dynamics, the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, and associated regional issues,” Sondland said.
Yovanovitch appeared before the impeachment inquiry last Friday, telling lawmakers that Trump ousted her based on “unfounded and false claims” after she had come under attack by Giuliani, who has accused her of blocking efforts to persuade Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption related to Ukraine without offering evidence. The Bidens have denied any wrongdoing.
Sondland said he did not fully appreciate in late May what Giuliani’s intentions were regarding Ukraine.
“I 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,” Sondland said.
Sondland said he was not on the July 25 call between Trump and the Ukrainian leader, did not know about the president’s request regarding a Biden investigation – and did not see a transcript until two months later, when the White House made a summary of the call public.
“None of the brief and general call summaries I received contained any mention of Burisma or former Vice President Biden, nor even suggested that President Trump had made any kind of request of President Zelensky,” Sondland added.
Sondland said he was unaware of the connection between Hunter Biden and Burisma “until more recent press reports.” There were media reports in the spring about Hunter Biden’s role in Burisma and Giuliani’s efforts to publicize the issue.
Sondland said he recalls that after being told by Trump in May about Giuliani’s role speaking to the former New York mayor “two or three times” by phone about Ukraine.
“In these short conversations, Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues,” Sondland said. “Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the President.”
The “DNC server” issue refers to a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine and not Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and that a Democratic Party computer server was being held somewhere in Ukraine.
Sondland also said in his testimony that he was only quoting Trump when he sent a text message to U.S. diplomat Bill Taylor denying that the president had demanded a quid pro quo – a Latin phrase meaning a favor for a favor – in which Ukraine would have to investigate the Bidens to receive the withheld aid.
According to text messages released earlier this month, Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, texted Sondland that he thought “it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Brendan Pierson and Jonathan Landay; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Alistair Bell)