In a stunning turn of events, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland has come clean with Congress and released a damning opening statement directly implicating the “express wishes” of President Trump to work with Rudy Giuliani on a political mission to help his re-election campaign by bullying Ukrainian officials to start an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Vice President Joe Biden.
Ambassador Sondland’s conduct in soliciting Ukraine’s new president to start politically motivated investigations has quickly drawn him into the heart of the ongoing House impeachment inquiry.
“Everyone was in the loop,” says the EU Ambassador about President Trump’s bribery scheme in Ukraine with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. “It was no secret.”
Unlike yesterday’s testimony from witnesses that House Republicans called, like former Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker, the EU Ambassador’s statements today didn’t straddle any lines; Sondland forcefully acknowledged the “explicit” quid pro quo scheme at the heart of the House’s investigation in testimony that points the finger right at President Donald J. Trump. His opening statement (embedded below) says:
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.
“Just following orders” is not typically an adequate defense for wrongdoing.
At the outset of today’s fourth impeachment hearing, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s (D-CA) opening statement noted that the House Judiciary Committee’s third article of impeachment against President Nixon was for withholding records from a congressional investigation.
Soon afterward, Ambassador Sondland’s written 23-page opening statement—including summaries of emails he read into the record—would raise the specter of a repeat due to the President and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s ill-advised decision to withhold records from Congress.
His emails document that not only was the president directly involved in the scheme but so was most of the top level of the Trump administration, including Vice President Mike Pence.
Sondland’s opening statement continued:
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.
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.
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.
The EU Ambassador Sondland proceeded to read several of those damning emails detailing the schemes with Giuliani in Ukraine to Secretary Pompeo into the record.
One of those emails copied President Trump’s Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who is also still the director of the powerful White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the key agency involved in withholding the security funds. He wrote:
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.”
Then the Oregon hotelier dropped a major breadcrumb which could significantly broaden the House impeachment inquiry, tie in Vice President Mike Pence and deepen the Secretary of State’s role in directing Trump’s political mission.
Ambassador Sondland attended meetings with Ukraine’s leadership in Warsaw, Poland at the start of September. His discussions with Secretary of State Mike Pence before those meetings were direct, and he agreed that a meeting between President Trump and the Ukrainian president could break the “logjam” holding up nearly $400 million in security assistance. Three minutes after the EU Ambassador emailed Pompeo, Pompeo replied. Here is Gordon Sondland’s sworn testimony:
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-to- face 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 [an acronym for the President of the United States] and to the US. Hopefully, that will break the logjam [on funding].”
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.”
His testimony about discussions before a meeting with President Zelensky squarely points the finger at Vice President Mike Pence as well and ripping the shroud off of any doubt that Trump tied security assistance to the delivery of political favors. It could potentially lead to Pence being impeached from office as well:
There was a September 1 meeting with President Zelensky in Warsaw. Unfortunately, President Trump’s attendance at the Warsaw meeting was cancelled [sic] 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.
Two hours into the public House Intelligence impeachment hearing during a break, Chairman Schiff said that Sondland’s testimony “changes everything.” Television commentators describe his words as a “blow torch” that melts all of the House Republicans’ defenses, and it’s easy to understandwhy.
“When the president says ‘go talk to my personal attorney’ and then Giuliani makes certain demands, then we assume it is from the president,” he explained in one telling statement to House Intelligence minority counsel Steve Castor whose questions are aimed at exonerating Trump, though not helping.
Ambassador Sondland’s firsthand admissions are the most direct evidence that the President directed the whole scheme with his Acting Chief of Staff/OMB Director along with the Vice President and the Secretary of State.
Even Republicans can no longer deny that there was an explicit quid pro quo at the heart of a bribery scheme that progressed into a presidential extortion plot which Ambassador Sondland characterized as “insidious.”
Read EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s complete opening testimony here:
What do you think?
Grant Stern is an Editor-At-Large for OccupyDemocrats and published author. His new Meet the Candidates 2020 book series is distributed by Simon and Schuster. He's also mortgage broker, community activist and radio personality in Miami, Florida., as well as the producer of the Dworkin Report podcast. Grant is also an occasional contributor to Raw Story, Alternet, and the DC Report. Find out more at grantstern.com.