Three key witnesses testify in impeachment inquiry
US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland's opening statement explicitly tied President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the campaign to put pressure on Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
Here's what Sondland said about each, according to a copy of his prepared remarks:
- Trump: "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."
- Pence: "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 ... 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."
- Pompeo: "Even as late as September 24, Secretary Pompeo was directing Kurt Volker to speak with Rudy Giuliani. In a WhatsApp message, Kurt Volker told me in part: 'Spoke w Rudy per guidance from S.' S means the Secretary of State."
In his opening statement, EU ambassador talked about WhatsApp conversations that he had with other officials that concerned Rudy Giuliani's dealing with corrupt former Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko. Those conversations also involved Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's directions to US diplomats to continue to deal with Giuliani on Ukraine.
Sondland said he and top diplomat Kurt Volker discussed Giuliani's manuevers in the July exchange on WhatsApp.
"Just had a meeting with Andriy and Vadym," referring to Ukraine Foreign Minister Vadym Pristaiko. Taylor said the Ukrainians were, quote: "Very concerned about what Lutsenko told them — that, according to RG" — meaning Rudy Giuliani — "the ZE- POTUS meeting will not happen."
"Good grief. Please tell Vadym to let the official USG representatives speak for the U.S. [L]utsenko has his own self-interest here."
Sondland said "three things" were critical about this WhatsApp exchange:
"First, while the Ukrainians were in Washington at the White House, Mr. Guiliani had been communicating with Ukrainians without our knowledge. Ambassador Taylor, Ambassador Volker, and I were all surprised by this. Second, Mr. Giuliani was communicating with the reportedly corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor Lutsenko and discussing whether a Zelensky-Trump meeting was going to happen, again without our knowledge. And third, with this alarming news, Ambassador Taylor briefed Ulrich Brechbuehl, who is the Counselor to Secretary of State Pompeo. Even as late as September 24, Secretary Pompeo was directing Kurt Volker to speak with Rudy Giuliani."
On Pompeo, Sondland added: "In a WhatsApp message, Kurt Volker told me in part: 'Spoke w Rudy per guidance from S.' S means the Secretary of State."
Watch Sondland read the messages:
In his opening statement, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland described his July 26 call with Trump — which took place one day after Trump's call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky where Trump raised the topic of investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden.
"The call lasted five minutes. I remember I was at a restaurant in Kiev, and I have no reason to doubt that this conversation included the subject of investigations," Sondland said.
He continued: "Again, given Mr. Giuliani's demand that President Zelensky make a public statement about investigations, I knew that the topic of investigations was important to President Trump. We did not discuss any classified information."
Sondland said he had no recollection of discussing former Vice President Biden or his son, Hunter Biden.
Why this is big: Last week, diplomat Bill Taylor revealed that this call took place. Taylor said one his staffers, David Holmes, overheard this exchange between Trump and Sondland. Holmes later confirmed this in a closed-door deposition.
Hear Sondland's description:
US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland turned the State Department’s argument that the impeachment hearings process has been unfair back at them, suggesting they have made the process less fair and transparent by not allowing him to access his department phone records, emails and other documents.
“I also must acknowledge that this process has been challenging and, in many respects, less than fair,” Sondland testified in his opening statement. “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.”
He continued: “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,” Sondland said. “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.”
Some context: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly denounced the House impeachment inquiry as unfair, specifically noting that the department has not been permitted to have its counsel in the room during closed door hearings.
“What’s been so troubling is that this inquiry has been conducted in a way that is fundamentally unfair, fundamentally unfair to the State Department,” Pompeo told KWCH-TV in Wichita in late October.
Moments ago, during his opening statement, House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff mentioned that the State Department has not yet turned over a single document.
Watch the moment:
Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, said he "never received a clear answer" on why US security aid for Ukraine was withheld.
Sondland told lawmakers he learned of the aid hold in July and August 2019, which he said he "adamantly opposed." The Ukrainians, he said, "needed those funds to fight against Russian aggression."
"I tried diligently to ask why the aid was suspended, but I never received a clear answer," Sondland said.
"In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded."
He said he shared concerns about a potential quid pro quo regarding the aid with the Ukrainians and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.
US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland said he — as well as Energy Secretary Rick Perry and US diplomat Kurt Volker — didn't want to work with Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters, but they did so because "we were playing the hand we were dealt."
If they didn't work with Giuliani, "We would lose a very important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine," he said.
"First, 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 were playing the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose a very important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the President's orders."
Watch the moment:
In his opening statement, Gordon Sondland described his family's background as one of immigrants "eager for freedom and hungry for opportunity."
He told lawmakers that his family fled Europe during the Holocaust for Uruguay, then emigrated to Seattle, Washington, where he was born and raised.
"Like so many immigrants, my family was eager for freedom and hungry for opportunity. They raised my sister and me to be humble, hardworking, and patriotic, and I am forever grateful for the sacrifices they made on our behalf," the US ambassador to the European Union testified.
Sondland went on to say that "public service has always been important to me."
In his opening statement, House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes compared President Trump to the nation's first president, George Washington.
Here's how he put it:
"I would remind my friends on the other side of the aisle that our first president, George Washington, directed his own diplomatic channels to secure a treaty with Great Britain. If my Democratic colleagues were around in 1794, they’d probably want to impeach him, too."
Ranking Member Rep. Devin Nunes opened his remarks by welcoming EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland to testify, but he added, "Really not glad you're here."
Despite Sondland's new revelation that he pressured Ukraine to open investigations at the "express direction" of President Trump, Nunes stuck to the same GOP talking points criticizing the investigation.
Instead of talking about these dealings with Ukraine — the focus of today's hearing — Nunes' remarks focused on other areas like the Mueller investigation and alleged Russia collusion:
"As I've noted before, the Democrats on this committee spent three years accusing President Trump of being a Russian agent. In March 2018, after a year-long investigation, intelligence committee Republicans issued a 240-page report describing in detail how the Russians meddled in the 2016 elections and making specific recommendations to improve our election security," Nunes said.
He continued: "Denouncing the report as a whitewash and accusing Republicans of subverting the investigation, the Democrats issued their own report. Focusing on their now-debunked conspiracy theory that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to hack the elections."