- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Testimony from U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland Wednesday describing President Trump’s quid pro quo deal with Ukraine all but guaranteed that House Democrats will draw up articles of impeachment, though the fate of the Trump presidency was far from sealed as Republicans rallied to his defense.

Mr. Sondland drew a direct line from U.S. officials in Kyiv to Mr. Trump’s private lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to the Oval Office as the origin of a scheme to force Ukraine to open investigations that the president wanted and were potentially politically motivated.

“We followed the president’s orders,” Mr. Sondland told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

He described how, on Mr. Giuliani’s instructions, the promise of a prized White House visit for newly elected Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky was made conditional on Mr. Zelensky announcing investigations into Ukraine meddling in the 2016 presidential election and corruption at Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings, which put Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, on its board of directors.

“Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” Mr. Sondland said.

Mr. Sondland said he communicated the aid-for-investigations deal to Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Mr. Zelensky.

“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,” the ambassador said.

But the testimony was not clear cut and left room for conflicting interpretations.

Mr. Sondland said he was never directly told by the president to make the deals with Ukraine and he had “presumed” that was what Mr. Trump wanted.

He said he “put two and two together” to conclude what Mr. Trump wanted.

Democrats said it was an open-and-shut case of Mr. Trump using the levers of power for his political gain, which they describe as a bribery scheme.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, chairman of the intelligence committee conducting the impeachment hearing, called it “the most significant evidence to date.”

“This conditioning of the White House meeting, of the security assistance, to get the deliverable the president wanted — the two political investigations he believed would help his reelection campaign — was a basic quid pro quo,” the California Democrat said.

The quid pro quo, a Latin phrase meaning a transaction of this for that, is the linchpin of the Democrats’ impeachment case.

Mr. Sondland also refused to say that the delay of $391 million of U.S. military aid to Ukraine was part of the bargain, despite repeated prodding from Democrats to do so.

“Nobody told me the aid was tied to anything. I was presuming it was,” said Mr. Sondland, a multimillionaire businessman and Republican fundraiser from Seattle who secured the ambassadorship after giving $1 million to Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, California Democrat, said the connection to the military aid was as obvious as the weather.

“If someone walks through those two doors wearing rain boots, a raincoat and holding an umbrella with raindrops falling off of them, do you have to see outside that it is raining to presume or conclude that it might be raining outside,” he asked Mr. Sondland.

“I understand your hypothetical,” responded the ambassador.

Mr. Sondland, who was touted as the make-or-break witness at the center of the inquiry, appeared as the centerpiece of this week’s impeachment hearing schedule that was packed with nine witnesses.

The hearings have failed to dramatically move the needle of public opinion that has been split over impeachment. The hearings continue Thursday with testimony by Fiona Hill, a former Russia specialist on the National Security Council, and David Holmes, a State Department aide who says he overheard a phone conversation between Mr. Sondland and Mr. Trump during which the Bidens were mentioned.

Mr. Sondland rejected Mr. Holmes’ account.

While House Democrats have marched steadily toward an impeachment vote, Mr. Trump has enjoyed strong support in the Republican-run Senate that would hold a trial and decide whether to remove him from office.

Mr. Sondland’s testimony, though heralded by House Democrats, did not set off a stampede of Senate Republicans distancing themselves from the president.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said his support for Mr. Trump and opposition to the impeachment drive had not changed.

“I think it’s a solution in search of a justification,” he said of the House inquiry.

“It’s a circus,” said Sen. Rick Scott, Florida Republican. “The only person that’s been transparent is Trump. Read the transcript. All the rest of this stuff is he said, she said. All this stuff is hearsay. It’s not going to be admissible in the Senate.”

At the hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, challenged Mr. Sondland’s assumptions by pointing out that Mr. Zelensky got a White House visit and the military aid without announcing investigations.

“They get the meeting, they get the money, it’s not two plus two — it’s zero for three. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.

Mr. Trump said Mr. Sondland’s testimony was a rim shot, not a slam dunk.

“Not only did we win today, it’s over,” Mr. Trump told reporters while touring an Apple electronics plant in Austin, Texas. “This was going to be their star witness. They ought to end the witch hunt right now.”

He questioned why Mr. Sondland didn’t include in his lengthy opening statement a Sept. 9 conversation in which Mr. Trump told the ambassador “I want nothing” from Ukraine.

“Why didn’t he put this statement into his opening remarks? It’s the most important statement,” Mr. Trump said.

Republicans on the committee hammered Mr. Sondland for jumping to conclusions about Mr. Trump’s demands when the only time the president directly addressed the issue, in the Sept. 9 call, he explicitly said there was no deal.

“I just asked him an open-ended question,” Mr. Sondland said under questioning by Mr. Schiff, “what do you want from Ukraine? I keep hearing all these different ideas and theories and this and that. What do you want? And it was a very short, abrupt conversation. He was not in a good mood, and he just said, ‘I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing.’”

Mr. Sondland recalled that the president said he wanted Mr. Zelensky to “do what he ran on,” which was an anti-corruption agenda.

“This is the final word from the president of the United States: I want nothing,” Mr. Trump told reporters before he flew to Texas, reciting Mr. Sondland’s testimony from handwritten notes. “That means it’s all over.”

Mr. Sondland also insisted that he did not know the investigation of Burisma was connected to Mr. Biden.

The connection to Mr. Biden, a top contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, is what Democrats say make the investigations politically self-serving for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump pushed for the investigation because of a potential conflict of interest or corruption involving Mr. Biden’s son Hunter, who in 2014 got a $50,000-a-month job at Burisma. At the time, the elder Mr. Biden was spearheading Obama White House policy in Ukraine, a country notorious for corruption, especially in the energy industry.

The elder Mr. Biden recently boasted of getting Ukraine’s chief prosecutor fired in spring 2016 by threatening to block a $1 billion U.S. loan guarantee. The prosecutor was widely viewed as not doing enough to combat corruption. But the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, also was looking into corruption allegations against Burisma and the Ukraine oligarch running the company.

“Joe Biden did not come up,” testified Mr. Sondland.

In his opening statement, Mr. Sondland complained about the Trump administration refusing to give him access to documents and records that would have refreshed his memory for his testimony, saying he doesn’t take notes.

The complaint appeared aimed at criticism he has suffered for repeatedly changing or updating his previous closed-door deposition. Democrats seized on it as evidence of another impeachable offense: obstruction.

“This only goes to underscore just how significant the president’s obstruction of this investigation has been,” said Mr. Schiff, who also noted that Article III of the impeachment articles drafted against President Richard Nixon was his refusal to obey the subpoenas of Congress.

Mr. Sondland, who said it would be wrong to push a foreign leader to conduct a political investigation, noted that many administration officials were involved in the efforts in Ukraine.

“Everyone was in the loop,” he said. “There was no secret.”

And yet, he said, the officials who now say they were alarmed or concerned did not speak up to him at the time.

“I don’t remember anybody sounding an alarm bell because, of course, if someone had mentioned it, I would have sat up and taken notice,” he said. “Everyone’s hair was on fire, but no one decided to talk to us.”

Dave Boyer and Ryan Lovelace contributed to this report.

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