* Ambassador to EU testifies as House impeachment hearing
* ‘Was there a quid pro quo? The answer is yes’
A star witness at the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump has testified to the existence of a quid pro quo with Ukraine and insisted: “We followed the president’s orders”, The Guardian reports.
In a major blow to the president, Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, said in bombshell evidence he was forced to work with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani against his will, and criticised the White House and state department for failing to provide records.
Sondland, a wealthy hotelier who donated $1m to Trump’s inaugural committee, is the witness who most alarms officials at the White House, according to US media reports. He has been described as one of the so-called “three amigos” the Trump administration used to bypass normal state department channels to Ukraine.
Wearing a blue suit, white shirt and red patterned tie, Sondland took his seat in a cavernous, ornate committee room on Capitol Hill just after 9am on Wednesday and offered the most explosive testimony of the inquiry so far.
He asserted that an Oval Office meeting with Trump was conditional on Ukraine announcing investigations into Burisma, a gas company linked to the son of former vice-president Joe Biden, and a widely discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine planted evidence on a server of the Democratic party to show that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
“Mr Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelenskiy,” Sondland said. “Mr Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president.”
He added: “I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
Sondland’s opening statement stunned Washington. Chris Murphy, a Democatic senator from Connecticut, tweeted: “It’s hard to overhype how extraordinary Sondland’s testimony is. Every American needs to take 15 minutes today to watch or read it. He lays out the corruption scheme in clear, easy to understand detail. It was a clear quid pro quo, and the President directed it.”
The testimony is potentially devastating to Trump’s fight against impeachment, demolishing defences erected by House Republicans and conservative media. It also raises questions over the future of Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, who pushed hard for the investigations despite having no official diplomatic role.
Giuliani, who had business interests of his own in Ukraine, has refused to testify or hand over documents to the impeachment investigation despite a subpoena.
Sondland, remaining calm despite the intense pressure in front of millions of TV viewers, said: “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.”
The Brussels-based ambassador, who has no previous foreign policy experience, defended his own conduct and said he acted in good faith. He also said he was always opposed to the suspension of aid to Ukraine. He “never received a clear answer” on why it happened, he said, but “came to believe” it was also tied to the investigations.
“I was adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid, as the Ukrainians needed those funds to fight against Russian aggression.”
But Trump told him to “talk with Rudy”, Sondland recalled. “Let me say again: We weren’t happy with the president’s directive to talk with Rudy. We did not want to involve Mr Giuliani. I believed then, as I do now, that the men and women of the state department, not the president’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for Ukraine matters.”
Sondland adamantly denied involvement in “some irregular or rogue diplomacy” that departed from White House policy, claiming that he kept the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and other state department and the National Security Council officials informed of his activities. He said he and his lawyers had requested materials from both but this was declined.
Sondland also testified about a phone call he had with Trump from a restaurant in Kyiv. Previous witnesses have testified they overheard Trump asking, “So he’s going to do the investigation?” and Sondland replying, “He’s going to do it” because Zelenskiy will “do anything you ask him to”.
On Wednesday, Sondland told the committee: “While I cannot remember the precise details – again, the White House has not allowed me to see any readouts of that call – the July 26 call did not strike me as significant at the time.
“Actually, I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations … However, I have no recollection of discussing Vice-President Biden or his son on that call or after the call ended.”
Sondland had already changed his closed-door testimony to admit the existence of a quid pro quo.
He could now face a fierce backlash from the president and his conservative allies. Trump tweeted criticism of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch during her testimony and the White House did similar against Lt Col Alexander Vindman, who said Sondland referred to “specific investigations that Ukrainians would have to deliver in order to get these meetings”.
Trump’s impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House would put him on trial in the Senate, where a Republican majority seems likely to acquit him and keep him in office.