US Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified Wednesday there was a quid pro quo for Ukraine to announce investigations into President Donald Trump's political opponents that came from the President's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani at the "express direction of the President."
What's more, Sondland provided House impeachment investigators with emails and texts showing it wasn't just him and Giuliani pushing for the investigations outside
government channels — Trump's inner circle knew what was going on, too. He even said he raised concerns with Vice President Mike Pence that the freezing of $400 million in security aid to Ukraine was linked to the investigations.
Sondland's testimony is the most damning evidence to date directly implicating Trump in the quid pro quo at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. His public remarks show a link between US security aid and a White House meeting and Ukraine publicly announcing investigations that would help the President politically. From the beginning of Wednesday's hearing, Sondland's comments dragged some of Trump's senior most officials -- including Pence, his chief of staff and his secretary of state -- into the scandal.
"Everyone was in the loop," Sondland said. "It was no secret."
In his remarkable opening statement before the fourth day of public impeachment hearings, Sondland told House impeachment investigators that Trump "wanted a public statement from President (Volodymyr) Zelensky committing to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election."
"Mr. Giuliani expressed those requests directly to the Ukrainians," said Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union. "Mr. Giuliani also expressed those requests directly to us. We all understood that these pre-requisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump's desires and requirements."
Sondland said that Trump's senior aides, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, were all aware that Zelensky was briefed days ahead of the July 25 call to commit to doing investigations.
"Everyone was informed via email on July 19, days before the Presidential call," Sondland said. "As I communicated to the team, I told President Zelensky in advance that assurances to 'run a fully transparent investigation' and 'turn over every stone' were necessary in his call with President Trump."
Lawfare's Ben Wittes on Trump's bribery of Ukranian President Zelensky and the legal implications of Sondland's singing like Striesand:
Remember the words of the statute: Whoever, being a public official, directly or indirectly, corruptly demands anything of value personally in return for being influenced in the performance of any official act has engaged in the crime of bribery.
This exchange seems to me unambiguously to describe a corrupt demand for something personally valuable (investigations of political opponents) in return for being influenced in the performance of two official acts (granting a White House meeting and releasing hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance).
In the questioning that followed, Republican counsel Steve Castor and Republican members sought to emphasize how little Sondland actually knew—suggesting that he, like witnesses last week, was not describing anything Trump had actually done, just his own impressions of a situation. But Sondland is unlike the witnesses last week. He had multiple, direct interactions on this subject with the president himself.
The first was on May 23, when Sondland and other officials went to brief Trump on Zelensky’s election and their excitement about having a reformist Ukrainian president with whom to work. They asked Trump to have a call with Zelensky and a White House meeting. “Unfortunately, President Trump was skeptical,” Sondland testified. “He expressed concerns that the Ukrainian government was not serious about reform. He even mentioned that Ukraine tried to take him down in the last election.” Sondland reported that “In response to our persistent efforts to change his views, President Trump directed us to ‘talk with Rudy’” Giuliani.
What did Giuliani, to whom Trump had personally directed Sondland, say to him? “Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into corruption issues. Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two topics of importance to the President.”
In other words, behind the exchange with Schiff is a specific claim that Trump personally directed Sondland to Giuliani, who then made substantive demands on Trump’s behalf for the investigations he wanted.
But it doesn’t end there. Sondland also confirms, while quibbling over details, that he spoke by phone with Trump on July 26 from a restaurant in Kiev and that the president, as another witness recounts, asked him whether Zelensky was going to deliver the investigations. “Actually,” Sondland testified, “I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the President’s concerns.”
And then there’s, of course, the text of the Trump-Zelensky call itself, in which Trump asked for Zelensky to initiate the very investigations described in these other incidents, shortly after Zelensky asked for his continued military assistance.
Was Trump here acting “corruptly”? Duh. Seeking investigations of political foes for personal political gain is a prototypically corrupt. But beyond that, Sondland was clear in his testimony that Trump wasn’t actually asking for the investigations themselves, but merely the announcement of them. In other words, he wanted not an investigation of corruption, but the political optics of Ukraine’s declaring that his political opponents were under investigation. What’s more, Sondland also confirmed that Trump seemed not to care a whit about Ukraine—that he only cared about the investigations that could benefit him.
In short, a witness with first-hand knowledge of both U.S. interactions with the Ukrainians and the president’s own conduct today accused President Trump of soliciting a bribe from a foreign head of state. Whether or not this would qualify as a bribe under the criminal law, I would have no hesitation describing it as one if I were a member of Congress considering the impeachment of a president.
Yes, it went that badly for Trump this morning, an it will only get worse.