Trump dismissed Sondland, saying ‘I don’t know him very well.’
President Trump distanced himself from Gordon D. Sondland, a top donor he appointed as ambassador to the European Union, after the diplomat told lawmakers that he and other advisers pressured Ukraine to investigate Democrats at the president’s “express direction.”
As he headed to Marine One to depart on a trip to Texas, Mr. Trump stopped to talk with reporters briefly and pointed out that Mr. Sondland had testified that the president had told him at one point that he wanted nothing from Ukraine and there was no quid pro quo.
“That means it’s all over,” Mr. Trump said, shouting over the roar of the helicopter and reading from handwritten notes scrawled out in large block letters. “This is the final word from the president of the United States: ‘I want nothing.’ ”
The president’s press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, later issued a statement emphasizing those points. “Ambassador Sondland’s testimony made clear that in one of the few brief phone calls he had with President Trump, the president clearly stated that he ‘wanted nothing’ from Ukraine and repeated ‘no quid pro quo over and over again,’” she said.
Despite that, Mr. Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee on the fourth day of public impeachment hearings that it was clear to him that the president was intently interested in having the Ukrainians publicly commit to investigating Democrats, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., whose son served on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
Mr. Trump often disavows knowing advisers once they become problematic for him. Just last month, Mr. Trump called Mr. Sondland, who gave the president’s inaugural fund $1 million, “a really good man and great American.”
But on Wednesday he said: “I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though.” Ms. Grisham’s statement amplified that by referring to “the few brief phone calls” she said the two men have had.
Mr. Sondland portrayed their relationship differently, describing it as a chummy one that ranged even beyond the issues at hand. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with the president about completely unrelated matters that have nothing to do with Ukraine,” he said. Their conversations, he testified, featured, “a lot of four-letter words.”
Democrats argued that Sondland testimony has bolstered their case for impeaching Trump.
After Mr. Sondland testified that everyone from Mr. Trump on down was aware of the pressure campaign on Ukraine, House Democrats quickly declared that he had bolstered their case for impeachment.
Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called Mr. Sondland’s testimony “among the most significant evidence to date,” saying he described “a basic quid pro quo” that conditioned American security aid on Ukraine agreeing to investigate Mr. Trump’s political rivals.
“It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery, as well as other potential high crimes and misdemeanors,” Mr. Schiff told reporters during a break in the proceedings.
“The veneer has been torn away,” he added, as to why Mr. Trump and other administration officials have resisted providing documents and evidence to the committee.
“For those of you watching at home,” Representative Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the committee, said when the hearing resumed, “that was not a bathroom break, that was actually a chance for the Democrats to go out and hold a press conference, ambassador, for all the supposed bombshells that were in your opening testimony.”
Sondland testified he worked with Giuliani to pressure Ukraine ‘at the express direction of the president.’
Mr. Sondland told the committee that he and other advisers to Mr. Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate Democrats “because the president directed us to do so.”
Mr. Sondland said that he, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Kurt D. Volker, the special envoy for Ukraine, were reluctant to work with Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, on the pressure campaign and agreed only at Mr. Trump’s insistence.
“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,” Mr. Sondland told the committee. “We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we were playing the hand we were dealt.” With no alternative, he said, “we followed the president’s orders.”
Mr. Sondland confirmed what has already been known, that there was a clear “quid pro quo” linking a coveted White House meeting for Ukraine’s president to the investigations Mr. Trump wanted. And he said he was concerned about “a potential quid pro quo” linking $391 million in security aid that Mr. Trump suspended to the investigations he desired.
But under questioning, Mr. Sondland acknowledged that Mr. Trump never told him that. “I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement of investigations,” he testified.
And he was asked by Republicans to repeat a conversation he had with Mr. Trump that he has previously described in which he asked the president what he wanted from Ukraine. “It was a very short, abrupt conversation,” Mr. Sondland said. “He was not in a good mood. And he just said, ‘I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.’”
The conversation took place after the White House had already learned a whistle-blower had come forward with a complaint alleging that the president was abusing his power to try to enlist Ukraine to interfere on his behalf in the 2020 election.
Mr. Giuliani challenged Mr. Sondland in a tweet, saying the ambassador was “speculating based on VERY little contact. I never met him and had very few calls with him, mostly with Volker. Volker testified I answered their questions and described them as my opinions, NOT demands. I.E. no quid pro quo.”
He later deleted the tweet.
Mr. Perry also took issue with Mr. Sondland, issuing a statement through his department saying that the testimony “misrepresented both Secretary Perry’s interaction with Rudy Giuliani and direction the secretary received from President Trump.”
The statement said Mr. Perry spoke with Mr. Giuliani only once. “At no point before, during or after that phone call did the words ‘Biden’ or ‘Burisma’ ever come up in the presence of Secretary Perry,” the statement said.
‘Everyone was in the loop,’ Sondland said, including Pence, Pompeo, Mulvaney and others.
Mr. Sondland testified that he told Vice President Mike Pence in late August that he feared the military aid withheld from Ukraine was tied to the investigations Mr. Trump sought and that he kept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apprised of his efforts to pressure Ukraine.
The revelations suggested that Mr. Sondland has decided to publicly implicate the senior-most members of Mr. Trump’s administration in the matter, including Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, and he provided a series of text messages and emails to buttress his account.
“Everyone was in the loop,” he said told the committee. “It was no secret.”
If other officials were concerned that he was doing something wrong, as testimony now indicates, Mr. Sondland said they did not tell him at the time. “Everyone’s hair was on fire,” he said, “but no one decided to talk to us.”
The striking account — a major departure from Mr. Sondland’s initial closed-door testimony in the impeachment inquiry last month — also indicated that the ambassador who played a central role in the pressure campaign was eager to demonstrate that he did so only reluctantly with the knowledge and approval of the president and top members of his team.
Mr. Sondland rejected the notion that he was part of an illicit shadow foreign policy that worked around the normal national security process. “The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false,” he said, pointing to messages and phone calls in which he kept the White House and State Department informed of his actions. He added: “Any claim that I somehow muscled my way into the Ukraine relationship is simply false.”
The ambassador said that he “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.” He testified that the conversation occurred shortly before Mr. Pence met with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine while they were in Warsaw.
At that meeting, Mr. Zelensky brought up the issue of the withheld aid and Mr. Pence said he would discuss the matter with Mr. Trump. Afterward, Mr. Sondland said he informed Andriy Yermak, a top Ukrainian official, that the money would probably not flow without Mr. Zelensky making a public commitment to the investigations.
Marc Short, Mr. Pence’s chief of staff, issued a statement after his testimony denying Mr. Sondland’s account.
“The vice president never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations,” Mr. Short said. “This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened.”
Mr. Sondland also said that “even as late as September,” after the pressure campaign emerged in the news media, “Secretary Pompeo was directing Kurt Volker to speak with Mr. Giuliani,” without elaboration.
For Trump, what mattered most was that investigations of Democrats be publicly announced.
Under questioning, Mr. Sondland put his finger on a distinction that often gets overlooked in the discussion of Mr. Trump’s interest in Ukraine: For the president, it seemed more important that Ukrainian officials announce that they were investigating Democrats than for them to actually follow through.
“I never heard, Mr. Goldman, anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed,” Mr. Sondland told Daniel S. Goldman, the top Democratic counsel who questioned him. “The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise was that they had to be announced in some form and that form kept changing.”
The distinction is important because Democrats are arguing that Mr. Trump was not trying to fight corruption, but instead trying to enlist a foreign power to discredit his rivals in a way that would benefit him in the 2020 election. In pressing Mr. Sondland on the matter, Mr. Goldman noted that, “there would be political benefits to a public announcement.”
Mr. Sondland responded, “The way it was expressed to me was that the Ukrainians had a long history of committing to things privately and then never following through, so President Trump, presumably, again communicated through Mr. Giuliani, wanted the Ukrainians on record publicly that they were going to do these investigations.”
“But you never heard anyone say that they really wanted them to do the investigations, just that they wanted to announce” them, Mr. Goldman said.
“I didn’t hear either way,” Mr. Sondland said. “I didn’t hear either way.”
Sondland offered a firsthand account but few details of what the president said.
While Republican lawmakers have derided other officials who have testified in the impeachment hearings because they had only secondhand information and had not spoken with the president, Mr. Sondland had direct contact with Mr. Trump and cannot be easily dismissed as a hearsay witness.
But Mr. Sondland gave away few details of any conversations with Mr. Trump other than the president telling him and other advisers to “talk with Rudy,” who was leading the pressure campaign.
Mr. Sondland acknowledged that he told a senior Ukrainian official that to get Mr. Trump to release the frozen American security aid, the Kyiv government would likely have to publicly commit to investigating a debunked conspiracy theory involving Democrats in the 2016 election as well as Mr. Biden and his son’s ties to Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company.
The ambassador did not attribute that linkage to any explicit direction by Mr. Trump, instead saying he came to that conclusion on his own based on the fact that the money had been held up for so long.
“In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of the aid,” Mr. Sondland said, “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.”
Republican lawmakers may try to portray Mr. Sondland as acting on his own, taking initiative beyond anything the president explicitly told him to do.
Sondland confirmed an indiscreet conversation with Trump.
Mr. Sondland in his prepared testimony confirmed a conversation with Mr. Trump that he did not volunteer during his original testimony, one that came at a key moment in the timeline and that House investigators also learned about from other witnesses, although he said he did not recall the details.
David Holmes, the political counselor at the American Embassy in Ukraine, told investigators last Friday that he was at lunch with Mr. Sondland and a couple of other officials on the outdoor patio of a Kyiv restaurant on July 26, the day after Mr. Trump’s phone call asking for “a favor” from Mr. Zelensky in the form of investigations of Democrats.
“So, he’s going to do the investigation?” Mr. Trump asked, according to Mr. Holmes, who could overhear the conversation because the president was speaking so loudly that Mr. Sondland held the cellphone away from his ear.
Mr. Sondland told him yes. Mr. Zelensky “loves your ass” and would do “anything you ask him to,” Mr. Sondland said, according to Mr. Holmes’s statement.
After the phone call, Mr. Holmes said he asked Mr. Sondland about the president’s feelings toward Ukraine. The ambassador said that Mr. Trump did not care about Ukraine but was interested only in “big stuff that benefits the president” like the “Biden investigation.”
In his testimony, Mr. Sondland did not challenge the account, while insisting that they did not discuss classified information.
“It is true that the president speaks loudly at times,” he said. “It’s true that the president likes to use colorful language,” he added. The call did not strike him as significant at the time. “Actually, I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations,” he said.
Sondland disputed other descriptions of key July 10 meeting at the White House.
Mr. Sondland denied that a July 10 meeting at the White House with Ukrainian officials turned sharply tense, as others have testified in recent days.
Fiona Hill, then the senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council, and her deputy for Ukraine policy, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, previously told lawmakers that the meeting led to a confrontation over Mr. Sondland’s unconventional role in Ukraine policy.
When Mr. Sondland mentioned the need for investigations, the two officials said, John R. Bolton, then the national security adviser, abruptly ended the meeting. When the others then went down to the Ward Room in the White House, Ms. Hill said she challenged Mr. Sondland about who put him in charge of Ukraine policy. The president, he replied. When she told Mr. Bolton what happened, Ms. Hill said, he directed her to report the matter to a White House lawyer.
Mr. Sondland said he did not remember that.
“Their recollections of those events simply don’t square with my own or with those of Ambassador Volker or Secretary Perry,” he said in his prepared testimony. “I recall mentioning the prerequisite of investigations before any White House call or meeting. But I do not recall any yelling or screaming or abrupt terminations as others have said.”
Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.