- Oct 25, 2017
The U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, intends to tell Congress this week that the content of a text message he wrote denying a quid pro quo with Ukraine was relayed to him directly by President Trump in a phone call, according to a person familiar with his testimony.
Sondland plans to tell lawmakers he has no knowledge of whether the president was telling him the truth at that moment. “It’s only true that the president said it, not that it was the truth,” said the person familiar with Sondland’s planned testimony, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.
The Sept. 9 exchange between Sondland and the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine has become central to the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into whether the president abused his office in pressuring Ukraine to open an investigation into his political rival Joe Biden and his son, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. The White House and its defenders have held up Sondland’s text, which included “no quid pro quo’s of any kind,” as proof that none was ever considered.
Hours before Sondland called the president, he received a text message from the acting ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor, raising questions about the aid holdup. “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor texted Sondland.
That’s when Sondland, according to the person’s understanding, called Trump, who then told him he didn’t “want a quid pro quo … didn’t want anything from Ukraine.” The call lasted less than five minutes, and Trump appeared to be in a foul mood, the person said.
Sondland is expected to say that for months before the Sept. 9 message, he worked at the direction of Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, to secure what he would call in another text message the “deliverable” sought by Trump: a public statement from Ukraine that it would investigate corruption, including mentioning Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, by name. In exchange for the statement, the president would grant Ukraine’s new president a coveted White House audience.
“It was a quid pro quo, but not a corrupt one,” the person familiar with Sondland’s testimony said.
Sondland appears poised to say that he and other diplomats did not know that the request to mention Burisma was really an effort to impugn the reputations of Biden and his son Hunter, who had served as a Burisma board member. Sondland contends that he didn’t know about the Biden connection until a whistleblower complaint and transcript surfaced in late September.
To trust Sondland’s testimony, members of Congress will have to believe Sondland had not seen televised appearances by Giuliani over the spring and summer, or numerous newspaper and magazine articles questioning whether Hunter Biden’s role at Burisma could prove to be a drag on his father’s presidential campaign.
“If people find that incredulous, it strikes me that the incredulity is hindsight bias,” said the person familiar with Sondland’s testimony. “The things that seem so clear to people now didn’t seem so clear in real time.”
Sondland “somehow wants all of us to believe that he is ‘shocked, shocked’ that anything he was wrapped up in was aimed at the Bidens. That beggars belief,” said Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “After all, he is a political appointee who prided himself on having direct access to Trump during this period.”