Impeachment Hearing: Sondland Says He Pursued Ukraine Probes at ‘Express Direction’ of Trump


Ambassador to EU criticizes Giuliani, links Pompeo more directly to the pressure campaign

WASHINGTON—A U.S. ambassador who played a key role in the Ukraine pressure campaign at the heart of the impeachment inquiry said at a public hearing that he urged Ukraine to announce investigations “at the express direction” of President Trump.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in his testimony Wednesday revealed new communications that link Secretary of State Mike Pompeo more deeply than previously known to efforts to get Ukraine to undertake investigations that would benefit Mr. Trump politically, while harshly criticizing the president’s decision to involve Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, in the Ukraine pressure campaign.

He testified there was a “quid pro quo” between a White House meeting for the new Ukrainian president and the investigations the president sought, and he gave his most detailed account of why he believed nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine to be linked to those probes. That assertion—central to the impeachment inquiry—prompted Republicans to challenge his memory and truthfulness. The president has repeatedly denied any such link.

“As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the president,” Mr. Sondland said, adding that he worked with Mr. Giuliani on his pursuit of investigations in Ukraine into Democrat Joe Biden and alleged 2016 election interference “because the president directed us to do so.”

Mr. Sondland denied any wrongdoing, saying he felt emboldened to pursue the investigations because of conversations with the White House and State Department. “Everyone was in the loop,” he said. “It was no secret.”

Mr. Sondland, who previously spoke to investigators behind closed doors and later filed an addendum to that testimony, has been rebuked by Democrats for revising or leaving out some major episodes relevant to the inquiry. But on Wednesday, Democrats said they saw Mr. Sondland’s testimony as key to their argument that Mr. Trump abused his power by pressuring Ukraine while freezing aid to the country.

“Today’s testimony is among the most significant evidence to date,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) said during a short break in the hearing.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the committee, described the impeachment inquiry as “asinine” and based on a conspiracy theory. “Ambassador Sondland, you are here today to be smeared,” Mr. Nunes said. Democrats offered little criticism of Mr. Sondland—with the exception of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D., N.Y.), who quipped, in a reference to Mr. Sondland’s revisions to his testimony, “We appreciate your candor, but let’s be clear what it took to get it out of you.” It was Republicans who offered the harsher rebuke of the ambassador.

“You don’t have records. You don’t have your notes because you didn’t take notes. You don’t have a lot of recollections,” Republican counsel Steve Castor told the ambassador. “This is like the trifecta of unreliability.” Later in the day, Rep. Mike Turner (R., Ohio) suggested Mr. Sondland’s testimony about a link between aid and investigations was “made up” and added: “Not only are your answers somewhat circular, frequently you’ve contradicted yourself in your own answer.”

Mr. Sondland said he believed there was a link between the investigations and a White House visit for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, and he said that by the first week of September he had become “absolutely convinced” that the aid to Ukraine wouldn’t be released until Kyiv announced the investigations the president was seeking. Mr. Sondland said Mr. Trump didn’t outline a link to military aid explicitly, but he likened how he drew his conclusion to “2 + 2 = 4.”

By Sept. 8, Mr. Sondland said, it was “abundantly clear to everyone that there was a link” between the hold on aid and investigations. He reiterated his previous testimony that Mr. Trump had told him there was no quid pro quo but that he wanted Mr. Zelensky to “do the right thing” in a Sept. 7 call. Mr. Sondland said that conversation didn’t sway his understanding of a connection between aid, a White House meeting and investigations.

Republicans repeatedly emphasized that it was Mr. Sondland’s presumption—not an explicit directive he received from the president—that led him to tie the frozen aid to investigations. “You keep saying 2 + 2 = 4,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R., Ohio). “But two presumptions does not equal one fact.”

“No one told you aid was tied to political investigations, is that correct?” Mr. Turner asked. “That’s correct,” Mr. Sondland.

Democrats countered that the president didn’t need to make the connection explicit, noting that at least two other witnesses have also testified that they believed aid to be contingent on investigations. “My colleagues seem to be under the impression that unless the president spoke the words, ‘Ambassador Sondland, I am bribing the Ukrainian president,’ that there’s no evidence of bribery,” Mr. Schiff said. “Nonetheless, ambassador, you’ve given us a lot of evidence of precisely that conditionality of both the White House meeting and the military assistance.”

Mr. Trump, speaking to reporters as he left the White House for Texas on Wednesday, read from handwritten notes—referring to a September conversation he had with Mr. Sondland—in which he had scribbled “I want nothing” twice and “I want no quid pro quo.” “That means it’s all over,” Mr. Trump said, adding that he didn’t know the ambassador well but that “he seems like a nice guy.” Asked about the president’s remarks, Mr. Sondland quipped: “Easy come, easy go.”

In his 42-minute opening statement, Mr. Sondland also confirmed he called Mr. Trump from a Kyiv restaurant a day after the pivotal July conversation between Mr. Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart.

While acknowledging the call with Mr. Trump—which the president last week denied took place—Mr. Sondland said he couldn’t remember specific details and that he didn’t find it significant at the time. “Actually,” he said, “I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Giuliani about the president’s concerns.”

According to an earlier witness in the probe, Mr. Sondland told the president in the July 26 call that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “loves your ass.” Mr. Trump asked: “So he’s going to do the investigation?” and Mr. Sondland replied that Mr. Zelensky would “do anything you ask him to.”

Mr. Sondland, asked whether he recalled saying that to the president, responded: “Sounds like something I would say. That’s how President Trump and I communicate, a lot of four-letter words. In this case, three-letter.”

The call came a day after Mr. Trump had pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Mr. Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, and alleged Ukrainian election interference—an exchange that ultimately sparked the impeachment inquiry. Mr. Sondland said he knew the call had taken place but didn’t find out about what the leaders discussed until he read a rough transcript later.

Mr. Sondland also told investigators that in a meeting with Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak on the day of the July 26 call, “the issue of investigations was probably a part of the agenda.”

Mr. Sondland did contradict one element of earlier testimony by David Holmes, a State Department official who was present for the ambassador’s restaurant call with Mr. Trump. After the call, Mr. Holmes testified that he asked Mr. Sondland “if it was true that the president did not give a s— about Ukraine.” According to Mr. Holmes, Mr. Sondland agreed and, when Mr. Holmes asked why, Mr. Sondland said the president cared only about “’big stuff’ that benefits the president like the ‘Biden investigation’ that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, center, said Mr. Sondland ‘found himself increasingly embroiled in an effort to press the new Ukrainian president that deviated sharply from the norm.’ PHOTO: TING SHEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Mr. Sondland said he doesn’t recall discussing Mr. Biden or his son on the call with Mr. Trump or afterward.

In his statement, Mr. Sondland defended his decision to work with Mr. Giuliani. “If I had known of all of Mr. Giuliani’s dealings or of his associations with individuals now under criminal indictment, I would not have acquiesced to his participation. Still, given what we knew at the time, what we were asked to do did not appear to be wrong.”

Mr. Sondland was the fifth official to publicly testify this week. Later Wednesday, two more officials—Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, and David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs—are scheduled to testify. Ms. Cooper’s testimony is expected to focus on the circumstances surrounding the hold on the Ukraine aid, while Mr. Hale will be asked about the ouster of Marie Yovanovitch from her post as ambassador to Ukraine this spring.

On the third day of impeachment hearings, witnesses testified about their concerns regarding President Trump’s July phone call with the Ukrainian president and comments made by Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday reports. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP
Mr. Sondland has had a rocky history with impeachment investigators. He testified on Oct. 17 that he wasn’t aware of any connection between the president’s decision this summer to hold up aid to Ukraine and his push for investigations in Ukraine. He revised that testimony weeks later, saying his memory had been refreshed, after it was contradicted by another ambassador’s testimony.

In his previous testimony, he also didn’t mention the July 26 call with the president, which was revealed last week in public testimony by Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine.

Mr. Sondland acknowledged that preparing for his testimony before the House committees has been challenging “and in many respects, less than fair,” noting that the State Department and White House have declined to allow him to access certain records. “I am not a note taker, nor am I a memo writer. Never have been,” he added. “Talking with foreign leaders might be memorable to some people. But this is my job. I do it all the time.”

Several officials have testified that they raised concerns about Mr. Sondland’s push for investigations to White House lawyers, particularly after the ambassador raised the probes at a July 10 meeting with senior Ukrainian officials.

Mr. Sondland said Wednesday he wasn’t aware of any concerns from the NSC or others in the White House about his conduct.

He also referenced emails, previously reported by The Wall Street Journal, showing that in July, he kept several administration officials—including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Energy Secretary Rick Perry—informed about his efforts to push Mr. Zelensky to announce investigations.

“I’m not sure how someone could characterize something as an irregular channel when you’re talking to the president of the United States, the secretary of State, the national security adviser, the chief of staff of the White House,” Mr. Sondland said.

He also suggested Vice President Mike Pence was aware of the push for investigations, saying that in a September meeting he told the vice president that he was concerned that the held-up aid to Ukraine “had become tied to the issue of investigations.” Mr. Sondland said the vice president didn’t appear confused by his question or ask what investigations he was referring to.

Mr. Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, issued a statement disputing that assertion. He said the two were never alone during the Poland trip and that Mr. Pence “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.”