Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified Wednesday more bluntly than he had before that President Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, sought to condition a White House invite for Ukraine’s new president to their demands that his country publicly launch investigations that could damage Trump’s political opponents.

“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?’ ” Sondland said in sworn testimony. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Trump’s U.S. ambassador to the European Union — a longtime Republican donor who gave $1 million to the presidential inaugural committee and was confirmed by the Republican Senate — gave the House Intelligence Committee an account of the president’s culpability in leveraging the power of the Oval Office for his own political gain.

Sondland said he and senior administration officials “followed the president’s orders” — coordinating with Trump’s personal attorney to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations.

Sondland: ‘Was there a quid pro quo? The answer is yes’
U.S. ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland testified he sought to condition a White House meeting for Ukraine in exchange for investigations on Nov. 20. (Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The much-anticipated testimony by a top Trump political appointee provided perhaps the most dramatic moments yet in the ongoing impeachment inquiry and ratcheted up the pressure on Trump, who earlier this fall called Sondland “a really good man and great American.”

In brief remarks to reporters outside the White House, Trump distanced himself from Sondland, saying, “This is not a man I know well.” He noted that Sondland testified that the president had denied to him there was a quid pro quo.

“That means it’s all over,” Trump said.

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland appears before the House Intelligence Committee during an impeachment hearing on Wednesday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland appears before the House Intelligence Committee during an impeachment hearing on Wednesday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

But Democrats said Sondland’s testimony pulled back the curtain on the extent of the Ukraine pressure campaign, implicating not just the president but Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

“We now can see the veneer has been torn away,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters during a break in the testimony, arguing that the situation as described by Sondland “goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery, as well as other potential high crimes or misdemeanors.”

“I think a very important moment in the history of this inquiry,” he added.

Sondland identified Giuliani as Trump’s conduit, saying he communicated the “topics important to the president.” One of those was having Ukraine announce an investigation into a widely discredited conspiracy theory that the country was involved in peddling misinformation in the 2016 presidential election. Another was getting Ukraine to publicly announce an investigation into Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company where a board position had been held by the son of former vice president Joe Biden.

Sondland said the work he and others carried out with Giuliani seeking a Ukrainian announcement of the investigations was done “at the express direction of the president of the United States.”

He also said “there was no secret” about the work within a much larger circle of Trump’s Cabinet.

Pompeo, Pence and Mulvaney were among those Sondland named as senior officials who were aware of the pressure campaign.

“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said.

Sondland said that Pompeo was involved at several points. The secretary of state “was aware that a commitment to investigations was among the issues we were pursuing” and the State Department was “fully supportive,” the ambassador testified.

That coordination with Pompeo extended to navigating what Sondland said he believed was another bargaining chip the White House had put in play in July to pressure Ukraine: $400 million in security assistance to fend off Russian aggression.

Sondland said that he was never privy to the White House meetings where the aid was frozen but that he became convinced it was being held up as leverage and thought that was inappropriate.

“In the absence of any credible explanation for the hold, I came to the conclusion that the aid, like the White House visit, was jeopardized,” Sondland said. “My belief was that if Ukraine did something to demonstrate a serious intention” to launch the investigations Trump wanted, “then the hold on military aid would be lifted.”

Republicans seemed torn between attacking Sondland’s credibility — or using part of his testimony to defend the president. A GOP lawyer managed to get Sondland to acknowledge that Trump never told him personally about preconditions for aid to Ukraine or a White House meeting, clips the White House promptly emailed out to surrogates around town.

Yet Republicans were clearly frustrated with Sondland, as well. Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) blamed Sondland for the Ukraine controversy, accusing him of listening to the word of Giuliani over the president.

Trump, Sondland testified, told him at one point there was “no quid pro quo” — yet Sondland also said he understood there was a tit-for-tat arrangement and that it was directed by the president.

“He makes no attempt whatsoever to reconcile the differences,” Perry said of Sondland. “He just hangs up with the president after having been given very clear direction from the very person that he works for, and then assumes Giuliani’s version of what’s to be done is correct.”

Perry added: “It’s obvious the guy’s not sure what the heck he thinks.”

Sondland said that he was concerned enough about the aid holdup that he sought to improvise a solution to that in August, before the larger question of whether Ukraine would launch the investigations.

Sondland revealed an email showing that he asked Pompeo to help him orchestrate a face-to-face encounter between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, off to the side of a World War II commemoration ceremony that the two were scheduled to attend in Poland on Sept. 1.

“I would ask Zelensky to look him in the eye and tell him that once Ukraine’s new justice folks are in place mid-Sept, that Ze should be able to move forward publicly and with confidence on those issues of importance to Potus and to the US,” Sondland wrote in the Aug. 22 email, using an acronym for president of the United States. “Hopefully, that will break the logjam” on funding.

“Should we block time in Warsaw for a short pull-aside for Potus to meet Zelensky?” Sondland asked.

“Yes,” Pompeo replied three minutes later.

Days later, Trump would decide not to travel to Warsaw and to instead stay in the United States as Hurricane Dorian threatened Florida.

Vice President Pence made the trip in place of Trump and, off to the side, Sondland held his own impromptu meeting with Zelensky confidant Andriy Yermak.

Sondland was more direct with his warning, he said, telling Yermak that the resumption of U.S. aid “would likely not occur” until Ukraine took some kind of action on publicly committing to the investigations Trump sought.

Sondland’s account in his prepared remarks that there were conditions on the aid and that he relayed those to Ukrainian officials stands as a major reversal from closed-door testimony he provided in the impeachment inquiry a month ago.

During more than seven hours of questioning on Oct. 17, both Republicans and Democrats repeatedly asked Sondland whether aid was part of the White House quid pro quo. Numerous times, he said he could not recall.

Sondland was questioned at one point that day by Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. McCaul asked Sondland whether he had any conversation with Zelensky about withholding U.S. aid in connection with the investigations sought by Trump.

“I don’t recall any conversation about this,” Sondland replied.

Another investigator later asked, “So, you’ve never made a statement relating the aid to conditions that the Ukraine ought to comply with?”

Again, Sondland testified, “I don’t remember that, no.”

After his denials were contradicted in testimony later provided by William B. Taylor Jr., the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, the top Russia and Europe adviser on the National Security Council, Sondland filed a supplemental statement early this month, stating the testimony of Taylor and Morrison had “refreshed my recollection about conversations involving the suspension of U.S. aid.”

It marked the second time Sondland had become a more problematic witness for the White House.

A longtime Republican donor who gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural, Sondland had initially been seen as a loyalist of the president with a supportive version of events.

In a text message that was among the first bits of evidence released in the impeachment inquiry, Sondland had been shown to assert to Taylor in September that Trump did not seek “quid pro quo’s of any kind.” The text was seized upon by Trump and his supporters to argue he had not used the power of his office for personal political gain.

In his closed-door testimony, Sondland undercut part of that argument, telling congressional investigators that he texted the now infamous phrase only after it was relayed to him directly by Trump. He also said he had been working to barter the White House visit for Zelensky for the investigations demanded by Giuliani, Trump’s informal emissary on the issue.

In his prepared remarks, Sondland drops distinctions he’d earlier drawn between his work for Giuliani and his work for Trump, saying that he worked with Giuliani “at the express direction of the President of the United States.”

Still, his testimony contains many contradictions with Taylor, Morrison and David Holmes, an embassy official.

In one major discrepancy, Sondland had previously said he had only two calls with Trump between July and September. Morrison said he understood there were a half-dozen.

Holmes, a counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, said he was present for one, which Sondland for the first time is now acknowledging.

In that call, placed July 26 from a restaurant in Kyiv, Holmes said he remembers Sondland using colorful language with the commander in chief to provide an encouraging update about Trump’s sought-after investigations. At one point, Holmes testified, Sondland told Trump that “President Zelensky ‘loves your ass.’ ”

Trump’s voice could initially be heard across the table, Holmes said, because it was so loud that Sondland grimaced and pulled the receiver away from his ear.

“I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’ ” Holmes testified, according to a transcript. “Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to.’ ”

Holmes testified that after the call, he asked Sondland if it was true that Trump did not care about Ukraine.

“Nope, not at all, doesn’t give a s— about Ukraine,” Holmes recalled Sondland saying. “I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated, the president only cares about ‘big stuff.’ I noted that there was ‘big stuff’ going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia.’ Sondland said ‘no, big stuff that matters to him, like this Biden investigation that Giuliani is pushing.’ ”

At least three other witnesses have said Sondland was speaking about a Biden investigation sought by Trump. Sondland has said he only ever heard and used the word Burisma — the energy company where Biden’s son Hunter held a board position.

Sondland’s reported use of the word Biden is the only element of Holmes account that the ambassador says he cannot recall, according to his prepared remarks.

“It is true that the President speaks loudly at times. … It is true that the President likes to use colorful language,” Sondland said in his remarks.

“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, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the President’s concerns,” Sondland states.

But it wasn’t about the Bidens, he adds.

“I have no recollection of discussing Vice President Biden or his son on that call or after the call ended.”

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.