In testimony, EU ambassador Gordon Sondland demolishes Trump’s “no quid pro quo” claim

Sondland, a key figure in the Ukraine scandal, confirmed that both a White House meeting and military aid were explicitly used as leverage.

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In testimony that devastates the presidential line of denial, EU ambassador Gordon Sondland – a former Trump donor at the centre of the Ukraine scandal the Democrats are investigating in their impeachment inquiry – told Congress that there was a clear “quid pro quo” in the administration’s demand that Ukraine investigate the Bidens.

Both a potential White House summit and, crucially, $400m in US military aid to Ukraine were held back explicitly to compel Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Trump’s potential political rival, Sondland testified. “Yup,” Sondland said, when asked if the military aid was part of a quid pro quo demand.

“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said, contradicting the White House’s claim that there could have been “no quid pro quo” in part because Zelensky wasn’t aware at the time of the phone call at the heart of the inquiry in which Trump asks the Ukrainian president to “do us a favour.”

Sondland, whose public testimony contained several u-turns from his less damning private testimony last month after the inquiry discovered holes in that testimony, also directly implicated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in what transpired on the call. “Are you saying everyone in the chain of command knew about Giuliani’s efforts?” Sondland was asked. “The leadership of the State Department and also the NSC [National Security Council] were knowledgeable,” Sondland said.

Republicans on the committee, including Ohio representative and reliable administration defender Jim Jordan, tried once again to imply that because there had been no “announcement” of the investigation into Biden by the Ukrainian government that there could have been no quid pro quo. But as many pointed out, the fact that the crime was unsuccessful – in fact, that it had been stopped by the instigation of this very investigation by Congress after the phone call was flagged by a whistleblower – does not stop it from being a crime.

“My colleagues appear to be under the impression that unless the president said ‘Ambassador Sondland, I am ordering you to bribe president Zelensky,’ there is no impression of bribery,” Adam Schiff, the chair of the committee, archly said at one point, noting that White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had already publicly acknowledged the conditional nature of the offer to Ukraine. “They got caught,” Schiff said.

Meanwhile, at an impromptu press conference, a page of Trump’s handwritten notes – written in large font in black felt-tip pen – was captured by a Getty photographer. Appearing to summarise the president’s position on what he claims took place on the call, Trump’s notes read: “I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO.”

Earlier in the day, Trump had tweeted “I don’t know [Ambassador Sondland] well.”

Trump’s increasingly erratic statements and behaviour, including these notes, show that the president is becoming more and more rattled the clearer it becomes that the impeachment inquiry – though it may remain impossible for impeachment ultimately to succeed in the Senate – seems to be convincing people that the extortion racket he attempted in Ukraine did indeed happen the way it was originally described by the whistleblower who first drew attention to it.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.