Seattle hotelier Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified Wednesday before the House Intelligence Committee in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. The hearing was a minefield for Sondland, whose honesty had been called into question on several crucial points. Below are updates on the hearing as it happened.
Background and headlines on Sondland:
- Our preview of his much-anticipated moment in the impeachment spotlight
- An earlier profile of how the Pacific Northwest hotelier became a central figure in the Ukraine controversy
- Why discrepancies in Sondland’s earlier testimony loom large
How the hearing unfolded:
Sondland hearing ends: Did it provide 'seminal moment' in impeachment probe, or 'zero evidence'?
After being grilled for hours on Wednesday, Sondland is out of the impeachment-inquiry hot seat.
In closing remarks, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee gave starkly differing assessments of the importance of Sondland’s testimony.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, who has spent much of his time trying to make the hearings about Joe Biden, the whistleblower and the Mueller report, continued to argue there is no possible way Trump could be seen to have done anything resembling an impeachable offense.
“Testimony today was far from compelling and provides zero evidence of any of the crimes that have been alleged,” he said. In fact, Nunes said Sondland’s statement about a phone call with Trump, in which the president said he wanted “no quid pro quo” with Ukraine, was exculpatory.
“Nothing we heard establishes a claim that the president acted improperly in his dealings with Ukraine, and certainly nothing has been presented to support anything for an impeachment,” Nunes said.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, the committee’s chairman, offered a lengthy rebuttal, reading from Sondland’s testimony saying there was a quid pro quo conditioning a White House meeting on the political investigations Trump wanted Ukraine to conduct.
“There’s no mistaking what Donald Trump’s interest was,” Schiff said, pointing to evidence that military aid to Ukraine, a U.S. ally, also was temporarily withheld to pressure the Ukrainians.
Schiff said he appreciated Sondland’s refusal to opine on whether Trump should be impeached. “That’s for us to decide, in consultation with our constituents and our conscience,” he said, adding that he did not “relish” pursuing impeachment of the president.
Republicans have argued that nothing sinister occurred because Ukraine eventually got the aid and no Biden investigation took place. Schiff said that’s only because the scheme was exposed.
“I’m continually struck by colleagues who would suggest that, because the president got caught, we should ignore the fact that he was conditioning official acts in order to get political favors,” Schiff said. “Getting caught is no defense, not to a violation of the Constitution or to a violation of his oath of office. It certainly doesn’t give us a reason to ignore our own oath of office.”
Schiff then adjourned the hearing.
Sondland slammed by New York congressman for changes in his story
Most of the questioning of Sondland on Wednesday was remarkably cordial, given the stakes, but some on the Intelligence Committee have expressed irritation with parts of his story — and his multiple revisions to his earlier closed-door testimony.
Near the end of the hearing, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-New York, flashed frustration with Sondland’s reluctance to say Trump’s actions amounted to trading an official act for a political favor.
Sondland resisted that line of questioning. “I have been really forthright. I really resent what you’re trying to do,” he complained.
That set Maloney off.
“You ‘have been very forthright.’ This is your fourth try to do so. It didn’t work so well the first time. We had a declaration, remember that? Now, we’re here a third time. We have a doozy of a statement this morning. There’s a bunch of stuff you didn’t recall,” Maloney said. “We appreciate your candor, but let’s be really clear on what it took to get it out of you.”
Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., asks Sondland about top Trump aides’ reluctance to testify
Rep. Denny Heck, Washington state’s sole representative on the House Intelligence Committee, got his five minutes to question Sondland late in the Wednesday impeachment hearing.
Heck, a Democrat representing Washington’s Olympia-area 10th Congressional District, mentioned Sondland’s parents, who fled the Holocaust and eventually settled in Seattle. He asked whether Sondland’s decision to testify stemmed in part from “a sense of patriotism” instilled in him by them. Sondland said that was a fair characterization.
Heck asked why other Trump aides and associates did not feel a duty to appear before the committee as well.
“Why then, sir, with your courage to come before us, does that same standard not apply to Mr. Mulvaney, Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Bolton, Mr. Giuliani? Why shouldn’t those same sentiments beat within their hearts, to do what you have done, sir? Indeed, why doesn’t that same standard apply to the president of the United States?”
Sondland replied, “I wish I could answer.”
Sondland says he's faced threats, hotel boycotts
Sondland’s family and business have faced threats since his name emerged as a key figure in the impeachment inquiry, he testified Wednesday afternoon.
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, asked Sondland if he’d received “threats and reprisals” since his name hit the news.
“Many,” Sondland replied. “We have countless emails, apparently, to my wife. Our properties are being picketed and boycotted.”
Conaway noted Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, had called for a boycott of Sondland’s Provenance Hotels chain, asking whether there were demonstrations at his hotels as a result.
“As I understand it, they are going on as we speak,” Sondland said.
Provenance Hotels owns several properties in Portland, as well as Seattle’s Hotel Theodore and Hotel Max, and Tacoma’s Hotel Murano.
Conaway said Blumenaeur “attempted to harm you and your businesses” and called on Democrats to condemn such tactics.
“Thank you, Congressman,” Sondland said.
Meanwhile, Blumenauer was apparently pleased with Sondland’s testimony on Wednesday, tweeting “Gordon Sondland, welcome to the resistance.”
Gordon Sondland, welcome to the resistance.
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) November 20, 2019
Sondland declines to opine on bribery allegations by Democrats
After a lunch break, Sondland is back in the hot seat at the impeachment inquiry, and facing questions from Democratic and Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, tried to get Sondland to say whether he thought actions by Trump and other officials constituted bribery.
Sondland said he did believe linking an investigation into Burisma and the Giuliani-promoted conspiracy theory about the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee was a quid pro quo.
Sewell read the legal definition of bribery and asked whether Sondland thought it had been committed in Trump’s Ukraine dealings.
Sondland responded: “I am not a lawyer, and I am not going to characterize what something was or was not, legally.”
Earlier, Republican Rep. Jim Jordon of Ohio, lashed out at Sondland and Democrats, sarcastically asking when the meeting sought by Ukraine’s president and President Trump occurred.
“When did it happen?” Jordan demanded.
“Never did,” Sondland said.
Jordan said: “They get the call, they get the meeting, they get the money. It’s not 2+2, it’s 0 for 3… I have never seen anything like it.”
Republicans probe Sondland's direct knowledge, decry Democrats' 'Watergate fantasies'
Republicans seeking to poke holes in the impeachment case against President Trump have probed Sondland on the extent of his direct knowledge of the intentions of the president and others.
Sondland testified that top White House and cabinet officials knew about the pressure campaign to get Ukraine to launch political investigations. But Republicans are accusing Democrats of hiding testimony that they say could show top budget officials were unaware of any linkage between Ukraine announcing a Biden investigation and a freeze on U.S. aid to that country.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said, “I don’t think it’s very fair to you at all or to us or to the American people.” He accused Democrats of engaging in “Watergate fantasies,” saying “I guess they fantasize about this at night and then they come here and talk about obstruction of justice…”
He suggested it’s possible that aid to Ukraine was held up because of Trump’s general dislike of foreign aid, or some other reason unknown to Sondland.
Republican lawyer Stephen Castor followed up, telling Sondland, “Everyone was not in the loop with your speculation, your guess, that aid was linked.”
Sondland repeated that he had kept top officials — including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — in the loop regarding the push to get Ukraine to publicly announce investigations sought by Trump.
But Castor pressed him again: “You don’t know with certainty” the reason for the delay in sending military aid money to the U.S. ally.
“Fair enough,” Sondland said.
The hearing then broke for lunch. Sondland’s attorney told committee chairman Adam Schiff that Sondland intends to fly back to Brussels to resume his ambassador duties after his testimony concludes this afternoon.
Ignoring damaging revelations from Wednesday morning, Trump claims Sondland testimony exonerates him
President Trump reacts to Ambassador Sondland's #ImpeachmentHearings Testimony
“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.” pic.twitter.com/eijyVKWQ2b
— CSPAN (@cspan) November 20, 2019
President Trump has reacted to Gordon Sondland’s impeachment testimony by claiming it exonerates him.
Speaking with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, Trump read portions of Sondland’s testimony wherein Sondland said he asked the president what he wanted from Ukraine. “I want nothing. That’s what I want from Ukraine. I want nothing!”
“That means it’s all over,” Trump declared.
His comments ignored Sondland’s testimony that Trump made it clear he wanted Ukraine’s president to publicly announce an investigation into Joe Biden and the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, which named Biden’s son Hunter to its board.
Trump said of Sondland: “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.”
He noted Sondland, who gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, “actually supported other candidates, not me — came in late.”
Sondland supported Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican primaries and, that summer, publicly backed out of a Trump fundraiser. He came around after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the general election, making the big donation and landing the position of U.S. Ambassador to the European Union.
Trump took no questions.
Sondland testimony reactions: Democrats see smoking gun, Republicans question credibility
Reactions to Sondland’s morning testimony are rolling in.
Democrats believe he’s supplied a smoking gun in the impeachment probe, directly tying President Trump to a corrupt quid pro quo in Ukraine. He also provided evidence that the White House is covering up further evidence by refusing to turn over documents. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, tweeted, “If there were evidence that would absolve the President, the White House would be beating down our door.”
An Ambassador appointed by the President just testified that the White House is blocking accessing documents that are important to this investigation.
Let's say it again: if there were evidence that would absolve the President, the White House would be beating down our door. pic.twitter.com/y2VwkvAUau
— Mike Quigley (@RepMikeQuigley) November 20, 2019
But Republicans were starting to question Sondland’s credibility, citing his shifting testimony. Staunch Trump loyalist Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, tweeted that Sondland “is all over the place.”
Ambassador #Sondland is all over the place.
He gives contemporaneous accounts where he's testing that there's 'no quid pro quo,' then he gives his live testimony, then he makes changes to his live testimony.
He seems to have recounted conflicting versions of events.
— Rep. Matt Gaetz (@RepMattGaetz) November 20, 2019
Meanwhile, Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, called Sondland’s testimony a troubling reminder of his “purchase” of an ambassadorship with a $1 million donation to Trump’s inauguration fund.
Sondland recounts phone call with Trump
Under questioning by Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman, Sondland confirmed earlier accounts of a July 26 phone call with President Trump, in which the president asked about the investigations he wanted into Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s role at Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company.
That call has become a window into Sondland’s rapport with Trump.
Sondland was eating at a Kyiv restaurant during the call, and using an unsecured cellphone. His conversation was overheard by David Holmes, a State Department official at the table, who testified about it.
Goldman asked Sondland on Wednesday morning: “Did you worry that a foreign government may be listening to your phone call with the President of the United States?”
Sondland responded: “Well, I have unclassified conversations all the time from landlines that are unsecured, and cellphones — if the topic is not classified — and it’s up to the president to decide what’s classified and not classified. He was aware it was an open line as well.”
Goldman: “He [Holmes] also testified that you confirmed to President Trump… that President Zelenskiy ‘loves your ass.’ Do you recall saying that?”
Sondland laughed: “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.”
Holmes has testified that, after the call, Sondland told him the president didn’t care about Ukraine, except for his interest in “big stuff that benefits himself,” such as the Biden investigation.
Sondland disputed that a bit Wednesday morning: “I don’t think I would have said that. I would have honestly said that he was not a big fan of Ukraine and he wants the investigations that we had been talking about for quite some time to move forward. That’s what I would have said because that’s the fact.”
After Goldman’s line of questioning, the committee took a break in which Schiff addressed the media, calling Sondland’s Wednesday morning revelations “a very important moment in the history of this inquiry.”
'Everyone was in the loop'
Sondland’s detailed testimony continues to directly implicate not only Trump but other top White House officials regarding efforts to pressure Ukraine’s president to announce an investigation of the Bidens.
“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said, explaining that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top officials were apprised of the linkage between $400 million in aid to Ukraine and the politically motivated probe sought by Trump.
Sondland said he always opposed the delay of aid and believed neither a White House meeting nor military assistance should have been conditioned on a Biden investigation. He said he worked to “break the log jam” and get Ukraine what it needed.
“This security aid was critical to Ukraine’s defense and should not have been delayed,” Sondland said.
Sondland says Biden probe was pushed 'at the express direction of the president'
In an explosive opening statement, Sondland said his Ukraine actions — including a push for an investigation of the Bidens — were taken directly at the orders of President Trump.
Sondland’s opening statement directly pointed the finger at Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, saying he and other diplomats “worked with Mr. Giuliani… at the express direction of the President of the United States.”
He said he and other diplomats “did not want to work with Giuliani” on Ukraine matters, but “we were playing the hand we were dealt… we followed the president’s orders.”
Sondland directly implicated Trump and Giuliani as pushing Ukraine to launch an investigation into Biden.
“As I testified previously, Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit” for Ukraine’s president, Sondland said. “Mr Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew these investigations were important to the president.”
Sondland also complained that the State Department and administration has refused to allow him access to emails and other documents to help him reconstruct his meetings and actions in Ukraine.
“These documents s are not classified and should have been made available,” he said.
It’s worth noting Sondland is testifying at the impeachment hearing against the wishes of Trump, who has blocked other aides from appearing despite subpoenas.
Nunes tells Sondland, 'You are here today to be smeared'
Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, previewed Sondland’s testimony, saying it will buttress the case that Trump conditioned U.S. aid to Ukraine on an investigation of Biden “that Trump believed would help his reelection campaign.”
Said Schiff: “Trump put his personal and political interests ahead of those of the United States.”
Ranking Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, in his opening statement, did not discuss the details of Trump’s Ukraine conduct, but attacked the proceedings as a “hoax” fueled by Democrats’ “mania” to oust Trump.
“Ambassador Sondland, you are here today to be smeared,” Nunes said.
Sondland arrives to testify White House "in the loop" on Ukraine pressure
The New York Times is reporting Sondland will testify he kept top Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “in the loop” on efforts to pressure Ukraine to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.
The revelations suggested that Mr. Sondland is prepared on Wednesday to implicate the senior-most members of Mr. Trump’s administration in the matter. In addition to the suspension of the aid, Mr. Sondland in his written statement described what he called a clear “quid pro quo” tying a White House meeting for Ukraine’s president to his willingness to undertake the investigations that Mr. Trump wanted.
“Everyone was in the loop,” he said in the statement. “It was no secret.”
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