4 Key Takeaways From Sondland’s Testimony

“Everyone was in the loop,” said the U.S. ambassador to the EU, further implicating Trump, Pompeo, and Pence as the impeachment inquiry unfolds.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Ranking Member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) listen to Gordon Sondland, the U.S ambassador to the European Union, testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 20.
Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Ranking Member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) listen to Gordon Sondland, the U.S ambassador to the European Union, testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 20. Doug Mills/Getty Images

The fourth day of public testimony in the impeachment inquiry left journalists in Washington scrambling for new ways to say “damning” as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland gave perhaps the most damaging testimony yet in a week of public hearings.

In a dramatic departure from his initial testimony given behind closed doors, the Trump donor-turned-ambassador directly implicated U.S. President Donald Trump in efforts to pressure the Ukrainian president to issue a public statement committing that Ukraine would open select corruption investigations, including into a gas company where former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on the board. Sondland also stated unequivocally that there was an intended quid pro quo: a Ukrainian probe into the gas company and a debunked conspiracy about the origins of the 2016 election hack in exchange for a much sought-after White House visit for the Ukrainian president.

Sondland did not ascribe that demand to Trump himself. But he testified that it was understood from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, who was acting “at the express direction of the president.” His testimony also brought Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, and the president’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, further into the impeachment maelstrom, indicating that he had personally informed them and National Security Council officials of efforts to lean on the Ukrainians. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said. 

Here are four key takeaways from Wednesday’s hearing with Gordon Sondland. 

1. Pompeo

While career foreign service officers have found themselves caught in the eye of the impeachment storm, Pompeo has this far remained conspicuously absent from the testimonies thus far. That changed Wednesday as Sondland read from excerpts of emails, which Pompeo was copied on, in which the U.S. ambassador to the EU outlined plans to encourage Ukraine to reopen corruption investigations. 

“We kept the leadership of the State Department and the NSC informed of our activities,” he said. 

He also revealed that in late September, after the broad outlines of the whistleblower complaint had been revealed to the public, U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker was still speaking with Giuliani on matters related to Ukraine. On Sept. 24, the day before the White House released a rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Volker sent a message to Sondland that said, “Spoke w Rudy per guidance from S.” S in this case is shorthand for “secretary of state.”

The revelations are likely to draw more scrutiny as to what Pompeo knew and whether he made any efforts to halt the efforts of Giuliani and his allies. The secretary of state had already been made aware of the conspiracy theories being explored in connection to Ukraine as early as March, when he was given a packet of documents by Giuliani detailing unproven allegations about the Bidens’ activity in Ukraine. The State Department turned the documents over to the department’s Office of Inspector General, which later handed them over to Congress after details of the whistleblower complaint became public. 

During a press conference on Wednesday in Brussels, where he was meeting with NATO officials, Pompeo said that he had been in meetings all day and hadn’t had a chance to see the testimony. The secretary of state said that he wouldn’t recuse himself from decisions regarding the release of State Department documents to Congress as part of the impeachment investigation. 

“I know precisely what American policy was with respect to Ukraine. I was working on it and I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he said.

2. Accusations of obstruction

In his opening statement, Sondland told the impeachment panel that he had not been given full access to call logs and his State Department emails in preparing for his testimony. 

“Having access to the State Department materials would have been very helpful to me in trying to reconstruct with whom I spoke and met, when, and what was said,” he said. 

Sondland’s remarks could further the Democrats’ argument that the White House and State Department have sought to obstruct the impeachment inquiry, which could itself be used as grounds for an article of impeachment. 

“They do so at their own peril. I remind the president that Article III of the impeachment articles drafted against President Nixon was his refusal to obey the subpoenas of Congress,” said Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, at Wednesday’s hearing.

3. New details

All of the witnesses who have given public testimony have already testified behind closed doors, and the transcripts of those hearings have been released to the public. Even still, the public hearings held over the past week have elicited significant new details as witnesses have their memories jogged or seek to iron out irregularities in their initial statements. 

On Friday, acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor said that he had been recently informed by an aide that Sondland had held a phone conversation with Trump while at lunch in Kyiv in which the president was overhead asking if his Ukrainian counterpart was going to open investigations. The call came just one day after Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky that sparked the whistleblower complaint. 

On Tuesday, Volker amended his recollection of a July 10 meeting of senior officials that has become a key plot point in the impeachment inquiry. Volker had previously testified that he did not recall investigations being raised in the meeting, but in his opening statement on Tuesday Volker said that he now recalled that Sondland had raised the issue of investigations, describing it as “something of an eye-roll moment.”

4. “I want nothing.”

Trump didn’t seem to think the hearing was all bad news for him, however. Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday, he seized upon Sondland’s description of a phone call they had on Sept. 9, while military aid to Ukraine was still on hold.

Sondland told lawmakers that he had asked the President an open-ended question, “What do you want from Ukraine? I keep hearing all these different ideas and theories and this and that. What do you want?” Sondland said the president responded by saying, ‘I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”

Trump seized upon Sondland’s description of the call, repeating the phrase “I want nothing, I want nothing,” to reporters several times before boarding Marine One. Close-up photographs by reporters revealed that he was reading the excerpt from Sondland’s statement from a note handwritten in block capital letters in black marker. 

Sondland made the call to Trump on Sept. 9 after receiving a message from Taylor saying that it was “crazy” to “withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland told lawmakers that he had assumed that the release of the aid was contingent on Ukraine announcing plans to open the investigations Trump mentioned on his July 25 phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart.

Correction, Nov. 21, 2019: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of days over which impeachment hearings have been held.


Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack