Donald Trump will face intense scrutiny on Wednesday when Gordon Sondland, the US president’s ambassador to the EU and a central character in the Ukrainegate scandal, testifies in a televised hearing before the congressional impeachment inquiry.
Mr Sondland is a critical witness because he was one of the few officials with first-hand knowledge of the role Mr Trump played in the scandal that has sparked only the fourth impeachment investigation into a US president.
The former hotelier was instrumental in the effort to press Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. He helped orchestrate a pressure campaign that withheld $391m in military aid to Ukraine and made a White House visit for the Ukrainian leader conditional on Kyiv investigating the Bidens.
Mr Sondland liaised with Mr Trump and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, who was a key figure. Mr Sondland was one of three officials — alongside former Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker and energy secretary Rick Perry — who dubbed themselves the “Three Amigos” after being enlisted by Mr Trump to help Mr Giuliani.
In a previous closed-door appearance before Congress, Mr Sondland denied there was a “quid pro quo”, giving ammunition to Republicans defending Mr Trump. In a dramatic revision, however, he later conceded that he had told a top Ukrainian official that the military aid was tied to the public announcement of a probe into the Bidens.
When Mr Sondland testifies, he will almost certainly be grilled on the following three Ukrainegate episodes:
‘The drug deal’
In July, Mr Sondland brought two Ukrainian officials to the White House for a meeting with John Bolton, then national security adviser. In the meeting, he stunned the National Security Council officials present by telling the Ukrainians that Mr Zelensky had to commit to the “investigations” before the White House would agree to set up a meeting with Mr Trump.
Mr Bolton was already concerned about Mr Giuliani, whom he called a “hand grenade”, and his alliance with Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff who had relayed the order to withhold the aid. As soon as he heard Mr Sondland mention the “investigations”, he abruptly cancelled the meeting. Mr Bolton then told his top Russia aide, Fiona Hill, to stay with Mr Sondland and the Ukrainians while they remained in White House.
When Ms Hill later reported back that Mr Sondland had mentioned an investigation into Burisma — a Ukrainian gas company that hired Hunter Biden to sit on its board even though he had little relevant experience — to the Ukrainian officials, Mr Bolton told her to report the conversation to John Eisenberg, the top NSC lawyer. “Tell Eisenberg that I am not part of this drug deal that Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Mr Bolton said.
The Warsaw meeting
When Mr Sondland testified in private last month, he told lawmakers that there had been no “quid pro quo”, in a statement that was welcomed by Mr Trump, who argues that there was nothing inappropriate about the July 25 phone call with Mr Zelensky that sparked the impeachment investigation.
But Mr Sondland changed his testimony after William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, then the senior NSC Russia official, testified that Mr Sondland had told Andrey Yermak, a top adviser to Mr Zelensky, that the aid would only be released if Ukraine opened an investigation into Burisma.
In his revised testimony, Mr Sondland said his “recollection” had been “refreshed” by the testimony of Mr Taylor and Mr Morrison. He said he now remembered having told Mr Yermak in September in Warsaw that the resumption of aid “would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks”.
The Kyiv call
Mr Taylor last week revealed that one of his staff had overheard Mr Sondland speaking to Mr Trump from Kyiv the day after the controversial July 25 call. According to Mr Taylor, Mr Trump pressed Mr Sondland about the Ukrainian “investigations” into the Bidens and another demand that Kyiv investigate — what has been widely debunked — Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election.
Mr Taylor said Mr Sondland had called Mr Trump in front of his staffers at a restaurant in Kyiv and told the president that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward on his request. Last Friday, the staffer, David Holmes, told Congress in private testimony that Mr Sondland had also told Mr Trump that Mr Zelensky “loves your ass” and would do “anything you ask him”. Mr Holmes will appear before Congress for a televised hearing on Thursday.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi