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Trump’s man in Brussels electrifies impeachment probe

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Via Financial Times

Just last month, President Donald Trump described Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, as a “really good man and great American” when he declined to testify at the president’s impeachment hearing.

On Friday, Mr Trump changed his tune: “I hardly know the gentleman,” he said.

What had happened in the interim was a dramatic U-turn this week on the part of Mr Sondland, a former donor to Mr Trump.

Hours before Mr Sondland was due to testify in the impeachment inquiry last month, his lawyer, Robert Luskin, said his client would not appear at the order of the US state department.

Less than two weeks later, Mr Sondland, a 62-year-old hotelier from Oregon who became a diplomat last year after giving Mr Trump’s inaugural committee $1m, was back in Washington, smiling at TV cameras before speaking to lawmakers under subpoena in a secure room below the US Capitol. He insisted Mr Trump had told him there was no “quid pro quo” in which the US would release military aid to Ukraine in return for Kyiv investigating Joe Biden, the president’s 2020 election rival.

But this week, Mr Sondland revised his testimony — acknowledging both that Mr Trump’s demands for a public investigation into Mr Biden and his son Hunter were linked to the release of $391m in aid, and that he had at least one phone conversation with the US president in the days that followed.

In a sworn statement sent on Monday to Adam Schiff, the chair of the House intelligence committee, Mr Sondland said his “recollection about certain conversations” had been “refreshed” by reading opening statements made by other witnesses, namely William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, Mr Trump’s leading Russia adviser.

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While he did not use the phrase “quid pro quo”, Mr Sondland said he now remembered a September 1 conversation with Andrey Yermak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelensky, in which he told him that the “resumption of US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks”.

This was a reference to Mr Trump’s apparent demands for Mr Zelensky to publicly announce investigations into Mr Biden, the former US vice-president, as well as his son, Hunter Biden, who had been on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. Mr Trump had also sought a public probe into alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

Mr Sondland was not the first member of the Trump administration to connect aid and investigations — just hours after his initial testimony in mid-October, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Mr Trump’s concerns about the 2016 election were “why we held up the money”. But Democrats said the ambassador’s revised testimony, which was made public on Wednesday, marked a turning point in the impeachment inquiry — a close Trump ally who has built a reputation in Brussels for doing the president’s bidding had offered a first-hand account of Mr Trump conditioning the release of aid on a political favour.

Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said: “We have had a lot of testimony from people saying that the aid was specifically conditioned, but it is meaningful to hear from the person who actually delivered those conditions.”

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Mr Trump’s allies have nevertheless dismissed Mr Sondland’s latest testimony, and on Capitol Hill, many remain sceptical the latest evidence will change the minds of Republicans who have continued to attack Democrats over how they are conducting the probe. While Mr Trump is expected to be impeached along party lines in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, 20 Republican senators would need to vote to convict in order for him to be removed from office.

Mr Sondland has been a central figure in the impeachment inquiry ever since House Democrats published a tranche of text messages illustrating how central he was in pressing Mr Zelensky to bend to Mr Trump’s wishes.

“I spike [sic] directly with Zelensky and gave him a full briefing. He’s got it,” Mr Sondland wrote to two other US diplomats, Mr Taylor and Kurt Volker, in late July.

In a separate exchange from early September, Mr Taylor said to Mr Sondland: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Mr Sondland replied that Mr Trump had been “crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind,” adding: “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”

A transcript of Mr Taylor’s own closed-door testimony was also made public this week, alongside the depositions of Mr Volker; former state department official Michael McKinley; former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch; and George Kent, a top US diplomat specialising in Ukraine.

Mr Kent said in his deposition, according to testimony released this week, that Mr Trump “wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to a microphone and say investigations, Biden and Clinton.”

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On Friday afternoon, the congressional committees published the testimonies of Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council official, and Fiona Hill, Mr Trump’s former top Russia adviser. The disclosures were part of a new public phase of the impeachment inquiry, which will ramp up next week with live, televised hearings.

“Being able to see those transcripts, it is clear how strong the whole number of different witnesses were about the fact that there was an explicit link between these things Ukraine wanted and needed and investigations that would help the president politically,” Mr Bookbinder said.

“The evidence of a quid pro quo at this point is absolutely overwhelming,” he added. “There are so many witnesses to it . . . the attempts to push back on that are borderline ridiculous at this point.”

Mr Taylor and Mr Kent will be the first witnesses to appear in public sessions on Wednesday, and many Democrats have pinned their hopes on Mr Taylor, a career diplomat and West Point graduate, being a star witness.

But the transcript of Mr Taylor’s closed-door testimony implies he may be too tight-lipped to provide Democrats with the soundbites they are seeking.

In one exchange, Mr Taylor, who spoke at length about the withholding of military aid in exchange for public investigations, was asked whether he could talk about the legal definition of “quid pro quo”.

His response: “I don’t speak Latin.”

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