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Trump Gave Giuliani The Ukraine Portfolio And Boxed Out Diplomats, Sondland Says

Gordon Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, addresses the media during a press conference at the U.S. Embassy to Romania in Bucharest in September. Sondland is speaking to House investigators on Thursday.
Daniel Mihailescu
AFP/Getty Images
Gordon Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, addresses the media during a press conference at the U.S. Embassy to Romania in Bucharest in September. Sondland is speaking to House investigators on Thursday.

Updated at 7:35 p.m. ET

White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged several substantial facts about the Ukraine affair on Thursday — but disputed that it was inappropriate or that the administration even was trying to hide what it had done.

Mulvaney acknowledged that President Trump expected concessions from his Ukrainian counterpart in exchange for engagement and also that Trump had empowered his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to run what has been called a parallel foreign policy for Ukraine on his own.

All of that is above board and a normal way that business and statecraft are conducted, Mulvaney said.

He characterized Democrats' impeachment inquiry into the Ukraine affair as baseless and faulted what he called sour grapes by, for example, State Department diplomats who felt that the White House was stepping on their toes.

But America's diplomats work for the president, Mulvaney said, and the conduct of any administration is always political.

"What you're seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats who are saying, you know, 'What I don't like are President Trump's politics, so I'm going to participate in this witch hunt that they're undertaking on the Hill,' " he said.

Continued Mulvaney: "Elections do have consequences and they should and your foreign policy is going to change. Obama did it in one way. We're doing it a different way and there's no problem with that."

The Sondland deposition

The acting chief of staff spoke to reporters even as Ambassador Gordon Sondland was testifying behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, as part of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry into Trump's actions.

House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is leading those efforts, wouldn't detail to reporters what Sondland said but did describe overall how he was feeling about the impeachment investigation.

"Things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse," he said.

Schiff called the idea of withholding financial assistance to Ukraine for political reasons "a phenomenal breach of the president's duty to defend our national security." After the testimony, Schiff left without speaking to reporters.

Sondland, in his prepared testimony, says he was directed by President Trump to talk to Rudy Giuliani about Trump's concerns over Ukraine, bypassing normal foreign policy channels.

That "disappointed him," he says — but even as he went along, he says was kept out of Trump's broader strategy to pressure Ukraine to investigate the family of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Sondland says that he didn't know about it at the time and that for example, the account he received of Trump's now-famous phone call with Ukraine's president did not mention Trump's request about Biden.

Sondland suggests that he and others later appear to have pieced the scheme together around the time it became clear that Trump had frozen military assistance to Ukraine.

Late Thursday after the meeting, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan said he couldn't comment on Sondland's testimony but reiterated the argument that there was "no quid pro quo."

He also asked that transcripts to be released, and bemoaned the fact that the impeachment hearings have been closed.

Sondland released his written testimony as he appeared behind closed doors before three House committees under a subpoena on Thursday.

Sondland said that he believed Ukraine affairs belonged with the diplomats who long handled them within official channels.

"Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the president's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine," Sondland wrote.

Delayed appearance

The Trump administration blocked Sondland from testifying last week; a lawyer for Sondland at the time said he was "profoundly disappointed."

In his testimony, Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, said he did not understand until much later "that Mr. Giuliani's agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the president's 2020 reelection campaign."

Sondland's text messages with other diplomats were released in an earlier phase of Democrats' Ukraine investigations.

They describe him telling others concerned about developments involving Ukraine — specifically a freeze in military assistance that had been flowing since Russia's armed incursion — that Trump was not orchestrating a direct exchange in which Kyiv would receive the aid only if it investigated the Bidens.

Sondland has reportedly resolved to tell House investigators that all he was doing was simply relaying Trump's comments — not defending or validating the president's actions. According to Sondland's account, he couldn't have because he didn't know the full story.

Here's how Sondland describes it in his opening statement, following the questions raised by others about how Ukraine was being handled:

"I asked the president: 'What do you want from Ukraine?' The president responded, 'Nothing. There is no quid pro quo.' The president repeated: 'no quid pro quo' multiple times. This was a very short call. And I recall the president was in a bad mood."

Sondland also says he spoke with Giuliani on the phone a number of times.

"In these short conversations, Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anticorruption issues. Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anticorruption investigatory topics of importance for the President."

Burisma is the Ukrainian gas company that gave Biden's son Hunter a seat on its board, and it figures in debunked conspiracy theories that have animated much of Trump's and Giuliani's actions in the Ukraine affair.

But Sondland says he does not recall Giuliani discussing Joe Biden or his son Hunter in those calls, and Sondland said that he did not know Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma.

Trump donor and supporter

Sondland was a Trump campaign donor and businessman before becoming U.S. ambassador to the European Union. He has become central to the House impeachment inquiry, after being named in an anonymous whistleblower complaint that alleged that Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate potential political rival Biden.

Trump has later affirmed that he did and released a partial White House account of the call with Ukraine's president in which he asked for the investigation into Biden.

But in his testimony, Sondland makes it clear that he disagrees with the president about foreign involvement in U.S. elections.

"Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong," Sondland said.

He continued: "Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong. I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings. In my opinion, security aid to Ukraine was in our vital national interest and should not have been delayed for any reason."

The "three amigos"

Sondland, according to the whistleblower complaint, reportedly worked with U.S. special representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker to give "advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to 'navigate' the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelenskyy."

He was also on the string of text messages, some of which were released by the three House committees — intelligence, foreign affairs and oversight — leading the inquiry.

Those were the texts that included a request from Sondland to the acting envoy in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, that they stop the back-and-forth by text. In the opening statement released on Thursday, Sondland says he wasn't trying to eliminate a paper trail of their discussion as part of some kind of cover-up.

"Any implication that I was trying to avoid making a record of our conversation is completely false," he wrote. "In my view, diplomacy is best handled through back-and-forth conversation. The complexity of international relations cannot be adequately expressed in cryptic text messages. I simply prefer to talk rather than to text."

In one exchange dated Sept. 9, career diplomat Taylor told Sondland, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

Sondland responded — as he has now made clear, following his conversation with Trump: "Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind."

Sondland's appearance Thursday is part of a string of depositions related to the impeachment inquiry and communications with Ukraine.

An account by a Democratic lawmaker of one such interview described a concerted effort to replace the White House Ukraine policy team with "three amigos" considered more favorable to plans to pressure Kyiv. Sondland was among them.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
Dana Farrington
Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for NPR.org and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.