Nov. 20 (UPI) -- U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told impeachment investigators Wednesday there was quid pro quo involving the new Ukrainian president's request for a meeting with President Donald Trump.
Sondland made the remarks in his opening statement before the House intelligence committee. His testimony is considered key to the investigation because he had direct contact with President Donald Trump and was present during pivotal moments that contributed to the whistle-blower report that spawned the inquiry.
While the ambassador made it clear he believed there was a quid pro quo involved in the setting up of the meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he said he was never able to definitively determine that one was involved in the withholding of military aid to Ukraine.
Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who was on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma, and allegations Ukraine was involved in meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Sondland said he pressured Ukraine for investigations at the "express direction" of Trump via Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. He also said "everyone was in the loop" and "it was no secret."
"Mr. Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky," he said. "Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of [claims Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election] and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president."
Sondland, who donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration, said he tried to learn why the military aid was suspended -- and said it was tied to Giuliani, who was running a "shadow" foreign policy in Ukraine. Sondland told the House panel he worked "diligently" to find out why.
"But I never received a clear answer," he said. "In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded."
After questioning from House intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Sondland said it was his "personal presumption, based on the facts at the time" that a quid pro quo was involved in the withholding of military aid.
The diplomat initially testified in his private deposition he didn't believe Trump threatened to withhold the military aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. In supplemental testimony on Nov. 5, after other witnesses had questioned his credibility, he said he'd recalled telling an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that resumption of U.S. aid depended on Kiev publicly agreeing to the Burisma-Biden investigations. He also added that he believed suspending the aid was "ill-advised" and should not be done "for any reason."
Democrats have emphasized the aid had bipartisan approval from Congress and was critical for Ukraine to repel Russian aggression in disputed border territories. More than 13,000 Ukrainians have died in fighting since 2014, they said, and withholding the aid was a life-or-death proposition. Trump ultimately released the money on Sept. 11.
Sondland's testimony Wednesday is the most politically damaging to Trump yet, as it directly implicates the president in a quid pro quo arrangement for the meeting with Zelensky.
"I believed that the public statement we had been discussing for weeks was essential to advancing that goal," Sondland added. "I really regret that the Ukrainians were placed in that predicament, but I do not regret doing what I could to try to break the logjam and to solve the problem."
Sondland also produced emails and text messages for the panel, one of which says Trump and Zelensky discussed a face-to-face meeting in Warsaw. In an email to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sondland said he would ask if Zelensky could "look [Trump] in the eye and tell him ... Zelensky should be able to move forward publicly and with confidence on those issues of importance to [Trump] and to the U.S. Hopefully that will break the logjam."
Pompeo responded, "Yes."
"Mike -- Kurt [Volker] and I negotiated a statement from [Zelensky] to be delivered for our review in a day or two. The contents will hopefully make the boss happy enough to authorize an invitation," the email to Pompeo and State Department counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl read.
Sondland also said he resented working with Giuliani on Ukraine matters and recalled talking with Trump about Ukraine and the president advising he "talk with Rudy."
"We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the president's orders," Sondland said. He added that, at the time, they didn't think it was improper to work with Giuliani -- but later learned about some of the people he was associated with.
"We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the president directed us to do so," he said. "We had no desire to set any conditions on the Ukrainians. Indeed, my personal view -- which I shared repeatedly with others -- was that the White House meeting and security assistance should have proceeded without any pre-conditions of any kind.
"Unfortunately, President Trump was skeptical. He expressed concerns that the Ukrainian government was not serious about reform. He even mentioned that Ukraine tried to take him down in the last election."
Trump addressed Sondland's remarks at the White House Wednesday before leaving for a trip to Texas.
"I don't know him very well. I have not spoken to him much," he told reporters, occasionally glancing down at a notepad. "He seems like a nice guy, though."
The president also said Sondland's testimony Wednesday is a signal that the House impeachment investigation should be "over."
When asked what he wanted from Zelensky and the Ukrainian government, a seemingly agitated Trump repeated his answer.
"Here is my response ... ready? You have the cameras rolling? I want nothing. That's what I want from Ukraine. I want nothing -- I said it twice," he said.
"I want no quid pro quo," he added. "This is the final word from the president of the United States. I want nothing."
During further testimony later on Wednesday, Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, testified that Ukrainian officials had asked about the aid in question as early as July 25.
While being questioned by Schiff, Cooper said that Ukrainians asked about the military hours after the call between Trump and Zelensky at the center of the impeachment inquiry because they were concerned there was "some kind of issue."
"It's my experience with the Ukrainians they would call about specific things, not just generally checking in on the assistance package," she said after Schiff questioned whether the inquiry may have been a routine check-in.
Cooper testified in her deposition last month that her role was to build "the capacity of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to resist Russian aggression."
She had also testified she'd had a "very strong inference" that the aid was delayed after speaking with Volker. Text messages from Volker, she said, implied that Zelensky's meeting with Trump was conditioned on his willingness to investigate the Bidens.
On Wednesday, Cooper said she'd heard that Trump had directed the Office of Management and Budget to hold the military aid "because of his concerns about corruption in Ukraine."
Cooper testified alongside Undersecretary of State for political affairs David Hale, who was questioned on the dismissal of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Hale said in his deposition Yovanovitch had done "a very good job" prior to her replacement in May.
During Wednesday's testimony, Hale said what happened to Yovanovitch was wrong and endorsed statements by Rep. Denny Heck that she served with dignity and grace in the face of what she described as a "smear campaign" ahead of her dismissal.
"I believe that she should have been able to stay at post and continued to do the outstanding work," he said.
Hale also weighed in on the aid situation, declining to characterize holding foreign aid as a "normal" occurrence but adding it does happen.
"It is certainly an occurrence. It does occur," he said.