Sondland Deposition

US President Donald Trump often approaches foreign affairs topics as a dealmaker, hedging and withholding commitment in search of better terms. US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland describes the struggle of diplomats to discern the president’s goals and their concern that he might not follow through after they have given their word to overseas counterparts. Sondland's deposition also describes the president’s reliance on personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, 75, to investigate concerns and give marching orders to State Department officials serving in overseas posts. Foreign leaders have many expectations of one another, and fulfillment can require tedious negotiations. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, elected in April, had hoped for a meeting with Trump to deter Russian influence. Sondland describes weeks of diplomatic effort to arrange that meeting, while convincing Ukraine to address corruption, followed by Giuliani’s insistence on investigations into a Trump political rival. US diplomats in Ukraine expressed alarm after learning that military aid for the country had been suspended. After reviewing his congressional testimony, Sondland wrote: “by the beginning of September 2019, and in the absence of any credible explanation of the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement. As I said in my prepared testimony, security aid to Ukraine was in our vital national interest and should not have been delayed for any reason.” – YaleGlobal

Sondland Deposition

Deposition of US ambassador to the European Union describes diplomats’ struggle to discern the US president’s goals and craft foreign policy
Wednesday, November 6, 2019

US Ambassador Gordon SondlandRead the  testimony and follow-up declaration provided by Politico.

Excerpts from the Interview of Gordon Sondland by the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence joint with the Committee on Oversight and Reform and the Committee on Foreign Affairs, US House of Representatives, October 17, 2019:

I am a lifelong Republican. Like all of my political ambassadorial colleagues, I am an appointee of the President, and I serve at the pleasure of the President. I know that party affiliations are set aside when representing the United States. Having served on nonpartisan commissions by the appointment of three Democratic governors, and on the transition team for 0regon Governor Ted Kulongoski, another Democrat, I am well-accustomed to working across the aisle….

As you know, I was confirmed by the Senate in a bipartisan voice vote as Ambassador to the EU on June 28th, 20L8, and I assumed that role in Brussels on July 9th, 2018. From my very first days as Ambassador, Ukraine has been a part of my broader work pursuing U.S. national interests. Ukraine’s political and economic development are critical to the long lasting stability of Europe. Moreover, the conflict in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which began nearly 5 years ago, continues as one of the most significant security crises for Europe and the United States. As the U.S. Ambassador to the EU, I have always viewed my Ukraine work as central to advancing U.S. -EU foreign policy. Indeed, for decades, under both Republican and Democrat administrations, the United States has viewed Ukraine with strategic importance, in part to counter Russian aggression in Europe and to support Ukraine energy independence….

I worked with Ambassador Yovanovitch personally during my first official visit to Ukraine in February of 20L9, and I found her to be an excellent diplomat with a deep command of Ukrainian internal dynamics, the U.S.-Ukraine relationship and associated regional issues. She was a delight to work with during our visit to Odessa, Ukraine. I was never a part of any campaign to disparage or dislodge her, and I regretted her departure….

Corruption poses challenges to the legitimacy and stability of government. Corruption is also an economic issue. Successive Ukrainian governments have sought to attract Western investors as a counterbalance to Russian interference and oligarch control of key Ukrainian companies. Western investment is fully in the strategic interest of United States and our EU partners. However, efforts to access private markets have been made extremely difficult by the longstanding corruption….

0n April 24th, 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President of Ukraine, beating incumbent President Petro Poroshenko with nearly 73 percent of the vote. This was a momentous event in Ukraine, political history, and for the overall U.S. -Ukraine relationship….

We asked the White House to arrange a working phone call from President Trump and a working Oval Office visit. However, President Trump was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption, and he directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Mr. Giuliani, his personal attorney about his concerns. It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the President’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani. It is my understanding that Energy Secretary Perry and Special Envoy Volker took the lead on reaching out to Mr. Giuliani as the President had directed.

Indeed, Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and I were disappointed by our May 23rd,2019, White House debriefings….

I 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….

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

I received nothing but cordial responses from Ambassador Bolton and Dr. Hill. Nothing was ever raised to me about any concerns regarding our Ukrainian policy… Again, I took my direction from Secretary Pompeo and have had his consistent support in dealing with our Nation’s most sensitive secrets, even to this very day…

I do not recall any discussions with the White House on withholding U.S. security assistance from Ukraine in return for assistance with the President’s 2020 reelection campaign. I recall that in late July 2019, Ambassadors Volker, Taylor, and I exchanged emails in which we all agreed that President Zelensky should have no ‘involvement in 2020 U.5. Presidential election politics. At the same time, we believed strongly that U.S. security assistance should not be withheld….

Acting Charge William Taylor raised concerns about the possibility that the Ukrainians could perceive a linkage between U.S. security assistance and the President’s 2020 reelection campaign. Taking the issue seriously and given the many versions of speculation that have circulated about the security aid, I called President Trump directly. I asked the President, what do you want from Ukraine? The President responded, nothing. There is no quid pro. The President repeated, no quid pro. No quid pro quo multiple times. This was a very short call. And I recall that the President was really in a bad mood. I tried hard to address Ambassador Taylor’s concerns because he is valuable and effective diplomat, and I took very seriously the issues he raised….

Let me state clearly, inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming US election would be wrong. 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….

Discouraged to Testify

Q: Are you aware of any efforts by Secretary Pompeo or others at the State Department to try to stop you from testifying here today?

Sondland: I think they wanted to discourage my testimony, and I said, first of all, I wanted to testify when it was noncompulsory, and I wanted to get my story out and get it on the record. And they directed me not to appear, which is why I did not appear on the 8th. And once you issued the subpoena, again, they discouraged me from complying with the subpoena, but I decided to come in anyway….

Talk to Rudy

[Trump] wasn’t even specific about what he wanted us to talk to Giuliani about. He just kept saying: Talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy….

Q: …what else did President Trump say at that May 23rd Oval Office meeting about Ukraine?  

Sondland: He sort of went on and on and on about how Ukraine is a disaster and they’re bad people. And we were actually quite discouraged with the meeting, because we were quite excited about the new President, the new administration, the new team, and we were excited to share our findings with him, and he didn’t want to hear about it. And he sort of cut the meeting short. 

Q: Did he mention anything about Ukraine’s involvement in the 2015 election?

Sondland: I think he said: They tried to take me down. He kept saying that over and over… I think as my statement said, it was a bad meeting, inconclusive. We didn’t get a clear signal from him that he would invite Zelensky to the White House, that he would call Zelensky. It was just talk to Rudy and I’m busy. And, you know, we had come all the way to brief him about it and it was sort of disappointing….

I never heard about aid being withheld until it had actually been withheld and someone notified me: By the way, the aid has been withheld [released]….

Trump’s Reaction to Questions on Suspended Aid

And I know in my few previous conversations with the President he’s not big on small talk so I would have one shot to ask him. And rather than asking him, “Are you doing X because of X or because of Y or because of Z?” I asked him one open-ended question: What do you want from Ukraine? And as I recall, he was in a very bad mood. It was a very quick conversation. He said: I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing. And I said: What does that mean? And he said: I want him to do what he ran on. And that was the end of the conversation. I wouldn’t say he hung up me, but it was almost like he hung up on me….

Q: a Okay. And then you resumed your communication with Ambassador Taylor?

Sondland: Yeah. I had gotten as far as I could. I had asked the boss what he wanted. He wouldn’t tell me, other than: I want nothing. And I sent the note back to Ambassador Taylor once I reached him and suggested that he call Secretary Pompeo.

Q: So the President didn’t tell you what to write in a text?

Sondland: The President didn’t know I was sending a text, because he didn’t know that the question came from Ambassador Taylor….

I think generally he was frustrated that they would always promise things and never deliver. That’s one of the reasons he was so adamant about seeing something put out by President Zelensky either in the form of a press release or an interview on network television or something where President Zelensky would publicly commit to whatever he was going to commit to. I think that was my understanding from Volker as dictated by Giuliani. He wanted somebody to go on the record….

Losing Credibility

I testified, or my statement indicates, I would not have withheld aid for any reason….

I don’t remember exactly what I think we were, you know, we were trying to push at every possible place we could push to get this done, because we were losing credibility with the Ukrainians….

With every country that I deal with, every country with which I deal, direct calls from the President of the United States to the leader of the country and 0val visits are always valued, especially with, as you described it, a new fledgling President, who just got elected, wants to establish legitimacy. So having President Trump call him, even if it was for no purpose other than to say hello, was valued. But then they go to the press, they say, I just spoke to the President of the United States, and it gives them legitimacy…. All I can tell you is [Trump Chief of Staff Mick] Mulvaney was almost impossible to get a hold of. He rarely responded to emails and almost never returned phone calls….

What I understood was that breaking the logjam with getting the President to finally approve a White House visit was a public utterance by Zelensky, either through the press statement or through an interview or some other public means, that he was going to pursue transparency, corruption, and so on. It was later that the Burisma and the 2015 were added, by, apparently, Mr. Giuliani….

Q: And then you said: ” I ‘m worried about the alternative.”

Sondland: The alternative js no engagement and lack of credibility with the Ukrainians, because now it’s 2 months past when the invitation. Again, they took that invitation very seriously. Even though we may throw those around like candy, they didn’t read it as that. They read a personal letter from the President of the United States saying: I’m inviting you to the White House, let’s set a date. And the call hadn ’ t even occurred yet….

I think there’s always concern about any leader of any country where there are oligarchs….

President Trump changes his mind on what he wants on a daily basis. I have no idea what he wanted on the day I called him….

Conditions vs Quid Pro Quo

Q: So, you mean the EU has an quid pro quo in terms of their foreign aid to the Ukraine?

Sondland: I don’t know if it ‘is a quid pro quo. I think it is one of thejr conditions.

Q: So they have a condition to giving additional foreign aid. So you’re saying this is groundbreaking – so you’re saying that someone other than … Donald J. Trump is concerned with corruption, and they might withhold foreign aid based on that….

Sondland:  To answer your question, Representative, the Ukrainians – the Europeans are always very careful about when they contribute money to anything and they always have a list of requirements, some of which are a mile long….

Continuum of Expectations

The continuum was, first of all, an unconditional phone call and an unconditional invitation to the White House, and then I believe the next part of the continuum was some kind of a commitment to investigate corruption generally. And then the next part of the continuum was talking about the Burisma and the 2016 election, which as I recall, was heavily discussed durinng the negotiation of the short-lived press statement, which only lasted a few days, and then it died. And then at the end of that continuum I became aware that there might be a link between the White House visit and aid to the Ukraine that was being held up when I couldn’t get a straight answer as to why the aid was being held up, both Senator Johnson and Ambassador Taylor raised the possibility that there might be a link. And then the aid was released, and then this whole thing blew up. That’s the best I can recall the sort of progression…

I didn’t think there should by any preconditions on aid. And the reason I didn’t think there should be any preconditions on aid was I thought it would send the absolute wrong message to the Russians if we held up aid f or any reason….

I did not [have full visibility into what he was telling the Ukrainians]….

As I recall this is refreshing my memory, and, as I recall, this is when I believe there was talk about having a live interview or a live broadcast. And what I was concerned about was that Zelensky would say whatever he would say on live television and it still wouldn’t be good enough for Rudy, sIash, the President, and then we would be having to go back and tell Zelensky, sorry, not good enough, and that would be extremely embarrassing. So I had suggested, why don’t you give us a summary of what you’re planning to say so that it can be run by Mayor Giuliani first to nail down what it is exactly that the President was asking or Giuliani was asking versus what Zelensky was intending to say? I didn’t want there to be a false press statement made live that was inadequate in some way. And I was, again, just trying to protect our reputation with the Ukrainians….

… [W]hen we started to work on the statement, it morphed from the vanilla corruption into the Burisma/2015 portion….

Giuliani in Ukraine

Q: Did you ever discuss Rudy Giuliani with Secretary Pompeo?

Sondland: 0nly in general terms.

Q: And what did you discuss? That he’s involved in affairs. And Pompeo rolled his eyes and said: Yes, it’s something we have to deal with…. Again, people usually smiled when they heard Rudy’s name because he was always swirling around somewhere…. Listen, the State Department was fully aware of the issues, and there was very little they could do about it if the President decided he wanted his lawyer involved….

Q: Did you also use WhatsApp to communicate with foreign officia1s?

Sondland: Yeah, it’s very customary jn Europe. Everyone uses WhatsApp. That’s one of the only mediums that foreign leaders use in Europe.

Q: Did you also use did you ever use personal email to communicate with foreign leaders or U.S. Government officials?

Sondland: I tried to avoid it, but when I did I also tried to copy my State email, because the State email is really hard to send attachments or forward. It’s just it’s really a cumbersome system.

Declaration of Gordon Sondland After Review of Testimony

 ….[T]he conversations described in Ambassador Taylor’s and Mr. Morrison’s opening statements have refreshed my recollection about conversations involving the suspension of U.S. aid, which had become public only days earlier. I always believed that suspending aid to Ukraine was ill-advised, although I did not know (and still do not know) when, why, or by whom the aid was suspended. However by the beginning of September 2019, and in the absence of any credible explanation of the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement. As I said in my prepared testimony, security aid to Ukraine was in our vital national interest and should not have been delayed for any reason ….

I now recall speaking individually with [Andriy] Yermak, where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks. I also recall some question as to whether the public statement could come from the newly appointed Ukrainian Prosecutor General, rather than from President Zelensky directly.

6. Soon thereafter, I came to understand that, in fact, the public statement would need to come directly from President Zelensky himself. I do not specifically recall how I learned this, but I believe that the information may have come either from Mr. Giuliana or from Ambassador Volker, who have discussed this with Mr. Giuliani. In a later conversation with Ambassador Taylor, I told him that I had been mistaken about whether a public statement could come from the Prosecutor General; I had come to understand that the public statement would have to come from President Zelensky himself. 

US House of Representatives