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5 takeaways from Gordon Sondland's hearing testimony

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testifies during the House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/OLIVIER DOULIERY

WASHINGTON — Ambassador Gordon Sondland on Wednesday said there actually was a “quid pro quo” for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to get a White House meeting and that in the Trump administration, “everyone was in the loop.”

In the most explosive testimony of the impeachment inquiry’s public hearings, Sondland said Trump never told him directly that security aid for Ukraine was held up as leverage, but said he came to understand it was being used to get Zelensky to announce Trump’s desired probes.

Republicans stressed what Sondland said President Donald Trump told him Sept. 9 when he asked what Trump wanted from Ukraine: “I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do what he ran on.”

Here are some take-aways from Wednesday’s hearings.

There was a 'quid pro quo'

Sondland quoted Trump as telling him in a phone call that there was no “quid pro quo,” but he apparently didn’t buy it. “Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.” He explained he learned this from Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election, DNC server, and Burisma.” He added that Giuliani “was expressing the desires of the president.”

Sondland’s logic: Aid held as leverage

Sondland said he “never received a clear answer” on why the White House put $391 million in security aid to Ukraine on hold, something he opposed. “President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on the meetings,” he said, but he came to believe it was. After the hold became public, Sondland said he could not give Ukrainians an explanation — though he admitted Trump might have one. “So is this kind of a two plus two equals four conclusion that you reached?” Democratic counsel Adam Goldman asked. Sondland said, “Pretty much.” He said that “the only thing we got directly from Giuliani was that the Burisma and 2016 election” investigations were conditions for the White House meeting. “The aid was my own personal, you know, guess,” Sondland said, “based, again, on your analogy, two plus two equals four.”  

Everyone was in the loop

Sondland rejected testimony by foreign service and national security officials that he was in an “irregular channel” of diplomacy. “The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false,” he said. Not happy to work with Giuliani, he did, Sondland said, because Trump told him, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Ambassador Kurt Volker — known as the “three amigos” — that for Ukrainian issues, “talk to Rudy.” Still, Sondland said, “I’m not sure how someone could characterize something as an irregular channel when you are talking to the president of the United States, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, the chief of staff for the White House, the secretary of energy.”

Sondland’s presumption, challenged memory

Republicans turned on Sondland after he said that there was a “quid pro quo” and that eventually the security aid for Ukraine became part of “the package.” Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) asked, “So you really have no testimony today that ties President Trump to a scheme to withhold aid from Ukraine in exchange for these investigations?” Sondland said, “Other than my own presumption.” Turner shot back, Which is nothing!" Republican counsel Steve Castor ripped Sondland for his shaky memory. “We're trying to find out what actually happened, what's reliable, what's accurate,” Castor said. “As we get to the end here, you don't have records. You don't have your notes because you didn't take notes. You don't have a lot of recollections. I mean, this is like the trifecta of unreliability.”

Sondland acknowledges Trump call and 'Trump speak'

Sondland confirmed a phone call with Trump he had forgotten to mention. That happened after U.S. embassy aide David Holmes on Friday flagged it. Holmes said he overheard a call between Sondland and Trump at lunch on July 26 after a meeting with Zelensky and the day Trump asked Zelensky to investigate the 2016 elections and the Bidens. Holmes testified Sondland told Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass,” and that when Trump asked, “Is he going to do the investigation?” Sondland said, “He’s going to do it” and he would do anything Trump wants. Asked about that version, Sondland didn’t dispute it and, to laughter, said, “That’s how President Trump and I communicate, a lot of four-letter words.” He added, “And so, putting it in Trump speak, by saying he ‘loved your ass, he'll do whatever you want,’ meant that he would really work with us on a whole host of issues.”

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