Trump disliked Ukraine from the very beginning, says Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the EU, in testimony to the U.S. Congress, made public on November 5. The deposition, which runs 379 pages, comes as part of an on-going impeachment inquiry against the U.S. President Donald Trump.
Gordon Sondland is not a career diplomat – prior to his posting as the U.S. Ambassador to the EU, he was a businessman who owned a chain of hotels. He was also a major donor to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, giving $1 million dollars during the U.S. presidential elections in 2016.
Sondland’s testimony covers his role in shaping U.S. policy in Ukraine, something Sondland frames as an advisory role – despite his seemingly deep involvement in U.S.-Ukraine policy. As Sondland himself puts it, Ukraine was a central concern of his, as he, and his office, viewed Ukraine as being central to European security.
But Sondland also expresses “disappointment” that his focus on Ukraine wasn’t met by the president, who at times sent contradictory signals to the ambassador. Sondland relates an unconditional letter of invitation, sent by the White House to then-president-elect Zelenskyy, which was later contradicted by the president himself in a phone call.
READ MORE: What Trump’s New Scandal Means for Ukraine
The testimony paints a picture of an ambassador stymied and often caught unawares by unfolding events – such as the ambassador’s insistence that he only learned about Giuliani’s focus on the Bidens via the press, despite him being aware of interest in Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
Trump Thought Ukraine “Tried to Take Him Down”
According to Sondland, Trump was not a fan of Ukraine. He believed that the country was a “disaster” and was full of “bad people,” Sondland recalled, during a meeting with Trump in the Oval Office. And Trump seemed to have passed most responsibility for Ukraine off to Giuliani. Sondland claims that he, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker understood that talking to Giuliani may be the only way forward on Ukraine.
“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 Rick Perry, and Special Envoy Volker took the lead on reaching out to Mr. Giuliani as the President had directed,” said the ambassador.
From left to right: U.S. Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker, U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, Charge d'Affaires, a.i. of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv William Taylor, and Former Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksandr Danylyuk. Photo: Twitter / Oleksandr Danylyuk
One of the odder moments in the testimony comes as Devin Nunes, a Republican representative from California and a ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, tries to bring up what Nunes believed to have been the reason for Trump’s dislike – a controversial document known as the Steele Dossier.
The dossier, compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, describes alleged "kompromat", or compromising material, held by Russia on Trump. Nunes brings up the Steele dossier to Sondland, claiming that “...many of the origins in the original Steele were from Ukraine, the politicians from within Ukraine?”
But Sondland doesn’t respond to this line of questioning, stating that he has no idea about the Steele dossier other than what was reported in popular media, and refuses to speculate on the reasons for Trump’s dislike of Ukraine.
“Like Groundhog Day”
In relating his account of the Ukraine scandal, Sondland stressed that he had first of all sought to set up a meeting between President Trump and President Zelenskyy, because he felt they would “hit it off”. The Ukrainian side was supportive of organizing the meeting as well: Trump’s May 29 letter to Zelenskyy hinting at a possible invite to the White House was taken “very seriously” in Ukraine, according to Sondland.
The U.S. Ambassador to the EU recalled that the letter and the subsequent Trump-Zelenskyy phone call were not felt to be dependent on any reciprocal courtesy from the Ukrainians. He also pointed out that the meeting between the presidents of the US and Ukraine had to be unconditional — a view Volker and the U.S. Embassy Charge d'Affairs William Taylor shared as well.
Sondland admitted that all his conversations on the Ukraine topic were about negotiating a press statement or, later on, a TV interview about corruption the Ukrainians were to make. “[The conversations] all mush together, because they were like Groundhog Day”, he said.
As time wore on, the handling of Ukraine policy “kept getting more insidious”, Sondland recognized. While from the outset it was just about a general anti-corruption statement, at one point Ukraine’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election and the Burisma investigation came up, although Sondland could not recall exactly when.
Guiliani was insistent that they be included in a public anti-corruption statement. Sondland recalled that the topics were “heavily discussed during the negotiation of the short-lived press statement, which only lasted a few days, and then it died”.
Sondland repeatedly stated that Ukraine policy was not his primary portfolio, and that it was dealt with in more detail by Volker and Taylor. Volker, among other things, was the one to put Zelenskyy’s adviser, Andriy Yermak, through to Giuliani.
Still, Sondland acknowledged the pivotal role of Trump’s personal lawyer in U.S. policy towards Ukraine. When asked whether communications between Yermak and Volker regarding the anti-corruption statement came about “solely because of the Giuliani involvement”, the ambassador replied, “Apparently so”.
“I Want Zelenskyy to Do the Right Thing”
Sondland said he had learnt of any possible linkage between the suspension of U.S. military aid to Ukraine and its public commitment to the 2016 and Burisma investigations from Taylor. He denied calling the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine in response to his text so that his words would not be on record. “I simply prefer to talk rather than text. I do this all the time,” he explained.
Following the September 1 exchange with Taylor, Sondland called Trump and asked him, “What do you want from Ukraine?” The reply was, “I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelenskyy to do the right thing.”
“I want him to do what he ran on,” Trump explained.
And then the call ended. “It was almost like he hung up on me,” Sondland recalled.
What Zelenskyy “ran on” should have probably meant his strong anti-corruption platform, of which Sondland made a point elsewhere during the testimony. He also agreed that Ukraine’s previous prosecutor “never cleared up corruption in Ukraine.”
Aside from personal grievances over the alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., Trump “was frustrated that [Ukrainians] would always promise things and never deliver,” Sondland speculated. That is why Trump was “so adamant” to see a public commitment to tackle corruption, the U.S. Ambassador to the EU went on to say.
U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland (second to right in the second row) and President Zelenskyy's aide Andriy Yermak (far left in the third row) watch Zelenskyy's inauguration at the parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine on May 20, 2019. Photo: The U.S. Mission to the European Union - USEU Brussels
“I think that was my understanding from Volker as dictated by Giuliani. He wanted somebody to go on the record,” he cleared.
Sondland Revises Testimony
Despite Sondland’s initial denial of knowledge on the reasons relating to the temporary hold on U.S. military aid to Ukraine, the publicly available testimony contains a four-page addendum, in which the ambassador claims his memory was “refreshed.” In the statement, Sondland claims that he did in fact have a conversation with Andriy Yermak, an aide to President Zelenskyy, at the start of September.
“...I now recall a conversation on September 1, 2019, in Warsaw with Mr. Yermak...I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said that resumption of of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks…” reads the statement.
The public anti-corruption statement in the addendum refers to “reopening the Burisma investigation,” as relayed by testimony given by Tim Morrison, an advisor to the U.S. National Security Council on Russia and Europe.
Additionally, Sondland’s statement asserts that he learned from Giuliani that the statement would have to come from Zelenskyy himself, and not an official such as the Prosecutor-General. Ultimately, the Ukrainian president did not make the statement – military aid to Ukraine was released on September 11.
/By Romeo Kokriatski and Oleh Pavliuk