The US ambassador to the European Union, who has emerged as a key figure in an ongoing impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, was expected to tell a House panel on Thursday that the president instructed officials involved with Ukraine policy to work directly with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, according to his prepared testimony.
Sondland said he did not understand “until much later” that Giuliani’s agenda may have included a push for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a key political rival of Trump, his prepared testimony said.
It added that the ambassador, a hotelier who Trump appointed to the prestigious post in 2018, had been “disappointed by the president’s direction that we involve Mr Giuliani” and that relations between countries should be the work of the State Department and not the president’s personal lawyer.
Sondland was initially set to testify before the House last week, but was blocked failed to appear following a State Department directive at the behest of the White House.
Democratic leaders then subpoenaed Sondland, and he complied.
However, his lawyer said he would not provide documents related to Ukraine requested by the House, as the State Department has the sole authority to produce those documents.
The House inquiry seeks to answer whether Trump withheld $400m in military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a commitment by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a gas company linked to 2020 Democratic hopeful Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. A whistle-blower complaint about a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, in which the president discussed that investigation, lead House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to launch the investigation.
There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens. Trump has said he did nothing wrong and labelled the impeachment inquiry a “witch-hunt”.
Although Ukraine is not in the European Union, Sondland had previously said on Ukrainian television that Trump had given him a “special assignment” to oversee relations between the two countries, the New York Times reported.
Sondland, who reportedly donated one million dollars to Trump’s presidential campaign, also noted in his testimony that “inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming US election would be wrong”.
Sondland’s expected testimony underscored the pivotal role that Giuliani played in the Ukraine scandal. Working in an unofficial capacity, Giuliani and associates campaigned for the removal of former Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. The former New York City mayor’s blurring of official and unofficial objectives drew the ire of some officials.
Sondland was expected to say on Thursday that on May 23, three days after Zelensky’s inauguration, US officials who had attended the event briefed Trump and key aides at the White House, according to his prepared remarks.
“We emphasised the strategic importance of Ukraine and the strengthening relationship with President Zelensky, a reformer who received a strong mandate from the Ukrainian people to fight corruption and pursue greater economic prosperity,” Sondland said in the written testimony.
“We asked the White House to arrange a working phone call from President Trump and a working Oval Office visit. However, President Trump was sceptical 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,” he said.
“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr Giuliani,” he added.
Sondland became a key figure in the impeachment inquiry following the release of a series of text messages that involved Giuliani, special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, the current ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and an aide to Zelensky.
The text messages were released as part of the October 4 testimony by Volker, who resigned from his part-time role with the State Department before he spoke to the House.
The exchanges span an eight-week period from July to September.
In particular, the texts show that Sondland and Volker were aware of the president’s interest in having Ukraine investigate Burisma – the gas company where Hunter Biden served on the board – before the July 25 phone call.
The diplomats repeatedly suggested to Zelensky aid Andrey Yermak that a desired White House meeting would be contingent on Ukraine committing to investigations been sought by Trump.
Yermak, in turn, held out on making the commitments until a White House visit date was set.
“Once we have a date,” he wrote on August 10, “will call for a press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for the reboot of US-UKRAINE relationship, including among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations.”
In another particular striking exchange, current Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor wrote to Sondland: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign”.
In a lengthy message, Sondland later wrote back: “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.” He added that Trump was trying to broadly hold Zelensky to his campaign promises to clean up corruption in the country, while suggesting further conversations between the diplomats should be held on the phone.
During his testimony on Thursday, Sondland is also expected to say he had spoken to Trump on the phone shortly before messaging Taylor, and he was simply parroting the president’s statements, a person with knowledge of Sondland’s account told The Associated Press news agency.
He was also expected to say that while he pressured Ukraine to investigate Burisma in exchange for a White House visit, he did not connect the company to Joe or Hunter Biden, the person told the Associated Press. Instead, he thought it was part of the administration’s general anti-corruption agenda, the ambassador was expected to say.