In an explosive televised testimony during a screening hearing with a view to a political trial against Trump, Sondland, a US representative to the European Union, said he believed the president was pressuring Ukraine to investigate his potential rival in the elections 2020, Joe Biden.
“We followed the president’s orders,” Sondland testified before the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
Sondland said the US diplomats had to work with Trump’s personal lawyer, the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani.
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The senior official said Trump conditioned a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodimir Zelenski, while Giuliani demanded that Kiev publicly announce that he was investigating a gas company in which the son of former Vice President Biden, Hunter, held a position on the board.
Giuliani also wanted Zelenski to investigate a widely discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine planted evidence on a servant of the Biden Democratic Party to show that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections.
“As I testified earlier, Giuliani’s requests constituted a ‘quid pro quo’ (one thing in exchange for another) to arrange a visit to the White House of President (Volodomir) Zelenski,” said the diplomat, a businessman named ambassador.
Sondland said he “never received a clear answer” on why the White House suspended $ 391 million in aid for Ukrainian security – in a conflict with the pro-Russian separatists in the east – but that he “came to believe” that he also It was linked to the investigations Trump was looking for.
“I was categorically opposed to any suspension of aid, as Ukrainians needed those funds to fight aggression,” he said.
“In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I later came to believe that the resumption of security assistance would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 and Burisma elections, as Giuliani had demanded,” he added.
Trump strove on Wednesday to distance himself from Sondland:
“I don’t know him very well. I haven’t talked to him much,” Trump told reporters at the White House, while the diplomat was still testifying in Congress.
Sondland testified in the second week of televised hearings in which Democrats seek to establish whether Trump abused the power of his office by conditioning military aid and a White House meeting to achieve a Zelenski commitment to investigate the Biden.
The House of Representatives investigation could conclude this week, with evidence sent to the Judicial Committee of that chamber to write articles of political judgment.
Trump’s accusation by the House, controlled by the Democrats, would lead Trump to a Senate trial, where a Republican majority could protect him from being dismissed.
Sondland said he and two other US officials, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Ukraine’s special envoy, Kurt Volker, had “worked with Rudy Giuliani on Ukrainian affairs under the direct order of the president of the United States.”
“We did not want to work with Guiliani. Simply put, we play the hand that touched us,” Sondland said.
His testimony is likely to add new pressure on Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who had other business interests in Ukraine and who has refused to testify or deliver documents to the political trial investigation despite a subpoena.
He said senior officials at the White House and the State Department, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then National Security Advisor John Bolton, were informed about these efforts.
“In response to our persistent efforts to change his views, President Trump ordered us to ‘talk to Rudy’,” he said.