Donald Trump has disputed evidence from the US ambassador to the EU that he wanted a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine that would see him offer a White House meeting in return for an investigation into Joe Biden.
Ambassador Gordon Sondland is giving evidence at the Trump impeachment inquiry.
He said he “followed the president’s orders” to work with Mr Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on pressuring Ukraine into investigating political rival and former vice president Mr Biden.
He repeatedly referred to a quid pro quo – one thing in return for another – in describing the Trump administration’s dealings with Ukraine.
Mr Sondland has said it involved arranging a White House visit for Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelenskiy in return for Mr Zelenskiy announcing investigations of Mr Biden and a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.
He said: “As I testified previously, Mr Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelenskiy.”
Mr Sondland added: “At all times, I was acting in good faith. As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the president. We worked with Mr Giuliani because the president directed us to do so. We had no desire to set any conditions on the Ukrainians.”
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Speaking to reporters outside the White House as the hearing went on, Mr Trump rattled off a number of lines of evidence given by Mr Sondland in a bid to prove his innocence – and insisted he “wanted no quid pro quo”.
On Mr Sondland himself, Mr Trump said: “I don’t know him very well, I have not spoken to him very much. Seems like a nice guy though, but I don’t know him well. He actually supported other candidates, not me – he came in late.”
Mr Sondland, who identifies as a “lifelong Republican”, has described how demands became more serious as time went on in regards to any potential Ukraine meeting at the White House.
“More specific items got added to the menu – specially Burisma and 2016 meddling,” he said, in reference to the gas company where Mr Biden’s son Hunter served on the board.
He also referenced “the server” – the hacked Democratic computer system.
Mr Sondland said he was initially unaware that Burisma was linked to the Bidens.
The impeachment inquiry has focused largely on allegations that Mr Trump sought investigations of Democrat political rival Mr Biden and his son, as well as the widely debunked idea that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 US election rather than Russia in return for military aid and a White House visit.
Mr Sondland said: “I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: ‘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.”
Mr Sondland said he had been open about Mr Trump’s demand that Ukraine commit to the investigations, saying that “everyone was in the loop” and “it was no secret.”
“Everyone was informed via email on 19 July, days before the presidential call”, he said.
“As I communicated to the team, I told President Zelenskiy in advance that assurances to ‘run a fully transparent investigation’ and ‘turn over every stone’ were necessary in his call with President Trump.”
Mr Sondland is a key witness in the House impeachment inquiry into the president, and the White House has moved quickly to try to discredit his evidence.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said that “no quid pro quo ever occurred”.
She added: “The US aid to Ukraine flowed, no investigation was launched, and President Trump has met and spoken with President Zelensky. Democrats keep chasing ghosts.”
Mr Sondland has also confirmed that he spoke with Mr Trump on a mobile phone from a busy Kyiv restaurant the day after the president prodded Ukraine’s leader to investigate former Vice President Mr Biden.
He said he kept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top administration officials aware of what was happening.
Mr Sondland said he specifically told Vice President Mike Pence he “had concerns” that US military aid to Ukraine “had become tied” to the investigations.
Mr Pence’s office denied testimony by Mr Sondland, saying in a statement: “The Vice President never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations”.
Mr Sondland has emerged as a central figure in an intense week – with nine witnesses testifying over three days.
His account of the recently revealed call, which Mr Trump claims he doesn’t remember, supports the testimony of multiple witnesses who have spoken to impeachment investigators over the past week.
The head of the US House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, said that Mr Sondland’s testimony was important because it “goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery as well as other potential high crimes and misdemeanours”.
Pam Bondi, a White House adviser assisting the administration on impeachment messaging, has claimed Mr Trump does not know Mr Sondland “very well”.
Speaking on CBS This Morning, she said Mr Sondland was a “short-term ambassador” and incorrectly described himself as the envoy to Ukraine.