Witness ties Trump to ‘quid pro quo’
THE key witness at the impeachment inquiry says he pressured Ukraine to investigate Donald Trump's political rivals "at the express direction" of the US President.
Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union, told the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday local time that he understood he was asking for a "quid pro quo" from Ukraine to investigate meddling in the 2016 election and a company tied to US President Donald Trump's political rival.
In about six hours of charged testimony on Wednesday, local time, Mr Sondland quoted from emails with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the negotiations and said that he told Vice President Mike Pence he "had concerns" the military aid to Ukraine "had become tied" to the investigations.
"Everyone was in the loop," Mr Sondland said in his opening remarks.
"It was no secret."
Democrats are accusing Mr Trump of withholding $US390 million ($A572 million) of military aid to Ukraine in return for a White House visit for its newly installed leader as well as investigations into the 2016 election and the family of former Vice President Joe Biden's business dealings in the Eastern European nation.
Mr Sondland emphasised that while he understood there was a "quid pro quo", at the time there was no discussion of the military aid.
He also said he wasn't aware at the time he was asking Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate the corrupt energy company Burisma, that Mr Biden's son Hunter served on its board.
Mr Sondland emphasised the pressure he felt was not directly applied by Mr Trump, but his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani.
But while Democrats seized on Mr Sondland's evidence as proof Mr Trump used his office for personal gain, the President declared Mr Sondland's evidence had cleared him.
Speaking to reporters, Mr Trump quoted Mr Sondland's testimony about a conversation the pair had over the phone, where Mr Sondland had called the President to find out what he wanted from Ukraine.
"I want nothing, I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell (President) Zelinksy to do the right thing," Mr Trump said. "This is the final word of the president of the United States: I want nothing."
Under questioning from Republicans, Mr Sondland said he had no direct conversation with Mr Trump about the military aid, the withholding of which in return for the Biden probes is central to the Democrat's impeachment inquiry.
"My testimony is I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement (of investigations)," Mr Sondland said. "I don't recall ever talking to President Trump about any security assistance, ever."
"The President never told you about any preconditions for the aid to be released?," asked Republican counsel Steve Castor.
"No," said Mr Sondland. "The President never told you about any preconditions for a White House meeting?"
"No not personally," Mr Sondland said.
Mr Biden's son, Hunter Biden, has been criticised by Republicans for his highly paid role on the board of Burisma.
The hotel magnate, Trump donor and confidante's testimony was highly anticipated, with his actions central to the evidence of nine witnesses testifying over three days in the second week of public hearings.
Mr Trump denies any wrongdoing and says that while he did ask for the probe, this was appropriate because he and Republicans believe there was a "conflict of interest" for former Vice President Joe Biden, given his son Hunter's well paid job at a corrupt Ukraine energy company.
Republicans argue that Ukraine was not aware the $US390 million ($A572 million) aid was being suspended.
It was paid in September and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he had did not believe he was being coerced in the call.
Republicans have repeatedly slammed the inquiry as a partisan attempt to oust Mr Trump and labelled its charges as "absurd" and "an impeachment circus".
In his opening statement to the House Intelligence Committee, Mr Sondland said that he was uncomfortable after being instructed to deal with Mr Trump's personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, on Ukraine matters.
"Mr Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky," Mr Sondland said.
"Mr Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and (energy company) Burisma. Mr Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the President."
Mr Sondland said that while he did not know why the aid was being withheld, he "came to believe" it was part of a "quid pro quo".
"In July and August 2019, we learned that the White House had also suspended security aid to Ukraine. I was adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid, as the Ukrainians needed those funds to fight against Russian aggression. I tried diligently to ask why the aid was suspended, but I never received a clear answer.
"In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma, as Mr Giuliani had demanded."
"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?'" Mr Sondland said. "With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes."
Mr Trump sought to distance himself from Mr Sondland.
"I don't know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though," he said.
Vice President Mike Pence denied there had been any discussion with Mr Sondland about aid, Ukraine or the Bidens.
"This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened," his chief of staff Marc Short said in a statement.
The White House pushed back against Mr Sondland's testimony that there was a quid pro quo pointing to his earlier, contradictory statements.
"Ambassador Sondland previously testified that the president told him directly that he was not interested in a quid pro quo," the White House said in a statement, referring to his closed-door testimony last month. "He testified that President Trump repeatedly made it clear he wanted no quid pro quo."
Veteran prosecutor and former judge Ken Starr, who led the Clinton impeachment proceedings, described Mr Sondland's evidence as a "bombshell"
"It leads me that there will be articles of impeachment. I think we've known that. I think it was just confirmed today, and then substantively what we heard from the chairman just now is, it's over," Mr Starr said on Fox News. "This is his (Democrat committee chair Adam Schiff's) position: 'We now know that the president, in fact, committed the crime of bribery. The something of value, that's litigable".
"I think articles of impeachment are being drawn up if they haven't already been drawn up. So, it depends will it be bipartisan and so forth. So, this obviously has been one of those bombshell days."
Mr Sondland said that his evidence had changed over the course of his previous, closed-door testimony to the impeachment inquiry, because he had not been able to access his files and emails.
"As Ambassador, I have had hundreds of meetings and calls with individuals," he said.
"But I am not a note taker, nor am I a memo writer. Never have been. My job requires speaking with heads of state and senior government officials every day. Talking with foreign leaders might be memorable to some people. But this is my job. I do it all the time."
He said he regretted working with Mr Giuliani and that "if I had known of all of Mr Giuliani's dealings or of his associations with individuals now under criminal indictment, I would not have acquiesced to his participation. Still, given what we knew at the time, what we were asked to do did not appear to be wrong".
"At all times, I was acting in good faith," he said.
"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. Indeed, my personal view - which I shared repeatedly with others - was that the White House meeting and security assistance should have proceeded without preconditions of any kind. We were working to overcome the problems, given the facts as they existed. Our only interest was to advance longstanding US policy and to support Ukraine's fragile democracy."