Gordon Sondland (centre) arriving at the US Capitol on October 17 2019, in Washington, DC. Picture: AFP/SAUL LOEB
Gordon Sondland (centre) arriving at the US Capitol on October 17 2019, in Washington, DC. Picture: AFP/SAUL LOEB

Washington — Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, said on Wednesday that President Donald Trump expressly ordered him and others to help in a pressure campaign against Ukraine, and gave testimony in the impeachment inquiry that for the first time put the US secretary of state and vice-president at the heart of the controversy.

Sondland said he "followed the president's orders" to work with Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to push Ukraine to carry out two investigations that would benefit Trump politically as he runs for re-election in November 2020.

Sondland's testimony was among the most significant in the four days of public hearings in the Democratic-led House of Representatives impeachment inquiry that has captivated Washington and threatens the presidency of Trump, a Republican.

The ambassador, a wealthy hotel entrepreneur and Trump donor, detailed Trump's active participation in the Ukraine controversy. Sondland depicted secretary of state Mike Pompeo as actively engaged in the efforts to get Ukraine to carry out the investigations, including one targeting Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, and described vice-president Mike Pence as aware of the efforts.

Going much further in describing the broad involvement of administration officials than he did in prior testimony behind closed doors, Sondland also made clear that he was a reluctant participant in the pressure campaign on Ukraine and that he personally opposed Trump's withholding of US security aid.

"Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret," Sondland said.

Testifying to the House Intelligence Committee, Sondland said he told Pence that a freeze ordered by Trump of $391m in security aid to Ukraine appeared to be part of the pressure campaign. The aid was approved by Congress to help Ukraine fight Russia-backed separatists. In a statement, Pence's chief of staff denied that any such conversation occurred.

Trump in a July 25 phone call asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to carry out two investigations. One involved Biden and his son Hunter, who had worked for Ukrainian energy company Burisma. The other involved a debunked conspiracy theory promoted by some Trump allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US election.

Democrats accuse Trump of abusing his power by using the security assistance and an offer to Zelenskiy of a prestigious visit to the White House as leverage to pressure a vulnerable US ally to dig up dirt on domestic political rivals.

Sondland described Trump in May telling him along with energy secretary Rick Perry and then-US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker to work with Giuliani — the former New York mayor who held no U.S. government job — on Ukraine policy.

"We did not want to work with Mr Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the US and Ukraine. So we followed the president's orders," Sondland said.

Sondland said the three worked "at the express direction of the president of the US" with Giuliani, who at the time was actively trying to get Ukraine to conduct the politically motivated investigations.

The efforts by Giuliani to get Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens "were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit" for the Ukrainian leader, Sondland said, using a Latin term meaning to exchange a favor for another favor.

Trump has said he did nothing wrong in the Ukraine matter and specifically denied any quid pro quo. On Wednesday, the president said he does not know Sondland — his own appointee — well but he seems like a "nice guy."

Biden, a former vice-president, is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the November 2020 presidential election. Trump has accused Biden of corruption without offering evidence. Biden has denied any wrongdoing.

Pompeo focus

The investigation could lead the House to approve formal charges against Trump — called articles of impeachment — that would be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial on whether to remove him from office. Few Republican senators have broken with Trump.

The committee's top Republican, Devin Nunes, accused Democrats of waging an "impeachment crusade" against Trump.

"They know exactly what kind of damage they're inflicting on this nation. But they've passed the point of no return," Nunes said.

Sondland's testimony cast more light on the role of Pompeo, a close Trump ally who has declined to defend state department witnesses who have been attacked by Trump and other Republicans for co-operating with the impeachment inquiry.

Sondland provided correspondence showing he and Pompeo communicated about his effort to get Zelenskiy to commit to undertake investigations as a way to free up the security aid, which was provided in September after the controversy had become public.

"All good. You're doing great work; keep banging away," Pompeo told Sondland in early September, according to e-mail correspondence cited in his testimony.

Sondland said even as late as September 24, the day the House launched its impeachment inquiry, Pompeo was directing Volker to speak with Giuliani.

Pompeo, on a visit to Brussels, ignored reporters' questions about Sondland's testimony.

Sondland said he told Pence in September "that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations".

"The vice-president nodded, he heard what I said, and that was pretty much it," Sondland testified.

Adam Schiff, the Intelligence Committee's Democratic chairman, called Sondland's testimony "a very important moment in the history of this inquiry".

"It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery as well as other potential high crimes and misdemeanors," Schiff told reporters, referring to impeachable offenses mentioned in the US constitution. "But we also have heard for the first time that knowledge of this scheme was pervasive."

Sondland testified he was "adamantly opposed" to the suspension of the security aid because "the Ukrainians needed those funds to fight against Russian aggression".

"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," Sondland testified.

Sondland, tapped as Trump's envoy after he donated $1m to the president's inauguration, said Trump told him there was no quid pro quo but that Zelenskiy should "do the right thing".

Reuters