- U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland was barred from giving a scheduled testimony before Congress regarding President Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Zelensky and other matters involving the impeachment inquiry.
- Sondland was revealed to be a key organizer of the call with Zelensky in a series of released text messages between U.S. diplomats, Rudy Giuliani, and a top Zelensky aide.
- Democrats have accused Secretary of State Pompeo, who recently revealed he was on the July call, of obstructing the inquiry by preventing witnesses in the State Department from testifying before Congress.
Sondland Barred From Testimony
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a key figure in the impeachment inquiry, was blocked by the Trump administration from giving a planned testimony before Congress in a last-minute move Tuesday.
“Early this morning, the U.S. Department of State directed Ambassador Gordon Sondland not to appear today for his scheduled transcribed interview before the U.S. House of Representatives Joint Committee,” the law firm that represents Sondland said in a statement hours before his deposition.
“Ambassador Sondland had previously agreed to appear voluntarily today, without the need for a subpoena, in order to answer the Committee’s questions on an expedited basis,” the statement continued.
“As the sitting U.S. Ambassador to the EU and employee of the State Department, Ambassador Sondland is required to follow the Department’s direction.”
The administration’s efforts to bar Sondland’s testimony angered Democrats, who have sparred with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over his attempts to prevent State Department officials from testifying in the ongoing impeachment investigations into President Donald Trump.
The Democrats impeachment inquiry centers around a whistleblower complaint that claims Trump pressured Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his 2020 opponent Joe Biden during a July phone call.
Democrats also are looking into whether or not Trump decided to withhold nearly $400 million in security aid to Ukraine so he could have leverage over Zelensky.
Pompeo Blocks Testimonies
On Sept. 27, Congress sent Pompeo a letter informing him of the dates they had scheduled testimonies from State Department officials.
Pompeo responded by writing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee accusing Democrats of “an attempt to intimidate, bully, and treat improperly” State Department officials.
Several representatives chairing the committees leading the impeachment inquiry responded in a letter shortly after. In the letter, the members noted that there were reports that Pompeo had been on the Ukraine call, and as a result, had a conflict of interest.
“Any effort by the Secretary of the Department to intimidate or prevent witnesses from testifying or withhold documents from the Committees shall constitute evidence of obstruction of the impeachment inquiry,” the chairs wrote. Obstructing an impeachment inquiry is an impeachable offense.
A few days later Pompeo confirmed for the first time that he was on the July call with Zelensky.
On Oct. 6, Pompeo said that the Department of State will follow the law in the impeachment investigation. But Democrats seem skeptical.
Following the news that Sondland’s testimony had been blocked, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said that House Democrats are seeking “additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress.”
On the other side, some Republicans defended the move.
“The way [Schiff] treated Volker last week, that treatment is the reason why the State Department and the White House said we’re not going to subject Ambassador Sondland to the same treatment,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) told reporters Tuesday, referring to the testimony of the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker.
Trump also appeared to justify his administration’s efforts on Twitter Tuesday morning.
“I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public,” he wrote.
Volker Testimony and Text Messages
In addition to upsetting Democrats, the administration’s endeavor to bar Sondland’s testimony will likely have major repercussions, especially because of Sondland’s role in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and Zelensky.
Before serving as the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., Sondland was a major donor to Trump and reportedly donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. Sondland was appointed to his position back in March 2018, despite the fact that he appears to have no official political or diplomatic experience.
Sondland was mentioned by name in the whistleblower’s complaint alongside Volker.
In the complaint, the whistleblower wrote that Volker and Sondland “reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelenskyy.”
The complaint also notes that the two men, along with other State Department officials, “had spoken with Mr. Giuliani in an attempt to ‘contain the damage’ to U.S. national security”
Volker testified behind closed doors on Thursday. Later that night, the House released a set of text messages between Volker, Sondland, and other officials including Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, a top aide to Zelensky named Andrey Yermak, and Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine.
In one of the exchanges between Sondland and Volker from July 19, a few days before Trump’s call with Zelensky, Volker texted Sondland about plans for the call.
“Most [important] is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation—and address any specific personnel issues—if there are any,” he wrote.
In another text preparing for the call two days after that, Taylor noted that Zelensky “is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.”
To which Sondland responded, “Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative.”
Then, on July 25, the morning of the call, Volker texted Yermak, “Heard from White House—assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington. Good luck!”
Skipping ahead a month to Aug. 28, Yermak texted Volker a news story titled “Trump Holds Up Ukraine Military Aid Meant to Confront Russia” and said “we need to talk.”
A few days later on Sept. 1, Taylor pressed Sondland on the aid to Ukraine.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he asked. Sondland responded by asking Taylor to call him.
After that, the conversations started to shift heavily towards the decision to withhold aid. In a Sept. 9 text, Taylor expressed doubt about the plan in his messages to Sondland.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he wrote.
“I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” Sondland responded. “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”
House Democrats said Tuesday they plan on issuing a subpoena for Sondland’s testimony.
See what others are saying: (NPR) (Axios) (The Washington Post)
Key Takeaways From Impeachment Testimony of Top U.S. Diplomat to Ukraine
- Testimony from William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, was released by the House on Wednesday.
- In it, Taylor said it was his “clear understanding” that the Trump administration would not give Ukraine the nearly $400 of military aid already approved by Congress unless the country investigated Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden.
- Taylor also detailed the role of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, in crafting U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine in a way that was beneficial to Trump.
- Many elements of Taylor’s testimony were corroborated by other testimonies from key witnesses also released publicly this week.
Taylor Testimony Released
The House Intelligence Committee publicly released the full transcript Wednesday of the testimony given by William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine.
The career diplomat’s testimony joins the growing list of now-public transcripts from hearings with key witnesses in the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
The House also announced on Wednesday that it will begin public hearings next week. Taylor is expected to testify in the new wave of hearings, so the transcript of his closed-door testimony is likely to inform what he tells lawmakers next week.
Here are some key takeaways from the more than 300-page transcript of Taylor’s testimony.
Taylor Says “Clear Understanding” of Quid Pro Quo
Many of the most important excerpts from Taylor’s testimony centered around two key questions at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
The first question is: Did the Trump administration ask Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce that he would investigate Trump’s political opponent Joe Biden in exchange for a meeting with Trump at the White House?
And the second question is: Did the Trump administration withhold nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine in order to push Zelensky to investigate Biden?
Taylor addressed both of these questions in his opening statement, which was released a few weeks before the full transcript.
In the statement, Taylor said that U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland had told a top Zelensky aide “that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue” the investigation into Biden.
“This was the first time I had heard that the security assistance — not just the White House meeting — was conditioned on the investigations,” Taylor said.
Arguably the most significant line from Taylor’s testimony was in response to a line of questions from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-NY), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
Pointing to Taylor’s statement that the White House meeting was “conditioned on the investigations,” Schiff asked Taylor if he was explicitly saying that Ukraine would not get the meeting or the military aid if they did not announce the investigations.
“That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the President committed to pursue the investigation,” Taylor responded.
Taylor’s Military Aid Testimony Was Consistent With Others
Notably, Taylor’s testimony about military aid being used for leverage was also supported by several other testimonies released this week.
Taylor’s statement about Sondland and the fact that he was the one who told Zelensky’s aide that the military assistance would be conditioned on the investigation was also confirmed in a testimony by Tim Morrison.
Morrison, a former White House national security adviser, told lawmakers that he was present in the room when Sondland made that statement to Zelensky’s aide.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert at the National Security Council, also backed up the claim in his testimony.
“Sondland emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma,” Vindman said, referring to the Ukranian energy company Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on. “I stated to Amb. Sondland that his statements were inappropriate.”
Sondland had initially contradicted these accounts in his testimony, which was held before the others mentioned above.
But he later changed his testimony in a supplemental statement to the House, where he said Taylor and Morrison’s testimonies “refreshed my recollection about certain conversations.”
He went on to say that he now recalls a conversation on Sept. 1, 2019 with the same Zelensky aide the others referenced, and writing that during that conversation, “I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
Giuliani Had a Huge Role
Another interesting comparison that can be drawn from Taylor and Sondland’s testimonies is the role of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
In his testimony, Sondland said that Trump had basically delegated Giuliani to lead the United States’ foreign policy in Ukraine and directed diplomats and others in the administration to talk to him.
“We were also disappointed by the President’s direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani,” he said. “Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the President’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine.”
“However, based on the President’s direction we were faced with a choice,” he added, continuing to say that they chose to follow Trump’s directions and work with Giuliani.
While Sondland seemed clear that Giuliani was acting on Trump’s directions, Taylor was less sure.
In his opening statement, Taylor said that while it was clear to him the meeting between Trump and Zelensky was conditioned on the investigations: “It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani.”
When asked by Rep. Schiff, he later elaborated: “The irregular channel seemed to focus on specific issues, specific cases, rather than the regular channel’s focus on institution building. So the irregular channel, I think under the influence of Mr. Giuliani, wanted to focus on one or two specific cases, irrespective of whether it helped solve the corruption problem, fight the corruption problem.”
Schiff then asked Taylor if he believed Giuliani was doing that because he believed it would benefit his client, President Trump, Taylor replied, “That’s my understanding.”
However, when Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) asked Taylor if he believed the condition was coming from Trump, he said, “I think it was coming from Mr. Giuliani.”
Zeldin followed up asking “But not from the President?” to which Taylor responded, “I don’t know.”
See what others are saying: (Vox) (The Washington Post) (Axios)
Key Diplomat in Impeachment Inquiry Changes Testimony to Say Quid Pro Quo Happened
- The House Intelligence Committee released several transcripts from testimonies in the impeachment inquiry on Monday, including one from U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, a key player in the investigation.
- Sondland had originally testified that there was no explicit quid pro quo involving security assistance to Ukraine in exchange for the country announcing an investigation presidential presidential candidate Joe Biden, a political rival of President Trump.
- But the now-released transcript shows that Sondland later changed his testimony in an amendment.
- In the amendment, Sondland wrote that he told an aide to Ukrainian President Zelensky “that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
Sondland Testimony Released
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the EU who is a key witness in the impeachment inquiry, changed his testimony to say that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine.
Sondland, generally considered a strong Trump ally, had previously denied that the U.S. withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine to pressure the country to investigate presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Sondland was mentioned by name in the whistleblower’s complaint alongside the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker.
In the complaint, the whistleblower wrote that Volker and Sondland “reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelenskyy.”
Sondland was also implicated in a set of text messages released by the House that involved key people organizing the call between President Donald Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the conversations that followed.
One of the most significant interactions from those texts was between Sondland and William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine where the two discussed the Trump administration’s decision to withhold aid.
During the conversation, Taylor texted Sondland: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Sondland responded to that concern, telling Taylor that Trump “has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”
“The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text,” he continued.
Sondland’s First Testimony
Sondland was supposed to testify on Oct. 8, but at the last minute, his testimony was blocked by the State Department. He ended up testifying about a week later.
Sondland initially told lawmakers that he knew Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had told Ukraine to announce an investigation into Biden in exchange for a meeting between Trump and Zelensky at the Oval Office.
However, he denied direct quid pro quo involving military aid, saying, “I do not recall any discussions with the White House on withholding U.S. security assistance from Ukraine in return for assistance with the President’s 2020 re-election campaign.”
Sondland Changes Testimony
The now-released transcript shows that Sondland later went back and changed his testimony.
In a supplemental statement, Sondland said that he remembered a conversation with a top Zelensky aide on Sept. 1, “where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
Sondland’s amended testimony is significant for two main reasons.
First, it shows a senior official who is a central figure in the impeachment inquiry directly saying that Trump withheld aid from Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into his political rival.
And second, Sondland changed his initial testimony after it was contradicted by testimonies from other top officials, and now his testimony matches up with theirs.
Taylor and Morrison Contradict Sondland
One of the people that contradicted Sondland’s initial testimony was Taylor— the top diplomat to Ukraine who was implicated in the text messages.
In his testimony, Taylor said that Sondland told the same top Zelensky aide “that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue” the investigation into Biden.
Taylor also notably testified that Sondland later told him “that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President Zelensky was dependent on a public announcement of investigations — in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance.”
Taylor’s testimony was also later confirmed in another testimony from Tim Morrison, a former White House national security adviser.
Sondland said in his revised statement that Taylor and Morrison’s testimonies prompted him to recall the series of events differently.
See what others are saying: (Axios) (The Washington Post) (Vox)
Highlights From the 2019 Election
- Democrats took control of both Virginia’s state house and senate on Tuesday. With the party already holding the governor’s seat, this puts issues like minimum wage and gun control in the spotlight.
- Democrats also saw a major win in Kentucky, taking the governor’s seat in a tight race with Andy Beshear beating incumbent Matt Bevin by less than a percent.
- But Republicans did still snag a big win in Mississippi, with Republican Tate Reeves taking the governor seat. Experts say his win now makes the expansion of Medicaid unlikely in the state.
Virginia Goes Blue
Tuesday’s election led to a series of sweeping victories and flips for Democrats, as well as races where Republicans were able to hold onto their ground.
In Virginia, Democrats took majority control of both the state’s house and senate which were formerly controlled by Republicans. The party how as 55-45 majority in the house, and a 21-19 majority in the senate. With their Governor Ralph Northam also a member of the Democratic party, for the first time in over two decades, the party is in control of this trifecta of their government.
This could lead to major policy changes throughout the state that the GOP has long been rejecting. Over the summer, Northam announced plans for new gun control policies after a shooting in Virginia Beach left 12 dead. Republican lawmakers had no interest in the legislation, but now with Democrats in charge, it could see new life.
State Democrats have also been fighting for a $15 minimum wage. Currently, Virginia follows the federally mandated wage of $7.25, so this would more than double the pay rate. In January, the state’s Senate voted against this increase, but a new door could open for it in the future.
Other topics that could also now be visited include the Equal Rights Act, healthcare, and redistricting.
Another notable blue moment for Virginia was Juli Briskman’s win. Briskman was a former government contractor who went viral in 2017 over a photo where she can be seen flipping off Trump’s motorcade while biking.
She ended up losing her job over the matter, but Tuesday won a seat on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. According to the Associated Press, she beat the Republican incumbent with a lead of 52%.
Kentucky’s Governor Race
Another race getting national attention was the gubernatorial race in Kentucky. The state’s Democratic Attorney General, Andy Beshear challenged and defeated the incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin in a tight race. With 100% of precincts in, Beshear led with 49.2% while Bevin took home 48.8%. Just over 5,000 votes split the difference. Beshear claimed the victory, while Bevin has refused to concede.
The race between the two was always tight. One mid-October poll showed the two neck and neck, each with 46% of the vote. Just around a week after that poll, a new one gave Beshear the advantage of leading at 52-55%. Just days before the election, a separate poll gave Bevin a five-point lead. So, with tight fluctuating numbers, the results of this race were highly anticipated.
In a Wednesday morning press conference, Beshear said it was time to go ahead with the transition.
“Last night, the election ended,” he said. “It ended and it’s time to move forward with a smooth transition that we are here to do so that we can do the people’s business.”
President Donald Trump was very vocal about supporting Bevin and held a rally in Kentucky on Monday night. He implied that this election would be interpreted as a reflection of himself.
“And if you lose, they’re going to say, ‘Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. This was the greatest.’ You can’t let that happen to me,” he told the crowd.
When the results rolled in, Trump largely downplayed the loss to focus on other Republican victories in the state. He references a poll that indicated a 15 point lead, however, polling experts like FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver have since indicated it was unreliable.
Trump also said that his rally helped the Republican party in the state and said this election boded well for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Republican Win in Mississippi
Over in Missippi, the closely watched gubernatorial race went to Republicans. Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, who had also been backed by Trump, beat the state’s Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood.
While Mississippi is usually a reliably red state, Hood was considered a more moderate candidate and has been the Attorney General since 2004, winning four elections to do so.
Trump congratulated Reeves on Twitter, also noting a recent rally.
As for what this means for the state of Mississippi, one of the most notable topics on the campaign was Medicaid, which Reeves is a vocal opponent of. So, this means the program is now unlikely to expand in Mississippi.