Trump impeachment hearings: Ukraine campaign included a quid pro quo, ambassador says
Sondland says Pompeo, Pence aware of proposed Ukraine probes but Republicans question his memory
Ambassador Gordon Sondland told House impeachment investigators Wednesday that he worked with Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine at the "express direction" of U.S. President Donald Trump and pushed a "quid pro quo" with Kyiv because it was what Trump wanted.
Sondland, the most highly anticipated witness in the public impeachment probe, made clear that he believed Trump was pursuing his desire for investigations by Ukraine in return for the Oval Office meeting that the Eastern European nation's president sought. Sondland said he later came to believe military aid for Ukraine was also being held up until the investigations were launched.
Sondland's opening statement included several key details and he brought Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice-President Mike Pence into the narrative more extensively than previous witnesses.
Sondland said Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, openly discussed how Trump wanted Ukraine to publicly announce investigations into Ukraine cyberactivities related to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and into Burisma — the Ukraine gas company on whose board Democrat Joe Biden's son, Hunter, sat — as a prerequisite for a coveted White House visit for Ukrainian leader Volodomyr Zelensky.
WATCH: Sondland says Ukraine pressure campaign wasn't secret
Sondland rejected the notion that he was part of a shadow group of diplomatic efforts led by Giuliani.
"The suggestion that we were engaging in some irregular diplomacy … is absolutely false," said Sondland.
The U.S. ambassador to the European Union said the involvement of Giuliani came at "the express direction of the president of the United States." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also aware of Trump's pressure campaign on Ukraine, according to Sondland.
"Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret," he said.
"All good. You're doing great work; keep banging away," Pompeo emailed Sondland, as per the testimony.
Sondland said he laid out the issue in detail to members of the State and Energy departments, and White House staff. Recipients included Pompeo and Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, he said.
Last month, Pompeo acknowledged for the first time he was on Trump's call with Zelensky, but disclosed no details and did not indicate he was kept up to date on the Ukraine pressure efforts.
The ambassador also testified he told Pence regarding his concerns that U.S. military aid to Ukraine "had become tied" to the push for investigations.
WATCH: Sondland addresses the issue of 'irregular channels' of diplomacy
Both Pence's office and a State Department spokesperson speaking on behalf of Pompeo denied Sondland's characterization of events.
Ukraine knew, Cooper says
Later Wednesday evening, Defence Department official Laura Cooper testified that Ukrainian officials knew Trump's administration was withholding military assistance in July, undercutting a key Republican defence of the president's actions.
Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defence for Russia and Ukraine, said her staff received an email on July 25 from the State Department saying Ukraine's embassy and the House Foreign Affairs Committee were asking about security assistance.
That was the same day as Trump's phone call with Zelensky, in which the U.S. president raised the issue of an investigation of into former vice-president Joe Biden, the alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and the military aid.
Cooper also said some of her staff had met with officials from the Ukrainian embassy during the week of Aug. 6 and that they had raised the issue of the aid.
Defending Trump in the inquiry, some Republicans have sought to minimize the impact of the White House decision to withhold the military aid by saying Ukraine was only aware of the hold for two weeks before it was lifted on Sept. 11.
Cooper testified that she had never discussed a hold on security assistance for Ukraine with Trump and never heard from him directly on the matter. She said she became aware in July that a hold was being placed on military aid to Ukraine and it had been directed by Trump, and heard the hold was placed because of his concerns over corruption in Ukraine.
Cooper said the funds were critical to supporting Ukraine. She said she was under the impression that the money was legally required to be committed by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, and she fought to get it done.
David Hale, the third-highest ranking official at the State Department, also testified.
In earlier closed-door testimony, Cooper said she advised other administration officials that Trump held up the aid through instructions to the White House budget office, and said she raised concerns to other government officials about the legality of holding up the aid to Ukraine.
Toward the end of the evening session the committee voted down a Republican bid to issue subpoenas for the anonymous whistleblower, whose account of Trump's July 25 phone call led to the impeachment process, and Hunter Biden.
The committee voted along party lines to set aside the motion to compel testimony by the whistleblower, whose identity is protected under U.S. law, and Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
'I want nothing,' Trump says
Sondland also confirmed that he spoke with Trump on a cellphone from a busy Kyiv restaurant the day after the president prodded Zelensky to pursue the twin investigations.
Trump, speaking to reporters outside the White House on Wednesday, said he does not know Sondland well; the ambassador testified they had spoken about 20 times.
Summing up what he contended was the bottom line of the hearings, Trump said, speaking from notes written with a black marker, "I want nothing." He said he never wanted any quid pro quo.
"That means it's all over," said Trump. "This is the final word from the president of the United States. I want nothing."
The statement is in contrast to the rough summary of the July 25 call with Zelensky, in which Trump asks the Ukraine leader for a "favour" before mentioning the two potential investigations.
Democrat Adam Schiff, chair of the intelligence committee, accused Pompeo of obstruction in his opening statement.
"We have not received a single document from the State Department … those documents bear directly on this investigation and this impeachment inquiry," said Schiff.
"We can see why Secretary Pompeo and President Trump have made such a concerted and across-the-board effort to obstruct this investigation and this impeachment inquiry," he said. "They do so at their own peril."
Missed previous testimony? See the highlights.
Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the committee, accused the Democrats of "mania" in his opening statement.
Nunes, of California, said the Democrats had "abandoned its core oversight functions and turned it into a beachhead for ousting an elected president from office."
Nunes dealt little with the Ukraine allegations, though he did warn Sondland, "You are here today to be smeared."
Watch: Republican Jim Jordan disputes 'quid pro quo'
A wealthy hotelier, Sondland initially supported Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican primary, but after some discomfort over Trump's public disparaging of the father of a deceased soldier, backed the eventual president. He contributed $1 million to Trump's inauguration.
He previously amended his testimony from his first closed-door appearance before the House.
Sondland admitted Wednesday his testimony has "not been perfect," but said he had been hampered in that regard by the administration, which has refused to give him access to calendars, phone records and other State Department documents.
Republicans pounced on Sondland's shifting statements over time.
"In your disposition, the amount of times you have said 'I don't recall' is nearly two pages long," said Republican counsel Steve Castor.
Watch: Maloney criticizes Sondland
Sondland at times frustrated Democrats as well with his inability to remember specific events.
"We appreciate your candour, but let's be really clear what it took to get it out of you," said New York's Sean Patrick Maloney.
'Abundantly clear' aid tied to probes: Sondland
The administration put a hold on nearly $400 million US in aid to Ukraine last July. Democrats allege the two-month delay was due to Ukraine not announcing the two investigations Trump desired, but Republicans have countered that the president has the right to pressure an ally to get serious about its corruption problems.
Sondland appeared to throw cold water on the depth of the anti-corruption efforts, stating: "[Zelensky] had to announce the investigations. He didn't actually have to do them, as I understood it."
WATCH: Sondland on his reluctance working with Giuliani
Sondland said it was his strong belief that was the case given conversations and meetings he had with other U.S. officials.
"By the eighth of September, it was abundantly clear to everyone that there was a link," he testified.
Castor rejected Sondland's inferential leap, as Sondland confirmed he never heard Trump explicitly make the connection between the aid and the investigations.
"This a pretty serious conclusion you've reached without precise evidence," said Castor.
The aid was released to Ukraine on Sept. 11, two days after the Democrats in the House announced investigations into the administration's dealings with the Eastern European country.
The White House seized on that portion of Sondland's testimony and said it "completely exonerates" Trump.
"Though much of today's testimony by Ambassador Sondland was related to his presumptions and beliefs, rather than hard facts, he testified to the fact that President Trump never told him that a White House meeting or the aid to Ukraine was tied to receiving a public statement from President Zelensky," White House spokesperson Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.
With files from CBC News