WASHINGTON — The U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, told House impeachment investigators Thursday that President Donald Trump outsourced the job of handling U.S. policy on Ukraine to his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, a decision that made Sondland uncomfortable but one he still carried out.
“I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters,” Sondland said, according to his prepared remarks obtained by The Washington Post.
Sondland, a major Trump donor who has become a focus of the impeachment inquiry due to his outsized role in U.S.-Ukraine policy, criticized the president’s handling of Ukraine policy, including the temporary hold on nearly $400 million in aid to the country and the recall of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Sondland called her an “excellent diplomat” and said he “regretted” her departure, which followed a campaign by Giuliani to paint her as disloyal to the president.
Sondland is expected to face an onslaught of questions from Democrats, who have accused the president of abusing his power to pressure Ukraine to help his 2020 re-election campaign. Trump has denied any wrongdoing, and has said his decision to withhold military aid was out of frustration that European governments weren’t doing more to assist the country.
In his remarks, Sondland said in principle he opposes any “quid pro quo” that would exchange U.S. support to a friendly nation for an investigation into Trump’s political rival, former vice president Joe Biden. But he said he became aware only recently that Trump’s efforts to investigate an obscure Ukrainian energy company named Burisma were due to its associations with Biden, whose son Hunter worked for the energy company. Joe Biden is a leading Democratic candidate for president.
“I did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President’s 2020 re-election campaign,” he said. “Although Mr. Giuliani did mention the name ‘Burisma’ in August 2019, I understood that Burisma was one of many examples of Ukrainian companies run by oligarchs and lacking the type of corporate governance structures found in Western companies.”
Sondland’s apparent failure to connect the dots between Burisma and the Bidens occurred as Giuliani made several televised appearances over the spring and summer criticizing Hunter Biden’s involvement on the board, and numerous newspaper and magazine articles questioned whether his role at Burisma could prove to be a drag on his father’s presidential campaign.
In his testimony, Sondland, a hotel magnate who came to the job with no diplomatic experience, depicts himself as a well-meaning but in some cases out of the loop emissary for the president who tried to do what he could to prop up the government of Ukraine as it fends off Russian-backed separatists.
“My goal has always been to advance U.S. interests in securing a strong relationship with Ukraine,” he said in his remarks. “Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong. I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings.”
Parts of his testimony appear to conflict with the testimony of other officials this week, including Fiona Hill, the National Security Council’s former senior director for Russia and Europe. Hill told House investigators that she was concerned by Sondland’s talk of investigations in a July meeting, which she eventually relayed to a lawyer for the National Security Council.
Sondland, in his opening remarks, said was never aware of objections from her or her boss, national security adviser John Bolton. “I have to view her testimony — if the media reports are accurate — as the product of hindsight and in the context of the widely known tensions between the NSC, on the one hand, and the State Department, on the other hand,” he said.
Sondland claims that his pursuit of investigations in Ukraine were always in line with long-standing U.S. policy to push for transparency and anti-corruption efforts in the country.