Editor’s note: This is one of many summaries of depositions released by House impeachment investigators. The others are available here.
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified before Congress in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Oct. 17. Below is a summary of his testimony, as compiled from the transcript of his deposition.
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland’s testimony included a significant revision to his earlier deposition, in which he originally denied any quid pro quo understanding between the Ukrainians and the Trump administration. Sondland, in a letter and declaration appended to his deposition transcript, subsequently confirmed that he told Ukrainian officials that military aid was, in fact, tied to their commitment to announcing investigations requested by President Trump. His amended statement came after other witnesses’ statements in recent days that reminded him of a conversation he had with Andrey Yermak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he laid out a clear quid pro quo offer.
Sondland testified in response to a congressional subpoena, as the State Department previously prevented his original Oct. 8 deposition on a voluntary basis. The deposition focused on Sondland’s knowledge of and role in the alleged efforts by President Trump to encourage President Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son’s business in the Ukraine, as well as Ukraine’s purported interference in the 2016 election. The committee also served Sondland with a subpoena to procure documents relevant to the investigation. Sondland claimed that he was precluded from producing official records by law but that the committee should otherwise have legal access to these State Department records without him.
Previously, Sondland had said in a released text message exchange with Charge d’Affaires William Taylor that the president was abundantly clear that there was no quid pro quo arrangement regarding military aid to Ukraine. His most recent testimony, however, contradicts this—outlining in detail his involvement in holding military aid contingent on the public declaration that the Ukrainian government would investigate potential corruption involving the Bidens and other matters. Sondland explained the text message exchange as simply parroting the president’s stance on the issue, denying that his statement expressed his agreement with the president’s interpretation. He also rejected that his suggestion to move the conversation off of text messaging was for the purpose of hiding content but rather for the expediency of diplomatic discussion over the phone or in person versus by text.
Sondland stated that he had encouraged President Trump to set up a phone call with President Zelensky but that Trump was skeptical that the country was ready to get tough on corruption. Instead, he punted Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Ambassador Volker, and Sondland’s concerns about the strategic interest in the new Ukrainian government to his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Sondland claimed that while he was disappointed with the involvement of the president’s personal counsel in matters of foreign affairs, he did not at the time suspect any underlying politically motivated agenda. He did note that the State Department was aware Giuliani was causing issues with Ukraine, but there was “little they could do about it” if Trump wanted him involved.
Sondland also indicated that the National Security Council (NSC) was not supportive of a potential meeting or phone call between Trump and Zelensky, and upon inquiry as to why, the NSC would only say that there “was no need for a call.” However, Sondland stated that the NSC never communicated to Perry, Volker, or himself any misgivings or concerns about the propriety of Volker and Sondland suggesting the two presidents speak. He indicated he was “surprised and disappointed by the media reports of [Dr. Hill’s] critical comments” about his behavior in her own deposition. He further emphasized that “all of [his] actions involving the Ukraine had the blessing of Secretary Pompeo,” including the suggestion of a phone call between the presidents.
However, Sondland was not on the July 25 phone call that occurred between Trump and Zelensky and, indeed, did not know of its contents until the White House released the transcript on Sept. 25. Sondland denied any knowledge of the requests in the call, instead clarifying that the “deliverable” he referenced in his text messages to Volker and Taylor was a public commitment by the Ukrainian government to anti-corruption; that, in his view, was the precondition to setting up a meeting between the presidents in the White House. According to Sondland, the “deliverable” was not a public commitment to investigating the Bidens or Democrats.
Sondland also addressed his interactions with Giuliani, in an attempt to address “inaccurate and unsourced speculation” about his involvement in Ukraine issues. He said his interactions with Giuliani following his appointment as ambassador were entirely electronic and focused primarily on the diplomatic negotiations and conditions the administration presented to Ukraine as a precursor to a White House visit. In these discussions, Giuliani stated that the 2016 election and Burisma were two anti-corruption issues of special importance to the president. However, Sondland denied discussing either former Vice President Joe Biden or his son, Hunter Biden, with Giuliani, despite the mention of Burisma, the company on whose board the younger Biden served. Nor, according to Sondland’s original testimony, was he privy to any discussion with the White House regarding withholding aid in return for assistance with Trump’s 2020 campaign. In reference to the claim from the whistleblower report that Sondland worked with Ukrainian officials to “contain the damage” caused by Giuliani, Sondland said this would be more fairly categorized as trying to assuage them and keep them from “bailing” on the United States.
Sondland claimed he has no knowledge of “when, why, or by whom the aid was suspended” but that Taylor raised the concern that withholding aid could be seen as linking it to the president’s 2020 bid. Taylor raised this issue on Sept. 9 over a text that said, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” This prompted Sondland to phone the president, purportedly to inquire further about this “alarming” allegation, by asking broadly what Trump wanted from the Ukraine. The president said “nothing” and reiterated “no quid pro quo,” though Trump did eventually say he wanted Zelensky to follow through on what he “ran on,” presumably anti-corruption efforts.
Without stating whether the president definitively conditioned aid on Ukrainian involvement in his 2020 bid, Sondland said, “[I]nviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. elections would be wrong.” And he unequivocally denied participation “in such undertakings”—in his initial deposition.
One line of questions explored whether Sondland had coordinated with Perry and Volker to align their stories in advance of testimony. In response to this line of questions, Sondland did state that he “refreshed recollections” about the aforementioned meetings with Volker and Perry before his testimony. Sondland said he was prompted to refresh his memory because Dr. Hill’s account of a “bad meeting” on July 10 regarding Ukraine aid that “terminated abruptly” was so far from his memory that he wanted to confirm the facts with other attendees. However, he denied any conversations with the White House either directly or through counsel regarding his testimony, aside from a public rendezvous with Trump during which the president told him to “tell the truth.”
Another line of questioning interrogated how Sondland happened to play such a prominent role in Ukraine policy and under whose authority or direction. Ukraine is, after all, not an EU country. Sondland was questioned about his claim that he was on a “special assignment” to Ukraine, to which he admitted that he had been “spinning.” He denied any specific “special assignment” from the president, but rather an order from Secretary Pompeo to continue bolstering Ukrainian faith in continued U.S. support to the country’s new regime. Despite indicating that he assumed then-National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary Pompeo’s encouragement of his Ukraine initiative came at the behest of the president, he denied ever indicating that he was acting directly under the authority of the president. He expressed annoyance at what he perceived as the U.S. “jerking Ukraine around” by not having the presidents meet.
Although Sondland professed unawareness of the political motivations behind Trump’s interactions with Zelensky, questioning brought up prominent New York Times articles in which Giuliani is quoted tying his personal trips to Ukraine to the president’s desire to investigate top Democrats such as Biden. Sondland denied awareness of these articles at the time they were published, defending his assertion that he “never made the connection between Burisma and the Bidens until the very end.” Questioning pushed Sondland on this issue by pointing to a July 21 text message sent by Taylor to Sondland, several days before Trump’s call with Zelensky, that referenced Ukraine’s desire to be “taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic reelection politics.” Sondland indicated he did not know, at the time, what that could have been referencing.
Further pushing the idea that he did not understand the Burisma situation, Sondland claimed that he never even asked why Burisma was so important to the president. In response to questions as to why he never had his staff look into or even just Google Burisma, Sondland says it is because he was not “on the file,” as were Volker and Taylor.
He further claimed that he only heard about Giuliani’s corruption concerns about Ukraine “second or third hand” from either Perry or Volker; he could not recall which. He said that on May 23 the president directed Sondland to “talk to Rudy” and that his initial understanding was that Giuliani was communicating the president’s priorities and that Sondland would not be able to achieve his goal of a White House meeting without addressing these concerns. But the White House then issued an invitation to President Zelensky after the meeting, which, in Sondland’s eyes, suggested that foreign aid would not be strictly tied to addressing Giuliani’s concerns. Sondland testified that he had been surprised to hear of the invitation following the contents of the May 23 meeting.
Sondland testified that, despite this open invitation, there was no discussion of a Zelensky White House visit during the two July 10 meetings on the subject. Specifically, Sondland said he never made a statement that an agreement had been reached regarding the conditions of the meeting, nor did he suggest the Ukrainians were ready to commit to the investigations. However, he said that the subject of Burisma may have come up during the informal secondary meeting on July 10 in the Ward Room, though he could not be sure who might have brought it up.
The call between Trump and Zelensky was originally meant to happen on July 20 but was then canceled and rescheduled for July 25. However, on July 19, Sondland said he had prepared Zelensky for his call with Trump, and when asked how he prepared the Ukrainian president he said he told the president “it’s important that you ... give President Trump ... some kind of a statement about corruption.” Sondland testified that he believed, at the time, that Trump had generalized concerns about Ukraine’s business and political corruption.
But a later text from Volker on July 19 mentioned that he introduced Giuliani to Zelensky’s aide, Yermak. Volker also texted Sondland, “Most important is for Zelensky to say he will help investigation and address any specific personnel issues if there are any.” Sondland denied knowing what Volker might have meant by “investigation” or “personnel issues” beyond general corruption concerns, claiming he did not have knowledge that Volker was telling Yermak that Zelensky was going to be asked to make Burisma and 2016 election investigation promises on the July 25 phone call.
Trump communicated that he thought Ukraine “tried to take [him] down” and mentioned the 2016 election but did not tie these remarks to the public anti-corruption statement he sought from Zelensky. Sondland clarified that at first the president’s invitation to Zelensky was meant to be unconditional, pending scheduling, but that there was talk of “putting more ornaments on the tree” later, unexpectedly, including the requirement of a public anti-corruption letter with U.S. diplomatic input on the wording of the statement and the source. He stated that the Burisma and 2016 election statements were explicitly added to the press release later by Giuliani, but that this, in his words, most “egregious” version of the letter was never delivered to the Ukrainians.
Aug. 28 saw the publication of a Politico article that made public the freeze of aid. Sondland testified that after this information became public, he had discussed Zelensky doing a public television interview with Volker, specifically announcing investigations into Burisma and the 2016 election. However, he said he did not mention the aid freeze in negotiations with the Ukrainians about the potential interview, even after the article was released. When asked whether he recalled linking the freeze on aid to the requested investigations on a call with Sen. Ron Jonhson, Sondland said, “I don’t recall the call going that way.”
Ultimately, Sondland conceded that he eventually learned that the president’s interest in the investigations was not anti-corruption generally, or even specifically about Burisma, but a targeted effort to investigate the Bidens. But he was unable to pinpoint an exact time on the “continuum” of these events when he realized that the president’s interest in Burisma was in fact an interest in the Bidens. However, he confirmed that the situation grew “more and more insidious” and that it was clear by the phone call between Trump and Zelensky that the condition was targeted. Throughout the testimony, Sondland referred to a “vanilla corruption” part of the continuum, where he thought the condition was only the announcement of a general anti-corruption initiative.
Sondland denied knowing anything regarding the theory that Vice President Mike Pence had not attended the Zelensky inauguration as an admonishment to Ukraine for “not playing ball.” He also denied hearing any claims that the condition concerning Burisma was actually a condition concerning cooperation with some ongoing Justice Department investigation. Rather, he said, he only ever heard of Burisma as a request for Ukraine to investigate the company on its own.
Minority questioning focused on whether Sondland could definitively state that the Ukrainians knew that aid was being held up before the Politico article made it public, which he said he could not. Republican questioners suggested that a quid pro quo agreement would not be possible without one party being aware of the condition being enforced. Additionally, minority questioning drew attention to the fact that Sondland had no recollection of discussing an investigation into the Bidens until the July 25 phone call transcript was released, as well as the fact that the Ukrainian president characterized the call as “positive.” Questioning also emphasized that the White House invitation to President Zelensky following the May 23 call could be seen as evidence that the meeting, and aid, was not directly contingent on reelection motivations. Additionally, minority questioning attempted to draw a line between demanding a statement about making investigations and making investigations themselves. They also tried to underscore their belief that the statement was a reasonable request, asking Sondland to confirm, which he did, that Ukraine has a history of corruption.
Sondland claimed he never supported withholding aid and that any conversations about the subject were limited to inquiring why the aid was being cut off. He did not believe “it was a good idea for any reason to cut that aid off” because “it would send the wrong message to Russia.” Sondland emphasized that if he were an actor in the negotiations that resulted in aid being cut off, it was “unwitting.” To the extent that he was aware of any quid pro quo, he testified that he believed it involved the press statement as a precondition for a White House meeting and was not tied to the aid at all.
Majority questioning brought up new concerns about Sondland’s awareness of the Bidens’ involvement in the country and ties to former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin. Sondland was asked if he thought it would be a conflict of interest for the vice president’s son to be paid $50,000 a month by a Ukrainian company, and whether the pressure by Vice President Biden to have Shokin removed as prosecutor was appropriate. Sondland consistently refused to answer the questions, saying he was either not a lawyer or not aware of the facts. He also responded to a line of majority questioning asking if he had felt pressured to answer any certain way in previous questions. Sondland confirmed that he had not.
Throughout the testimony, members asked Sondland about documentation of various activities and conversations. Sondland confirmed that he had forwarded all his WhatsApp texts (the primary method of official communication in Europe) to the State Department, but that he had not done so until approximately two weeks prior to this testimony, and that there was a chance some emails or texts had been deleted. He also mentioned that there should be notes from the meeting he and Volker had with Zelensky after the phone conversation between Trump and Zelensky. Additionally, Sondland confirmed there should be documented notes from Vice President Pence’s meeting with Zelensky in Warsaw on Sept. 1.
Sondland’s declaration, which is attached at the end of testimony:
Confirms he reviewed the opening statements of Taylor and Morrison to aid in his own recollection.
Notes that Taylor recalled Sondland telling Morrison in early September 2019 that aid to Ukraine was tied to Ukraine publicly stating it would investigate Burisma, and that Morrison also recalled Sondland telling him this.
Says that he knew sometime after May 2019 that scheduling a White House visit for Zelensky would be conditioned upon Zelensky agreeing to make a public anti-corruption statement and that he understood “satisfying Mr. Giuliani was a condition for scheduling” a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump.
Discusses his knowledge about the suspension of aid to Ukraine. Says he always believed suspending aid was “ill-advised,” but by the beginning of September, he had “presumed” the aid was being linked to the statement on corruption.
Recalls that Zelensky had discussed the suspension of aid to Ukraine with Vice President Pence at the Sept. 1 meeting in Warsaw.
States that Sondland told Yermak after the Sept. 1 meeting that the aid would likely not be unfrozen without a public anti-corruption statement but that there remained a question about who needed to make the statement.
Says he learned “soon thereafter” that the statement needed to be from Zelensky himself but is not certain where he found this out from, though he believes it was either from Giuliani or Volker.
States that he is not certain whether he had one or two phone calls with President Trump in the Sept. 6-9 time frame but has no reason to question the statements of Taylor and Morrison regarding Sondland’s Sept. 1 conversation with Yermak.