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Sondland to testify at impeachment inquiry

FILE — Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, arrives for closed-door meeting with House impeach investigators on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 17, 2019. Sondland at first gloried in his ability to hobnob with heads of state and parade his fledgling skills in international affairs — that was before the glare of the House impeachment inquiry cast him in an unflattering light as one of Mr. Trump’s personal emissaries to Ukraine. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
November 20, 2019 09:18 am

WASHINGTON — Gordon Sondland, the diplomat at the center of the House impeachment inquiry, kept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apprised of key developments in the campaign to pressure Ukraine’s leader into public commitments that would satisfy President Donald Trump, two people briefed on the matter said.

Sondland informed Pompeo in mid-August about a draft statement that Sondland and another U.S. diplomat had worked on with the Ukrainians that they hoped would persuade Trump to grant Ukraine’s new president the Oval Office meeting he was seeking, the people said.

Later that month, Sondland discussed with Pompeo the possibility of pushing the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to pledge during a planned meeting with Trump in Warsaw, Poland, that he would take the steps being sought by Trump as a way to break the logjam in relations between the two countries, the people said.

Pompeo expressed his approval of the plan, they said, but Trump later canceled his trip to Poland.

The disclosures link Pompeo more directly to the Trump administration’s pressure campaign on Ukraine. It is not clear how specific Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, was in his communications with Pompeo about what was being asked of the Ukrainians.

But Pompeo was among those who had listened in on a call between the two leaders on July 25, when Trump explicitly asked Zelenskiy for investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and into a debunked conspiracy theory about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. A lawyer for Pompeo declined to comment.

Sondland is scheduled to testify Wednesday in the impeachment proceedings against Trump, and he is expected to face tough questioning about gaps and misleading statements in the deposition he provided the committee last month. Sondland is sure to be grilled in particular about his failure to tell the committee about a phone call on July 26 with the president in which Trump, according to another U.S. diplomat who overheard the call, asked Sondland if Zelenskiy had agreed to the investigation of Biden.

Sondland later told the diplomat, David Holmes, that when it came to Ukraine, Trump was only interested in “big stuff” that would benefit him, like the “Biden investigation” that his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was pushing for.

Sondland’s exchanges with Pompeo suggest that he could use his testimony to counter the testimonies of other administration officials, who have said that Sondland was part of a team operating outside of normal foreign policy and national security channels that sought to do the bidding of Trump and Giuliani.

In August, Sondland and the special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, were in negotiations with a top Ukrainian official, Andriy Yermak, about a public statement making a commitment to investigating Biden and the energy company Burisma, which had placed Biden’s son Hunter Biden on its board. Giuliani had been pressing for that commitment and for Trump’s request that Zelenskiy’s government look into whether Ukrainians, not Russians, were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016.

Sondland and Volker have testified that they sought to get the Ukrainians to release the statement in order to satisfy Giuliani and, by extension, Trump, and to reset relations between the two countries. The Ukrainians never did it.

Pompeo has said little publicly about what he knew about the pressure campaign on Ukraine, but he has publicly criticized the Democrats’ impeachment investigation, claiming that it has been unfair to Trump and the State Department. The secretary of state had acceded to Trump’s order in the spring that he recall the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who had been the target of a campaign of criticism involving Giuliani and two of his associates.

While Pompeo heard Trump make his demands for the investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election on the July 25 call with Zelenskiy, it is not clear what he knew, or when, about the freeze over the summer of $391 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

After a meeting Sept. 1 between Pence and Zelenskiy in Warsaw, Sondland told Yermak that the resumption of the aid was tied to an agreement by Ukraine to make a commitment to the investigations sought by Trump, according to testimony made to the House impeachment inquiry.

Sondland is one of the few witnesses who spoke directly with Trump about Ukraine, making his testimony especially important for Democrats. Republicans are expected to try to undercut his credibility by laying out an array of discrepancies in it.

Sondland initially told the committee that he believed there was no link between the investigations Trump wanted and the release of the military aid. But two weeks after he was deposed, Sondland amended his testimony, and said the reverse.