Trump-Sondland phone call on Ukraine talking points emerges as key to impeachment probe

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

As the standoff intensified Tuesday between House Democrats and President Trump over evidence sought for the impeachment inquiry, attention turned to a crucial phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, about the president’s efforts to coerce Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden.

Two news organizations have now confirmed a New York Times report about a phone call between Trump and Sondland on Sept. 9, apparently giving Sondland talking points on the issue, which was the impetus for the investigation by the House Intelligence Committee.

Last week Kurt Volker, former American special envoy to Ukraine, provided testimony and text messages showing senior U.S. diplomats both coordinating and simultaneously expressing concern about Trump’s withholding of military assistance to Ukraine unless the country’s new president agreed to help dig up political dirt on Biden.

Among those text messages was a conversation between Sondland and Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. On Sept. 9, Taylor and Sondland were texting about the withholding of aid.

“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” wrote Taylor.

Nearly five hours later, Sondland responded with a formal-sounding statement that could be seen as attempting to cover for any potential illicit behavior from the White House and ends communication via text.

“Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” wrote Sondland. “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 If you still have concerns I recommend you give Lisa Kenna or S a call to discuss them directly. Thanks.”

On Tuesday, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal reported that during the five hours between texts, Sondland was in phone contact with Trump. The New York Times also reported the conversation last week. Sondland is not a career diplomat but a businessman, the founder and chairman of the Provenance chain of hotels, and a Republican donor who contributed $1 million to the Trump inauguration before his appointment.

Sondland flew from Brussels to Washington for a Tuesday morning deposition before three House committees, but in a post-midnight phone call to his lawyer, the State Department instructed him not to testify.

Gordon Sondland and President Trump (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The White House has signaled that it intends not to cooperate with the impeachment investigation, setting up another standoff with Congress. Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani said Tuesday that he “can’t imagine” anyone from the administration appearing in front of the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry panel.

Democrats, led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, have said they view the White House’s actions as obstruction and will subpoena Sondland and documents related to the investigation. Sondland and Taylor were using WhatsApp on their personal phones as opposed to encrypted government devices, calling into question their compliance with record regulations.

“The American people have the right to know if the president is acting in their interests, in the nation’s interests with an eye toward our national security, and not in his narrow personal, political interests,” said Schiff. “By preventing us from hearing from this witness and obtaining these documents, the president and secretary of state are taking actions that prevent us from getting the facts needed to protect the nation’s security.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters she agrees that Trump’s efforts to block Sondland from testifying represent obstruction.

“It is an abuse of power for him to act in this way,” Pelosi said. “And that is one of the reasons we have an impeachment inquiry.”

On Twitter, Trump suggested he made the decision to block Sondland’s testimony.

“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 to see,” Trump tweeted.

The president highlighted a text message from Sondland, released by House Democrats last week, in which the ambassador asserted there were “no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” Trump incorrectly referred to the message as a tweet.

“Importantly, Ambassador Sondland’s tweet, which few report, stated, ‘I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind,’” the president wrote on Twitter. “That says it ALL!”

The House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry was triggered by a whistleblower’s complaint against Trump over his order to withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine unless the country’s new president agreed to investigate a political opponent, Biden, and his son Hunter, who served until earlier this year on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

The White House released a memo summarizing Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a document Trump had defended as “perfect.” The memo led to Pelosi’s announcement late last month of a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump.

Since then, a flurry of developments has given added impetus to the impeachment probe. Those include a report that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was among those who listened in on Trump’s July 25 call, and the news that Trump also pressured Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for information that could help discredit former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Then, speaking to reporters on the White House lawn last week, Trump called on China to investigate the Bidens because “nobody has any doubt that they weren’t crooked.” He has yet to provide evidence of wrongdoing. The solicitation of assistance from a foreign country in a U.S. election is a campaign finance violation.

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