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Trump Says He ‘Hardly Knows’ Inauguration Mega Donor-Turned-Ambassador Who Confirmed Quid Pro Quo


During a freewheeling address of the media Friday on the White House South lawn, President Donald Trump claimed he “hardly knows” the Portland hotel magnate who donated $1 million to the Trump Inauguration and went on to be selected by Trump to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union.

We learned this week that Gordon Sondland, who was initially ordered not to testify in the impeachment inquiry, just so happened to have revised his testimony about the withholding of congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine. Sondland’s testimony made waves because he changed a key aspect of his testimony regarding a quid pro quo.

Sondland said there was a conversation with Ukraine about the withheld aid on Sept. 1. That the aid was held up was reported for the first time on Aug. 28/29. The aid was released on Sept. 11, Trump said, at the urging of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Portman was one of the Republicans in 2016 who echoed then-Vice President Joe Biden‘s call to reform the Prosecutor General’s Office in Ukraine. The top prosecutor in place at the time? Viktor Shokin, the one Biden bragged about getting fired.

According to a Nov. 4 addendum, Sondland said he recently remembered that his marching orders were to precondition aid on whether or not Ukrainian officials complied with a request by Trump to make an announcement. The announcement? That Ukraine was launching an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden over the latter’s prior work for the natural gas company Burisma Holdings:

Also, I now do recall a conversation on September 1, 2019, in Warsaw with [Zelensky aide] Mr. [Andriy] Yermak. This brief pull-aside conversation followed the larger meeting involving Vice President [Mike] Pence and President Zelensky, in which President Zelensky had raised the issue of the suspension of U.S. aid to Ukraine directly with Vice President Pence. After that large meeting, I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks. I also recall some question as to whether the public statement could come from the newly appointed Ukrainian Prosecutor General, rather than from President Zelensky directly.

What Trump wanted from that public announcement, according to another witness, was “nothing less” than for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to utter three specific words: “investigations, Biden, and Clinton.”

Sondland was the guy President Trump spoke with on the phone after top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine Bill Taylor texted Sondland, “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland responded to Taylor around five hours later, saying that Trump had been “crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” Sondland admitted that his response was dictated by the president and may not have been truthful.

The transcript of Sondland’s testimony also showed that he directly addressed this call with the president.

“There were a lot of rumors swirling around as to why the aid had been held up, including they wanted a review, they wanted Europe to do more. There were all kinds of rumors,” Sondland said. “And I know in my few previous conversations with the President he’s not big on small talk so I would have one shot to ask him. And rather than asking him, ‘Are you doing X because of X or because of Y or because of Z’ I asked him one open-ended question: ‘What do you want from Ukraine?’”

“And as I recall, he was in a very bad mood. It was a very quick conversation. He said: ‘I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing,’” Sondland continued. “And I said: ‘What does that mean?’ And he said: ‘I want him to do what he ran on.’ And that was the end of the conversation. I wouldn’t say he hung up on me, but it was almost like he hung up on me.”

As Law&Crime previously reported, Sondland is not a career diplomat. He did not rise to his current position through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service. In fact, Sondland had no previous diplomatic or foreign policy experience before he was appointed to his current post in Brussels. News outlet OregonLive notes how Sondland was able to secure that position:

Sondland donated $1 million to the inauguration of President Donald Trump, records show, but didn’t use his own name. The donations to Trump’s inauguration were made through four Oregon and Washington companies connected to Sondland.

On Oct. 8, Trump spoke warmly of Sondland, calling him a “really good man and great American.”

Colin Kalmbacher contributed to this report.

[Image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.