A top U.S. diplomat has testified before the impeachment inquiry that President Donald Trump made a White House meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart conditional on the announcement of an investigation into his political rival.
However, the diplomat, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, told the Democratic-led hearing on November 20 that Trump, a Republican, never expressly said military aid was contingent on the announcement.
Sondland described as a "quid pro quo" Trump's request for an announcement of a probe into Ukrainian natural-gas company Burisma and the country's purported interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump allies have repeatedly denied there was a quid pro quo.
The son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat who is seeking to challenge Trump in 2020, sat on the board of Burisma. Sondland said Trump's request was made through his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
The ambassador denied that Trump informed him that military aid was also conditional upon Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy making a public statement about the investigations. That contradicted testimony by a U.S. official last week.
"I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement" of investigations, Sondland said during six hours of testimony. Rather, it was "my own personal guess" that it was conditional in the absence of any other credible explanation.
He also said he never heard that the investigations actually "had to start or be completed."
However, Sondland said he would never have made a White House visit dependent upon a probe in the first place because it was important to show U.S. support for the new Ukrainian president, whom he praised. He also said that delaying military aid to Ukraine could be seen as beneficial to Russia, a U.S. rival.
Republican representatives seized on Sondland's testimony that Trump never directly said the military aid was tied to investigations to trash the Democrats' impeachment hearing.
"This, here, is the real bombshell," tweeted Mark Meadows (Republican-North Carolina).
Adam Schiff (Democrat-California) , who is chairing the House investigation, called Sondland's testimony "significant and deeply troubling."
"Republicans seem to be under the impression that, unless the president spoke the words 'I am bribing Ukraine,' there’s no evidence of bribery or misconduct. Nonetheless, Sondland has provided significant evidence of precisely that conditionality," Schiff said in a tweet after the ambassador's testimony.
Sondland is a key witness in the House impeachment investigation into whether Trump held up the aid to pressure the Zelenskiy government to investigate the Bidens -- what Democrats label an abuse of presidential power -- because he had six or seven conversations with the U.S. president about Ukraine policy.
Neither U.S. Charge d'Affaires to Ukraine William Taylor, Deputy Secretary of State George Kent nor former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch -- all of whom gave testimony last week critical of the administration's Ukraine policy -- said they had spoken with Trump about the issues at the heart of the impeachment hearing.
Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and major Trump donor, was nominated by the president as ambassador to the EU last year.
Given his perceived close relationship to Trump, which the president has since denied, Sondland's appearance had been highly anticipated as a possible turning point as the impeachment inquiry moves closer to Trump.
Sondland said he agreed to testify before the impeachment hearing despite White House and State Department requests that he not participate.
He said the White House and State Department denied his requests for access to his phone records, e-mails, and other documents to prepare for his testimony.
Representative Mike Quigley (Democrat-Illinois) criticized Trump for hindering Sondland's testimony.
"If there were evidence that would absolve the president, the White House would be beating down our door," he said in a tweet.
'Everyone In The Loop'
Last week, State Department official David Holmes revealed to impeachment investigators a previously unknown phone call between Trump and Sondland on July 26 that Holmes said touched upon an investigation of the Bidens.
Sondland confirmed he spoke to Trump that day about the investigations the U.S. president wanted Ukraine to carry out, but denied Biden's name came up in the conversation. Sondland said he had not made the connection between Burisma and the Bidens at the time.
The ambassador also took issue with previous witness testimony that he, Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry -- often referred to in the hearing as the "Three Amigos" -- were part of an "irregular or rogue diplomacy" channel toward Ukraine.
Sondland said he was carrying out Trump's orders -- as expressed through Giuliani -- to inform Ukrainian officials of the U.S. president's desire for a public announcement of the two investigations and repeatedly kept State Department, White House, and National Security Council officials informed of his progress.
The ambassador submitted to the hearing new evidence showing some of his correspondences with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Council official Tim Morrison, and acting White House Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney about his Ukraine work.
Sondland also said he specifically told Vice President Mike Pence shortly before their meeting with Zelenskiy in Warsaw on September 1 about his "concerns" that military aid to Ukraine "had become tied" to the announcement of investigations.
Sondland said he did not recall Pompeo, Morrison, or Pence disputing his concerns that the aid release to Ukraine might be dependent on the probes, which may indicate they were aware of the connection. Pompeo and Morrison were both on the July 25 call when Trump raised the issue of the investigations with Zelenskiy.
Marc Short, Pence's chief of staff, denied later in the day that Sondland had informed the vice president of the delay. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said it was "flat-out false" that Sondland told Pompeo of his concerns.
"Everyone was in the loop," Sondland testified in the opening remarks. "It was no secret."
Pompeo and Mulvaney, as well as others who've had direct contact with Trump, have ignored House subpoenas to testify in the impeachment inquiry.
Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (Democrat-Illinois) said Trump's allies were now trying to distance themselves from Sondland.
"What I am really concerned about Ambassador Sondland, is that the president and the good folks over here -- my Republican colleagues -- are now casting you as the 'One Amigo' -- the one lonely amigo they are going to throw under the bus," he said.
U.S. Diplomat Says Zelenskiy’s White House Visit Conditional On Investigations