A U.S. diplomat at the center of a House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump's phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart has criticized the U.S. leader for involving his personal lawyer in foreign policy making.
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland made the comment in opening remarks on October 17 to House members leading the inquiry into whether Trump pressured Ukrainian President Voldoymyr Zelenskiy to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden.
Sondland, a hotel owner who was appointed by Trump last year, became more closely involved with Ukraine policy after he, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and special envoy Kurt Volker attended the May inauguration of Zelenskiy, a political outsider who won in a landslide.
The three men, upon returning to Washington in late May, pushed Trump to call his new Ukrainian counterpart and invite him to the White House, he told the House members.
However, Trump was "skeptical" about Kyiv's desire to fight corruption and asked them to talk to his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, before moving forward, a command that "disappointed" them, Sondland said.
"It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president's mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani," he said in his opening statement. "Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the president's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine."
However, Sondland said he, Perry, and Volker -- whom he has called the "three amigos" on Ukraine policy -- chose to speak with Giuliani rather than abandon a meeting between the two presidents, because it was critical for U.S. foreign-policy goals.
U.S. officials and analysts have called Ukraine "ground zero" in the standoff between Washington and Moscow ever since Russia in 2014 annexed its Crimean Peninsula and supported separatists in its eastern regions. The United States has supported Ukraine with more than $1.5 billion in military aid over the past five years as fighting in the Donbas continues.
During a July 25 phone call that instigated the impeachment inquiry, Zelenskiy said Ukraine was almost ready to buy more weapons from the United States.
Trump then immediately responded that he would like a "favor" and asked Zelenskiy to look into the Ukraine work of Biden -- who is seeking to challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020 -- and his son Hunter.
Biden oversaw Ukraine policy while serving as vice president. Hunter Biden served on the board of Kyiv-based gas producer Burisma during his father's tenure in office.
Trump also asked Zelenskiy to look into an unfounded theory pushed by Giuliani that Ukraine may have interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
U.S. intelligence agencies have accused Russia of interfering in the 2016 election to support Trump, including hacking the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
Sondland, who was not among the U.S. officials on the call, said he first spoke to Giuliani in early August. He said the president's lawyer expressed during "two or three" phone calls that Trump wanted a public statement from Zelenskiy that Ukraine would commit to fighting corruption.
"Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election, including the DNC server, and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the president," he said.
Giuliani has claimed that Biden pressured Kyiv to fire its prosecutor-general in order to halt an investigation into Burisma. Ukrainian officials have said there was no active investigation into Burisma when it acted on Biden's demand in 2016.
Though Sondland said that he did not recall Giuliani mentioning Biden's name in the call, he said he should never have been involved in the first place.
"My understanding was that the president directed Mr. Giuliani's participation, that Mr. Giuliani was expressing the concerns of the president," he said. "Please know I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign-policy matters."