Explosive testimony by US ambassador draws Trump closer to impeachment

Gordon Sondland says senior administration officials were in the loop about 'quid pro quo' deal with Ukraine

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland attends a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 20, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
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The US ambassador to the EU on Wednesday gave explosive testimony in Congress, saying Donald Trump engaged in “quid pro quo” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

In the second week of public impeachment hearings, Gordon Sondland testified in the inquiry into whether Mr Trump’s call to Mr Zelenskiy on July 25 overstepped the line by urging him to launch a corruption investigation into his political opponent, former US vice president Joe Biden.

“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: 'Was there a quid pro quo?'" Mr Sondland said.

"As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

He claimed senior Cabinet officials including US Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Mark Perry and acting White House chief of staff Mike Mulvaney knew of Mr Trump’s thinking and that of his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

“Everyone was in the loop," Mr Sondland said. "It was no secret. Everyone was informed via email on July 19, days before the presidential call."

He said he raised questions on delayed payment of military aid to Ukraine with Mr Pence.

“I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations,” Mr Sondland said.

Asked if the “only logical conclusion” is that the aid was part of the quid pro quo, he answered: “Yep.”

Mr Sondland, a Republican donor, implicated Mr Trump directly in the plot.

“We all understood that these prerequisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements,” he told Congress.

“Secretary Perry, [former] ambassador [Kurt] Volker and I worked with Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the president of the United States. We followed the president’s orders."

Mr Trump, reading from a note as he left the White House after watching the first half of the testimony, denied any such deal but described Mr Sondland as “a nice guy.”

“I don’t know him very well," he said. "I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy, though.”

The Democrats, who hold majority in the House, saw a path to impeachment in the testimony.

Congressman Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, called it “among the most significant evidence to date".

“It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery, as well as other potential high crimes and misdemeanors," Mr Schiff said later. "The veneer has been torn away."

Ken Starr, the independent counsel who led the impeachment investigation into former president Bill Clinton, told Fox News: "This obviously has been one of those bombshell days.

“Articles of impeachment are being drawn up" if they haven't already, Mr Starr said.

Mr Sondland’s testimony followed that of Army Lt Col Alexander Vindman, Mr Pence’s adviser Jennifer Williams, White House official Tim Morrison, and Mr Volker on Tuesday.

A poll conducted by NPR/PBS/Marist this week found 47 per cent of Americans supported impeachment, while 45 per cent opposed it.