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Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador To The E.U., Answers Questions About Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On Capitol Hill today, hours of testimony aimed at filling out the picture surrounding President Trump's pressure campaign on Ukraine.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today's main witness - Gordon Sondland, the hotel owner and Trump's megadonor who serves as the president's ambassador to the European Union. He's one of the so-called three amigos who handled Ukraine policy for Trump.

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GORDON SONDLAND: I was acting in good faith. As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the president. We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the president directed us to do so.

SHAPIRO: In his opening statement, Sondland acknowledged that he is not a note-taker - never has been, he said - and that his memory has not been perfect. But he went on to say unequivocally that when it came to Ukraine, there was a quid pro quo.

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SONDLAND: Mr. Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelenskiy. Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election, DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew these investigations were important to the president.

CORNISH: Sondland said it wasn't just the people working on Ukraine policy who knew these details.

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SONDLAND: Again, everyone was in the loop.

CORNISH: Here's House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff following up on that point.

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ADAM SCHIFF: You say that other senior officials in the State Department and the chief of staff's office, including Mick Mulvaney, Secretary Pompeo, were aware of this quid pro quo that in order to get the White House meeting, there were going to have to be these investigations the president wanted.

SONDLAND: Correct.

SHAPIRO: And in this evening's testimony, Defense Department official Laura Cooper addressed the timing of the hold on military aid to Ukraine.

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LAURA COOPER: Specifically, on the issue of Ukraine's knowledge of the hold or of Ukraine asking questions about possible issues with the flow of assistance, my staff showed me two unclassified emails that they received from the State Department.

SHAPIRO: According to Cooper, the Ukrainians asked about the aid on July 25, the same day as President Trump's call with President Zelenskiy. For more on how this testimony played out, we are joined here by NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas and NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Good to have you both back here in the studio.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good to be back.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And let me begin by following up on that cut we just heard from chairman Schiff. How significant is it that, as Sondland says and the Democrats kept emphasizing today, everybody knew about this? Pompeo, Pence, Trump, Mulvaney - they were all in the loop.

LUCAS: It's significant. It is important. The fact that others were in the loop - key senior officials were all aware of this push for investigations - is not something that we previously knew. There's been a lot of attempts to try to distance oneself from all of this. And this pushes back on some of what the president's Republican allies have said; that Sondland was perhaps acting alone. And this also highlights the fact that, you know, the White House, the State Department, the Office of Management and Budget have all refused to hand over...

SHAPIRO: Right.

LUCAS: ...Documents, records. And now what Democrats are saying is, now we may know why.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, so each of the people who we just named - Pompeo, Pence, Trump, Mulvaney - has either refused to testify or made clear that they're not planning to testify. Let's listen to Schiff addressing that point.

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SCHIFF: We can see why Secretary Pompeo and President Trump have made such a concerted and across-the-board effort to obstruct this investigation and this impeachment inquiry. And I will just say this. They do so at their own peril. I remind the president that Article III of the impeachment articles drafted against President Nixon was his refusal to obey the subpoenas of Congress.

SHAPIRO: So, Tam, how does this fill in the picture that has been building over the last week-plus of testimony?

KEITH: Well, certainly for Democrats, as Schiff alluded to, they are trying to figure out what articles of impeachment might be. And Schiff is saying that they would certainly consider obstruction of Congress as part of that.

Here's the big picture. You have Gordon Sondland saying President Trump directed him and several other officials to work with Rudy Giuliani. He then says that Rudy Giuliani laid out a quid pro quo - that if President Zelenskiy wanted a meeting, that he was going to have to publicly announce these investigations that President Trump wanted into this Ukrainian gas company, Burisma.

SHAPIRO: And interestingly, he didn't say he had to do the investigations, just that he should publicly announce them.

KEITH: Right. And why publicly announce it? - because that would be useful. That would be fodder for President Trump's campaign. At least, that is the implication here.

SHAPIRO: But what we kept hearing from witnesses last week who represented the United States in Ukraine was that this was some kind of side-deal - the irregular channel, as they characterized it. And what Sondland said today was no, this was not an irregular channel at all.

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SONDLAND: I'm not sure how someone could characterize something as an irregular channel when you're talking to the president of the United States, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, the chief of staff of the White House, the secretary of energy. I don't know how that's irregular.

SHAPIRO: So, Ryan, how do you reconcile that?

LUCAS: Well, I think that he has a point - that if you are talking to the president of the United States and keeping the secretary of state in the loop, it is hard to call that an irregular channel. I think that the point that others were making is that there was a group of officials, including the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, and senior folks at the State Department, who were pursuing the traditional policy goals of the United States in Ukraine. Pushing for particular investigations was not traditionally what the U.S. has done in Ukraine. And that's where, I think, this characterization as an irregular channel fits in.

KEITH: But I think part of what Sondland was trying to say is that he saw these investigations as necessary to get to the goals of the regular channel, and so he didn't see it as separate. He said...

SHAPIRO: Right. He said there was a logjam. And to break the logjam, I had to go through Rudy Giuliani, which might not have been what we wanted to do, but it was what we had to do.

KEITH: Right. He wanted the money to flow. And before that, he wanted this meeting to happen at the White House, which, incidentally, has still not happened.

SHAPIRO: One of the points that Republicans keyed into was, did Sondland have firsthand information that the military aid to Ukraine that Ukraine so badly wanted was being held up on these investigations? And Sondland said he didn't have that information firsthand. So here's what the Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman said in response to that.

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DANIEL GOLDMAN: Is this kind of a two plus two equals four conclusion that you reached?

SONDLAND: Pretty much.

GOLDMAN: It's the only logical conclusion to you that, given all of these factors, that the aid was also a part of this quid pro quo.

SONDLAND: Yep.

LUCAS: And now let's listen to what Republicans said in response to that exchange. This is him speaking with Republican counsel Steve Castor (ph).

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STEPHEN CASTOR: You acknowledge that this is speculation, right?

SONDLAND: It was a presumption.

CASTOR: OK. You - it was a guess, in fact, I think you even said this morning.

SONDLAND: Well, I want to say that it goes back to Mr. Goldman's point or chairman Schiff's - two plus two equals four in my mind at that point.

CASTOR: OK. But you didn't have any evidence of that, correct?

SONDLAND: Other than the aid wasn't being released, and we weren't getting anywhere with the Ukrainians.

SHAPIRO: Ryan, why is this exchange so important?

LUCAS: Well, it's important because this is a point that Republicans hit time and time again. This is a key witness saying that he was not told directly by the president that the aid is linked to the investigations. So on the question of aid, they have no direct link. No one's saying that there was a quid pro quo for that. And that was important for Republicans. And they did time and again come back to that with him.

KEITH: And Republicans also point out that Giuliani was the one giving directions to Sondland. Sondland says, you know, the president told us to talk to Giuliani. Giuliani told us this. But the White House points out there's no direct link there - that the president wasn't laying out those conditions to Sondland.

SHAPIRO: And even though the president did not have this particular conversation with Sondland about holding up military aid in exchange for the investigation, it was clear that the president and Sondland did speak frequently, including this now famous phone call in a restaurant where - there was some salty language, we should say.

(LAUGHTER)

LUCAS: This was an exchange with the Democratic counsel, Daniel Goldman.

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GOLDMAN: Well, he also testified that you confirmed to President Trump that you were in Ukraine at the time and that President Zelenskiy, quote, "loves your ass," unquote. Do you recall saying that?

SONDLAND: Yeah (laughter). It sounds like something I would say.

(LAUGHTER)

SONDLAND: That's how President Trump and I communicate - a lot of four-letter words; in this case, three-letter.

SHAPIRO: In this case, three-letter (laughter).

KEITH: In this case, three-letter. You know, it makes the relationship sound very chummy and familiar. Sondland talked about being - readily calling the president and talking to him about a number of things. He clearly was able to use his cellular telephone to just call the president of the United States. Though later, after that testimony, President Trump does what he often does - oh, I hardly knew the guy.

SHAPIRO: Right.

KEITH: And Sondland was told about this, and his response was, easy come, easy go.

(LAUGHTER)

LUCAS: One point to add on this, though, is that one of the things that other witnesses have said, including the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, is that what he brought to the table...

KEITH: Sondland.

LUCAS: What Sondland brought to the table was the ability to get in direct contact with the president because no one else in this had that ability to just call him up and get the president on the phone.

SHAPIRO: In another part of the program, we hear from a Republican consultant who thinks today was very successful for Democrats, less so for Republicans. Republicans were clearly trying to punch holes in Sondland's credibility. Let's listen here to Congressman Mike Turner of Ohio. And then I'd like each of you to say how successful you think today's testimony was for Democrats pursuing impeachment.

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MIKE TURNER: You really have no testimony today that ties President Trump to a scheme to withhold aid from Ukraine in exchange for these investigations.

SONDLAND: Other than my own presumption.

TURNER: Which is nothing - I mean, that's what I don't understand. So you know what hearsay evidence is, Ambassador? Hearsay is when I testify what someone else told me. Do you know what made-up testimony is? Made-up testimony is when I just presume it.

SHAPIRO: Tam, Ryan, how impactful do you think this testimony from Sondland today was?

KEITH: Here is someone who was brought into the administration by the president of the United States who was on national television saying there was a quid pro quo. Now, it was related to a meeting and not related to the aid, but that is a quid pro quo. And that is something that takes away, partially, a talking point that the president has been repeating on repeat.

SHAPIRO: Ryan.

LUCAS: I think the exact same thing. Getting that out of Sondland today before the cameras is a huge, huge victory for Democrats as they push for this.

SHAPIRO: Tamara Keith and Ryan Lucas, thank you both.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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