WASHINGTON – Gordon Sondland seemed to feast on his newfound political power when he snagged a plum ambassadorship and landed in Brussels as America's top diplomat to the European Union.
Appointed to the post by President Donald Trump after he donated $1 million to the president's inaugural committee, Sondland had a direct line to the Oval Office. And he wasn't shy, or even careful, about using it.
He apparently flaunted his ability to dial Trump's phone number at will and told more seasoned administration officials to move aside as he usurped their portfolios – particularly when it came to Ukraine, even though it's not part of the EU.
Now, Sondland's relationship with Trump and his extensive dealings with Ukraine have put the former hotelier, and his boss, in a precarious position. On Wednesday, Sondland takes center stage in the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry when he gives public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. For impeachment investigators, he is a unique witness; he was Trump's point man in the effort to push politically motivated investigations in Ukraine, and he seemed to have the most extensive, direct dealings with the president on the matter.
"Sondland will be the first individual in this inquiry to give open testimony about direct contacts with Mr. Trump on the issue of the investigations, military assistance (to Ukraine) and the relationship with Zelensky," said Aaron David Miller, a top State Department negotiator for past presidents of both parties and now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Whether he chooses to open the door to further teasers ... I don’t know," Miller said.
The wealthy Portland hotelier has already told lawmakers he relayed a quid pro quo to a top Ukraine official, telling him U.S. military aid to Ukraine was likely contingent on a public statement by Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, committing to the investigations Trump wanted. These included one into former Vice President Joe Biden and another into a debunked theory about Ukraine's involvement in 2016 election interference.
Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, likened Sondland's diplomatic agenda to a "drug deal." Bolton's deputy, Fiona Hill, portrayed him as a dangerously uninformed and unconventional diplomat.
Now, new evidence emerged during last week's first public impeachment hearing that makes Sondland an even more intriguing witness for House Democrats.
The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, revealed Nov. 13 that one of his deputies overheard Sondland chatting with the president on July 26 while they were in a restaurant in Kiev.
Yovanovitch testimony: Intimidation among key takeaways from the Trump impeachment hearing with Marie Yovanovitch
During that cellphone call, "the member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about "the investigations," Taylor recounted during the House Intelligence Committee's first public impeachment hearing. "Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward."
After the call, Taylor's aide asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine. "Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden" than he does about Ukraine, Taylor recounted.
House Democrats interviewed Taylor's aide during a closed-door session on Friday. David Holmes told lawmakers Sondland assured Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass” and would do “anything you ask him to” when asked about investigations he sought, according to his opening statement obtained by CNN and confirmed by The New York Times.
Holmes testified, "I then heard President Trump ask, 'So, he's gonna do the investigation?' Ambassador Sondland replied that 'he's gonna do it,' adding that President Zelensky will do 'anything you ask him to.'"
Trump told reporters on Nov. 13 that he didn't remember any Kiev phone call with Sondland.
"I know nothing about that. First time I've heard it," the president said, adding that there was no quid pro quo "pure and simple."
The day before the call with Sondland, on July 25, Trump pressed Zelensky to open the two investigations during a phone call that triggered a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump had solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election. That allegation is the focus of the House Democrats' investigation.
Even before the Nov. 13 revelation, Sondland had told lawmakers that a White House visit for Zelensky – something the Ukrainian leader desperately wanted as a public demonstration of U.S. support – would be granted only after Zelensky publicly committed to the investigations Trump, and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, were demanding. Sondland also told the impeachment panel that he "presumed" U.S. military assistance was linked to a public Zelensky statement because there was no other credible explanation for a delay in that aid.
Sondland offered that testimony in a Nov. 4 addendum he submitted to the House Democrats after his initial closed-door interview. He said testimony from other witnesses had refreshed his memory about his dealings with Ukrainian officials.
Taylor's new information links Trump even more directly to the Ukraine pressure campaign. It also raises fresh questions about Sondland's diplomatic portfolio and qualifications.
“He’s not someone who is trained either in the art of diplomacy or in the practicalities of information security,” said Ned Price, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst. Price noted that in Sondland's initial closed-door testimony, he seemed to minimize Trump's role in Ukraine by failing, for example, to mention the July 26 call and the link between U.S. military aid and the Biden investigation.
“I think he faces a decision as to if he wants to betray his political benefactor, or if he wants to risk his own reputation,” said Price, who also was a National Security Council adviser under President Barack Obama. "Obviously he’s going to be facing a lot of pressure because it’s either him or Trump.”
Trump has moved to distance himself from Sondland in recent days. “I hardly know the gentleman,” he told reporters on Nov. 8. Before Sondland testified, Trump called Sondland "a really good man and great American" in a tweet.
Price and others say Sondland's July 26 call with Trump raises red flags for another reason: It was likely a highly compromising security breach, and illustrates how lax Sondland was about following State Department protocols to protect sensitive information.
“The president is the most lucrative intelligence target throughout the world,” Price said. “When the Russians presumably heard that he was connected to the president of the United States, they knew they had hit the jackpot.”
Ukraine and Russia are essentially at war. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and Ukraine continues to battle Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of its territory.
Conducting a cellphone call with the president in a public place in Ukraine's capital, "it just doesn’t get any worse than that," said Clint Watts, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and author of "Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News."
Watts said Ukraine is "ground zero" for Russian espionage campaigns, and Moscow almost certainly intercepted Sondland's conversation with Trump on a major foreign policy issue of keen interest to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said the revelation about Sondland’s call with Trump was remarkable – and not just because it exposed their exchange to foreign espionage.
“Sondland calling Trump on a cellphone from Kyiv is extraordinary for all sorts of reasons,” McFaul said in a tweet. Normally, he said, EU ambassadors don’t call the president.
“They never do so to discuss Ukraine policy. Doing so on a cellphone from Kyiv means whole world was listening in,” McFaul wrote.
Even before Wednesday's new disclosures, other witnesses had raised questions about Sondland's security practices and his unorthodox approach to diplomacy. Fiona Hill, who until recently served as the Trump administration's National Security Council adviser for Europe and Russia, said he engaged in behavior that posed a major "counterintelligence risk" and he seemed either unwilling or unable to follow normal diplomatic protocols.
"Ambassador Sondland would frequently give people my personal cellphone to call up and demand meetings" with her or with Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, Hill told lawmakers, according to a transcript of her testimony.
"We had all kinds of officials from Europe ... literally appearing at the gates of the White House, calling on our personal phones, which are actually in lock boxes," Hill said in her closed-door interview Oct. 14. "I'd find endless messages from irate officials who'd been told that they were supposed to meet with me by Ambassador Sondland."
Text messages and other testimony shows that Sondland spent months relaying Trump and Giuliani's demands to Ukrainian officials and other U.S. diplomats. Sondland has said he got his authority and instructions from Trump and Giuliani.
Before he amended his testimony, Sondland had told lawmakers there was “no quid pro quo" and that Trump relayed that to him directly.
“There is no quid pro. The president repeated, no quid pro. No quid pro quo multiple times,” Sondland told lawmakers during his closed-door deposition Oct. 17. “This was a very short call. And I recaIl that the president was really in a bad mood.”
National Security Council official Timothy Morrison testified Oct. 31 that Hill told him he "would be wise" to stay away from engagement with Giuliani and the "parallel" pressure campaign on Ukraine.
"She mentioned that Gordon talked with Rudy, and she mentioned that she stayed away from any conversation with Rudy and that I would be wise to do the same," Morrison said.
In his three-page amendment, Sondland said he recalled a Sept. 1 meeting in Warsaw with Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Zelensky, where he said aid wouldn’t resume without investigations.
“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,” Sondland said.
Other diplomats, including Taylor and George Kent, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, said Trump and Giuliani's demands for politically motivated investigations ran counter to U.S. national interests. Kent said the message also contradicted efforts to establish the rule of law in Ukraine.
"I believe he was looking to dig up political dirt against a potential rival in the next election cycle," Kent told the Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, referring to Giuliani.
"I agree with Mr. Kent," Taylor added.
Trump has said the July 25 call with Zelensky was “perfect” because he never mentioned the suspension of nearly the $400 million in military aid in exchange for Ukraine announcing investigations.
Many Republicans have attacked the impeachment inquiry as a sham. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., amounted the controversy to "a policy difference between the President of the United States and a few people at the State Department."
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday the correct description is bribery.
"The devastating testimony corroborated evidence of bribery covered in the inquiry and the president abused power and violated his oath by threatening to withhold military aid and a White House meeting in exchange for an investigation into his political rival," Pelosi told reporters Thursday.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump impeachment hearing: Sondland had firsthand access to president