WASHINGTON – During a day of bombshell testimony by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union at the center of the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry, President Donald Trump strenuously denied knowing the man well.
Sondland, nominated to his post in 2018, was among only a few dozen donors who gave $1 million or more to Trump's presidential inaugural committee in 2017.
The rarefied group included owners of sports teams, the aerospace giant Boeing and some of the nation's leading investors. Many were invited to receptions, dinners and other events with the president during the inaugural festivities in 2017. It's not clear whether Sondland attended any of them.
Trump raised $107 million for his inauguration, roughly double the amount President Barack Obama pulled in eight years earlier. At least 47 people or organizations gave $1 million or more to Trump, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Some of those top-tier donors wound up serving in Trump's administration along with Sondland, an Oregon man who founded a hotel chain called Provenance Hotels and initially supported Jeb Bush in 2016. Others had business pending before federal agencies.
"What you get probably varies based on what you want," said Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen. "These kind of donations were absolutely intended to pave the way to get an ambassadorship."
Donors at the $1 million level were granted access to a series of dinners and receptions with Trump and other officials, the Center for Public Integrity reported in 2016.
The list of top donors to Trump's inaugural committee includes Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who contributed at least $1 million along with her husband. Another $1 million donor: Robert "Woody" Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets. He's now the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom.
San Diego businessman Doug Manchester, who gave at least $1 million to the committee, was nominated in early 2017 to serve as ambassador to the Bahamas. The White House withdrew his nomination last week.
Appointing donors as ambassadors is not new, but Trump has expanded the practice.
Roughly 44% of Trump's foreign service appointments are people with political ties, typically donors, compared with about 30% for President Barack Obama, according to the American Foreign Service Association.
Other top inaugural donors included Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino mogul, and Robert Mercer, a Republican mega-donor with longtime ties to Trump. Robert Parsons, the billionaire philanthropist and GoDaddy founder, made the list. So did Howard Lutnick, the chairman and CEO of the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald.
'Seems like a nice guy'
Testifying on Capitol Hill in the House impeachment inquiry on Wednesday, Sondland confirmed the existence of a "quid pro quo" in which military aid to Ukraine was tied to Trump's desire for an investigation of his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Sondland said Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, pressed the demand that Ukraine announce an investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter.
Trump emerged from the White House early in the hearing and, reading from written notes, told reporters on the South Lawn that he didn't really know Sondland.
"This is not a man I know well. Seems like a nice guy, though," Trump said. "He was with other candidates. He actually supported other candidates – not me. Came in late."
Pressed on that claim by lawmakers later in the day, Sondland described his relationship with Trump as "professional" and "cordial" and said he spoke with the president by phone about 20 times.
Earlier, when asked if he used a vulgarity when telling Trump about Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky's desire to cooperate with the United States, Sondland said that sounded right.
"That's how President Trump and I communicate, a lot of four-letter words," he said.
Fred Wertheimer of the Democracy 21 watchdog group said it's hard to know if Trump and Sondland spent time together at events. “But it’s also hard to believe that Trump, who was using Sondland as his intermediary for the extortion, hardly knew him,” Wertheimer said.
Fewer rules for inaugural committees
Presidential inaugural committees are private fundraising vehicles that pay for the concerts, balls and festivities that surround the swearing-in.
Inaugural committees operate under less stringent rules than political campaigns. There are no limitations on how much a donor can give, for instance, and companies can give directly.
Trump's inaugural committee was subpoenaed by federal prosecutors in New York earlier this year.
Watchdog groups pay particular attention to companies that give. Major corporate donors to Trump's inaugural committee included companies like AT&T, the communications giant that at the time was pushing to acquire Time Warner – a merger the president opposed.
Dow Chemical Co. donated $1 million; the company's former CEO, Andrew Liveris, was tapped for an advisory council on manufacturing. The Trump administration later ruled against banning a controversial Dow-made pesticide.
"In exchange for the contributions," Public Citizen wrote in a 2017 report, "donors are to receive unprecedented access to the senior members of the incoming Trump administration and other U.S. government leaders."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump dismisses relationship with $1 million donor Gordon Sondland