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Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador To The E.U., Testifies That There Was Quid Pro Quo

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here in Washington today, the man everyone has been waiting to hear from.

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GORDON SONDLAND: I expect that few Americans have heard my name before these events.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

That name, Gordon Sondland, has come up again and again in the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry. He talked more directly to the president than any other witness. President Trump's ambassador to the European Union is one of the so-called three amigos in charge of Ukraine policy.

SHAPIRO: And Sondland told Congress that a White House visit for the newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, was conditioned on a public announcement of specific investigations.

CORNISH: One into alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and another into the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, where former Vice President Joe Biden's son served on the board.

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SONDLAND: Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.

SHAPIRO: Sondland also told lawmakers that Trump had not told him that military aid to Ukraine was linked to those investigations.

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SONDLAND: I don't recall President Trump ever talking to me about any security assistance ever.

SHAPIRO: Here to talk about today's testimony is NPR's Tim Mak. He has been on Capitol Hill all day, following the hearing.

Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: And NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen is here in the studio.

Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tim, let me start with you. What were your big takeaways from Sondland's testimony?

MAK: Well, let's walk through them. I mean, first, he said there was a quid pro quo - that's his words - a quid pro quo for the White House meetings and investigations by the Ukrainian government. And that was very clear to him. He also said he was acting at the request of the president when he coordinated with the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. His line of thinking was, essentially, I was following the president's orders, which was my job as a political appointee. Listen.

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SONDLAND: We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we were playing the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose a very important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine, so we followed the president's orders.

MAK: His point was that everyone was in the loop. This is kind of my third takeaway. Everyone was in the loop, according to the ambassador. Everyone understood that the president wanted investigations and that they had to work with Rudy Giuliani to get that done.

SHAPIRO: The people he named in the loop included the vice president, the chief of staff and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. So, Michele, what does that mean for the secretary?

KELEMEN: Well, it makes it an awful lot harder for Secretary Pompeo to distance himself from this. Remember. The secretary was on that phone call in July, when President Trump asked Ukraine's new president for a favor, including an investigation into the Bidens. We now know from Sondland that Pompeo knew about this effort to get Ukraine to make a statement promising those investigations. Pompeo's spokesperson today says Sondland never told Pompeo that he believed the president linked security assistance to these investigations of political opponents. And Pompeo tried to brush all this off. He was at NATO headquarters today, actually. And he was asked whether he...

SHAPIRO: In Brussels.

KELEMEN: Right, exactly, where Gordon Sondland is usually based (laughter). And he was asked whether he would recuse himself from any decisions about providing State Department documents to Congress.

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MIKE POMPEO: I didn't see the testimony. I'm not going to recuse myself from this. I know precisely what American policy was with respect to Ukraine. I was working on it, and I'm incredibly proud of what we've accomplished. We delivered remarkable outcomes for the Ukrainian people.

KELEMEN: And, Ari, it's something he often says - that his team was working on what he calls an appropriate policy toward Ukraine. The question that he doesn't - hasn't been asked is whether he thought Ukraine - asking Ukraine for an investigation into the Bidens is appropriate.

SHAPIRO: One big focus of the testimony today was on whether Sondland's working on Ukraine was, quote-unquote, "the irregular channel," which is what Ambassador William Taylor said in his testimony last week. Remind us what these two narratives are, why Sondland disagrees with Taylor about this.

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, Sondland said that he's in the center lane. That was what he was saying today. What Taylor said was that, you know, the U.S. policy and why he was sent by Pompeo to carry out the U.S. policy is supporting Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. He did not, however, have a direct line to the president, as Sondland appeared to have had. And he was not part of this effort to get Ukraine to open up these investigations. That's what he called this irregular channel. But even Taylor suggested that having, you know, someone with a direct contact with the president was helpful.

SHAPIRO: OK. Back to Tim on Capitol Hill - so far, there's been a lot of very precise testimony from witnesses, a lot of it supported by documentation or notes. Today's testimony from Sondland was a lot more vague. Do you think that affected his credibility?

MAK: Well, Sondland says he's not a note-taker. He claims to regularly talk with heads of states, heads of government, makes many, many calls. And that's his reasoning for why certain meetings and calls don't come to his recollection. And so that led to some frustrations, as we can hear from Steve Castor, who's the staff attorney for Republicans. Here he is talking to Sondland.

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STEVE CASTOR: You don't have records. You don't have your notes because you didn't take notes. You don't have a lot of recollections. I mean, this is the - like the trifecta of unreliability.

MAK: And Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, who flashed irritation this way.

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SEAN PATRICK MALONEY: Fair enough. You've been very forthright. This is your third try to do so, sir - didn't work so well the first time, did it? We had a little declaration coming after, you remember that? And now we're here a third time, and we've got a doozy of a statement from you this morning. There's a whole bunch of stuff you don't recall. So all due respect, sir, we appreciate your candor, but let's be really clear on what it took to get it out of you.

MAK: Certainly, both sides found reason to be irritated with Sondland's inability to recall a number of conversations.

SHAPIRO: So he testified for roughly seven hours. And then this evening, there was testimony from a second panel. One of the witnesses there, Laura Cooper, who is a Defense Department official, told chairman Adam Schiff that her staff received inquiries about the aid on July 25. Here's what she said.

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LAURA COOPER: I would say that specifically, the Ukrainian Embassy staff asked, what is going on with Ukrainian security assistance?

ADAM SCHIFF: And did that connote to you that they were concerned that something was, in fact, going on with it?

COOPER: Yes, sir.

SHAPIRO: Michele, explain the significance of this.

KELEMEN: Well, it's a big change in her previous testimony. And what's interesting - since we were talking about people not taking notes, she said she only learned of this from her staff members because they read her deposition and went through this timeline. And they...

SHAPIRO: From the closed-door testimony she gave.

KELEMEN: Exactly. And they found - and they said, well, look. I have these emails that put these questions - that says the Ukrainian embassy was asking us about this aid on July 25, which was the day of that call.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Michele Kelemen and Tim Mak, thank you both.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.