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After House impeachment investigators released the depositions of former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Michael McKinley, on Monday, they kept the ball rolling on Tuesday by releasing the depositions of U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker.
What made this even more interesting is it wasn't just the deposition that Sondland delivered on October 17. It also included a "supplemental declaration that he gave the House impeachment inquiry on Monday in which he flipped his earlier testimony and admitted to the quid pro quo.
The ambassador wrote, "I now recall speaking individually," with a Ukrainian official and saying "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."
Perhaps Sondland saw the writing on the wall with the text messages and first-person testimony indicating that he had indeed discussed not rewarding Ukraine the military aid they wanted until they agreed to investigate Donald Trump's political rivals. That made it hard for him to continue to deny it.
The ambassador just seems to be the vehicle for that deal, as it's been described in testimony that Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had been pushing the investigations.
But what makes it additionally surprising for Sondland to flip is that he was at one time a Trump donor, then became a diplomat who was seen as completely loyal to the president. He even spoke of the Ukraine policy the same way, that Trump was trying to root out corruption in Ukraine.
In a text message that was released earlier, he told a senior State Department official that the president didn't seek "quid pro quos of any kind." Republicans took that and used it to support their argument that Trump hadn't abused his power for political reasons.
When he testified last month, Sondland testified that he only texted that oft-repeated phrase after Trump relayed it to him. He also said he had been working to carry out one quid pro quo, setting up a White House visit for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for the investigations Giuliani was asking for.
These are the same ones Trump mentioned on the July 25 phone call of former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter and the Ukrainian company he did work for, and whether Ukraine aided former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
But the revised statement that was submitted Monday includes the fact that military aid was also used to try to get the Ukrainians to launch the investigations.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham dismissed Sondland's statements as well as those made by Volker in a statement on Tuesday. She noted that the transcripts of their depositions "show there is even less evidence for this illegitimate impeachment sham than previously thought."
"Ambassador Sondland squarely states that he 'did not know, (and still does not know) when, why or by whom the aid was suspended.' He also said he 'presumed' there was a link to the aid — but cannot identify any solid source for that assumption."
In his initial testimony, Sondland was asked, "So you've never made a statement relating the aid to conditions that the Ukraine ought to comply with?"
"I don't remember that, no," he replied.
But in later testimony, the Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, disputed that, stating that he'd said in a meeting with Ukrainian officials in September while in Poland that the release of the aid was conditioned on the Bidens being targeted in an investigation.
Taylor understood that on September 1 Sondland had warned Andrey Yermak, a Zelensky aide, that the military aid "would not come" unless the Ukrainian president agreed to the investigations.
"I was alarmed," Taylor said, adding that a national security official had informed him that this request was made in person by Sondland while he was traveling in Poland with Vice President Mike Pence. "This was the first time I had heard that the security assistance ... was conditioned on the investigation."
After Taylor testified, Robert Luskin, Sondland's attorney, wrote to The Washington Post and said his client "does not recall" that conversation.
In his new declaration, Sondland said Taylor's testimony as well as others "refreshed my recollection about conversations involving the suspension of U.S. aid."
"By the beginning of September 2018," he wrote, "and in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked" to Ukraine not yet publicly committing to the investigations.
"It would have been natural for me to have voiced what I had presumed," he added, while acknowledging that he had told Yermak that "resumption" of the aid probably wouldn't happen unless Ukraine delivered the public anti-corruption statement that had been discussed by the officials.
Sondland also testified that in a meeting with Trump in May, Volker, Sondland, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry tried to get Trump to interact with Zelensky after they had met him, but he refused.
"The president was railing about Ukraine ... he was going on and on and on about his dissatisfaction with Ukraine," testified Sondland.
"Hey didn't even want to deal with it anymore. And he basically waved and said, 'Go talk to Rudy; he knows all about Ukraine.'
The three weren't interested in handling it this way, but "until Rudy was satisfied, the president wasn't going to change his mind," said Sondland.
Sondland and Ukrainian officials drafted a statement showing the Ukrainians would investigate corruption as a condition for a meeting between Trump and Zelensky, but there was no mention of specifics.
"It just said corruption, per se," said Sondland, but later Giuliani added new conditions to it that referenced Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company Hunter Biden was connected to as well as the 2016 election.
"Rudy says, 'Well, if it doesn't say Burisma, and if it doesn't say 2016, what does it mean? You know, it's not credible. You know, they're hiding something,' " testified Volker.
"I would not endorse investigating the Bidens," said Sondland, adding that the Ukrainians weren't "prepared" to do that. That statement was never released, however.
Sondland and Taylor discussed in a text message between them that Trump was "in a very bad mood" when Sondland had called to ask him what he wanted to get out of pushing Ukraine.
This was just after Taylor had raised concerns of a possible quid pro quo regarding holding up aid to Ukraine in exchange for the investigations. He texted Sondland and Volker, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."
Sondland told investigators, "There were all kinds of rumors. And I know in my few previous conversations with the president, he's not big on small talk, so I would have one shot to ask him. And rather than asking him, 'Are you doing X because of X or because of Y or because of Z?' I asked him one open-ended question: What do you want from Ukraine?"
Trump reportedly replied, "I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing. ... I want him to do what he ran on." Sondland added, "I wouldn't say he hung up on me, but it was almost like he hung up on me."
Hours later the ambassador wrote to Taylor, "The president has been crystal clear: no quid pro quos of any kind."
Republican counsel Steve Castor asked Sondland in the impeachment inquiry if Trump instructed him to write the "no quid pro quos" text.
"The president didn't know I was sending a text," he replied, "because he didn't know that the question came from Ambassador Taylor."
Not everyone was enthusiastic about reading the transcripts. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on Tuesday he was not going to read the Sondland and Volker transcripts, referring to the impeachment inquiry as a "bunch of BS."
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