Democrats set to grill ambassador embroiled in Ukraine controversy

Democrats are plowing ahead with their impeachment inquiry Tuesday, as lawmakers prepare to question the U.S. ambassador to the European Union over his role in President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi hits back at Trump over letter: ‘Only the latest attempt to cover up his betrayal of our democracy’ Trump directed Perry, State Dept. officials to talk to Giuliani on Ukraine: report Murkowski warns against rushing to conclusions on Trump impeachment MORE’s dealings with Ukraine.

Gordon Sondland — a wealthy hotelier, longtime Republican donor and, more recently, Trump convert — is scheduled to testify behind closed doors before members of three House committees as part of a fast-moving investigation into allegations that Trump leveraged military aid to Ukraine in return for political favors from the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

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Sondland is the third Trump official to face questioning from lawmakers surrounding the Ukraine affair, following last week’s closed-door testimony from Kurt VolkerKurt VolkerThe Hill’s Morning Report – Bipartisan uproar over Trump’s Syria move Democrats set to grill ambassador embroiled in Ukraine controversy A dozen House Democrats call on EU ambassador to resign amid Ukraine scandal MORE, Trump’s former envoy to Kiev, and Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the nation’s intelligence community.

Tuesday’s testimony might prove to be the most politically animated, as the E.U. ambassador has emerged as a vocal Trump loyalist who quickly defended the president’s Ukraine dealings in the face of concern from other leading U.S. diplomats.

Sondland has no previous diplomatic experience, and Democrats are sure to press him about his divergent interpretation of events, as well as his request — revealed last week in publicized text message conversations provided to lawmakers by Volker between top State Department officials — that the diplomats discussing Trump’s intentions shift from texts to phone calls, where there would be no record of what was said.

“They’re confusing international cooperation on economic and military and security objectives with the president converting the office of the presidency into an instrument of reelection and an instrument of private self-enrichment,” Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinHouse Democrats introduce new legislation to combat foreign election interference Graham says he’ll invite Giuliani to testify about Ukraine Democrats set to grill ambassador embroiled in Ukraine controversy MORE (D-Md.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN on Monday, referring to Trump’s GOP defenders. “That’s what this president has done.”

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In the messages that Volker provided to Congress, Sondland rejected concerns from a career diplomat, William Taylor, that Trump wanted the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on domestic political opponents like former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPelosi hits back at Trump over letter: ‘Only the latest attempt to cover up his betrayal of our democracy’ Clinton jokes she could ‘obviously’ beat Trump in 2020 ‘rematch’ Gowdy in talks to join Trump’s impeachment defense team MORE.

“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote in a Sept. 9 message.

Hours later, Sondland replied, “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions.”

“The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The president is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign. I suggest we stop the back and forth by text,” Sondland wrote.

Trump’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill are leaning on Sondland’s text message as evidence that the president did nothing wrong in his dealings with Ukraine — an argument they’re sure to amplify surrounding the ambassador’s private testimony on Tuesday.

“You know what Ambassador Volker told us about that text message? He said, we knew that was the truth, and he was speaking for us all, and that had been — that had been the case throughout the negotiations,” Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanGOP lawmaker: ‘Chairman Schiff is acting like a malicious Captain Kangaroo’ Schiff: State withholding Sondland texts, messages on personal device State orders EU ambassador not to testify before House MORE (Ohio), the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Despite his message to Taylor, the Wall Street Journal reported that Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonMurkowski warns against rushing to conclusions on Trump impeachment Trump fires back on impeachment Top progressive calls for Pompeo’s salary to be withheld over Sondland’s blocked testimony MORE (R-Wis.) was told by Sondland that the Trump administration was demanding Ukraine launch an investigation in exchange for the military aid. But Johnson said that Trump denied that was the case when he followed up with the president on his own.

Sondland is shown defending Trump in other text messages that Volker provided to Congress.

In one message from just days before the Trump-Zelensky call on July 25, Taylor warned that “Zelensky is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.”

Sondland replied, “Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative.”

On Sept. 1, Taylor asked Sondland about the prerequisites for a White House visit by Zelensky.

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor asked.

“Call me,” Sondland replied.

A week later, Sondland texted Volker and Taylor that there had been “multiple convos with Ze, Potus” and suggested they speak over the phone to discuss.

“The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit.),” Taylor wrote.

Sondland is also mentioned in the intelligence community whistleblower complaint, which said Sondland accompanied Volker to meetings in Kiev with Zelensky and other Ukrainian political figures providing advice about how to “navigate” Trump’s demands.

The complaint also said Sondland and Volker had spoken with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiPelosi hits back at Trump over letter: ‘Only the latest attempt to cover up his betrayal of our democracy’ Trump directed Perry, State Dept. officials to talk to Giuliani on Ukraine: report Murkowski warns against rushing to conclusions on Trump impeachment MORE, in an effort to “contain the damage” to national security. The two diplomats allegedly met with members of the Ukrainian government to help them understand the different messages they were receiving from “official U.S. channels on the one hand and from Mr. Giuliani on the other.”

Sondland wasn’t always so aligned with Trump.

In the 2016 cycle, he initially backed Jeb Bush in the GOP primary, giving $25,000 to the PAC supporting the former Florida governor. And in an episode widely reported by local news outlets at the time, Sondland was among several regional executives to cancel an appearance at a Trump fundraiser in Seattle just months before the elections, largely to protest Trump’s attacks on the parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.

When Trump won the White House, Sondland changed his tune, donating $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. He was nominated for the E.U. ambassador post in May 2018, and the Senate confirmed him with bipartisan support a month later.

Sondland has lent financial support to both political parties, spanning almost four decades, though the donations have tilted heavily toward Republicans, to whom he has given more than $450,000, according to the Federal Election Commission.

The three House committees — Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight — are still trying to secure dates for depositions with other potential witnesses for their impeachment inquiry, including George Kent, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, and State Department Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl.

They have also requested depositions with three of Giuliani’s business associates — Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman and Semyon Kislin — but so far none have been confirmed. The attorney for Parnas and Fruman said Monday that they would not comply with the requests.

But Marie Yovanovitch, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until May when the Trump administration recalled her from the post, is set to testify in closed session on Friday, committee aides said.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Trump ordered Yovanovitch’s removal after Giuliani and other outside allies said she was undermining efforts to persuade the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden.

“We need to learn more about what exactly was done within the State Department to visit retribution on people who weren’t on the Giuliani train,” Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesDemocrats set to grill ambassador embroiled in Ukraine controversy Sunday shows – Second whistleblower grabs spotlight House Democrat: Impeachment inquiry ‘likely to stay narrowly focused’ MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC on Monday.

“We’ve got to get to the bottom of that.”

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