The second week of House impeachment hearings featured top diplomats and White House officials giving dramatic testimony about President Donald Trump’s effort to coerce Ukraine’s government into launching investigations that would damage political rival and 2020 candidate Joe Biden.
But several key officials also gave contradictory or inconsistent accounts of events and their knowledge of the quid pro quo campaign, sometimes radically departing from their initial closed-door testimonies in what appeared to be attempts to limit their accountability in the scandal.
United States Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland’s testimony, for instance, was damning and implicated top Trump administration officials, but it was also self-serving with many glaring omissions. Sondland tried to maintain a veneer of innocence throughout the hearing, claiming that he acted in good faith at all times and didn’t know Trump’s push to investigate Ukrainian gas company Burisma had anything to do with Biden. (Biden’s son, Hunter, served on the board of Burisma.)
House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) was incredulous that Sondland, who has previously claimed Ukraine was an important part of his portfolio, had no idea about Burisma and the Bidens ― especially given that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was publicly advocating for an investigation into the company.
“Apparently, a lot of people did not make the connection,” Sondland claimed.
Former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker gave a similar excuse for not raising concerns about the quid pro quo effort toward Ukraine, claiming that he didn’t know that Burisma was tied to Biden and saying he only found out about it in late September.
“I did not understand that others believed that any investigation of the Ukrainian company, Burisma, which had a history of accusations of corruption, was tantamount to investigating Vice President Biden. I drew a distinction between the two,” Volker said, claiming that in hindsight he should have made the connection.
Former National Security Council aide Tim Morrison, too, claimed he had to Google what Burisma was due to his unfamiliarity with the company.
But Morrison, Sondland and Volker’s denials are questionable given that Giuliani’s interest in Burisma and its link to Biden was front-page news in The New York Times as early as May 1, and for months Giuliani was openly calling on Ukraine to launch investigations that would damage Biden. The effort to pressure Ukraine over Burisma had been covered by numerous major media outlets, and had been floating around as a conservative talking point since at least early 2019.
Sondland claiming he did not connect Biden to Burisma wasn’t the only time his account appeared to downplay his involvement in the quid pro quo effort, as he also contradicted other officials’ testimony regarding a July 10 meeting with Ukrainian officials at the White House. Sondland testified that his recollection of the meeting did not square with accounts from officials including Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and former top National Security Council official for Europe and Russia Fiona Hill. Both stated that Sondland had talked about investigations with Ukrainian officials during the meeting, and Hill added that it was not credible Sondland could have been oblivious that investigating Burisma was essentially code for the Bidens.
Hill testified again on Thursday that Ukrainian officials brought up their desire for a White House visit during a July 10 meeting. As national security adviser John Bolton tried to deflect from answering the Ukrainians, Sondland interjected with a reference to the quid pro quo arrangement.
“Ambassador Sondland leaned in, basically to say, ‘Well we have an agreement that there will be a meeting if specific investigations are put underway,’” Hill said. “That’s when I saw Ambassador Bolton stiffen.”
Hill testified that Bolton then immediately excused himself from the meeting. Bolton later instructed Hill to go to the National Security Council’s top lawyer John Eisenberg and tell him that Bolton was not involved in “whatever drug deal Sondland and [White House Chief of Staff Mick] Mulvaney are cooking up.” Hill took the “drug deal” to mean the exchange of investigations targeting Biden in exchange for a meeting with Trump.
The July 10 meeting was an early source of discrepancies in the investigation, and Volker initially denied in his closed-door testimony last month that Sondland raised investigations in the July 10 meeting. But Volker changed his account this week after witnesses such as Hill brought up the meeting and evidence mounted that Volker, Sondland and Energy Secretary Rick Perry were part of a back channel to Ukraine that pushed for a quid pro quo.
“The meeting was essentially over when Ambassador Sondland made a general comment about investigations. I think all of us thought it was inappropriate,” Volker said in his opening statement.
“We asked you about that meeting during your deposition and you told us nothing about this,” Schiff asked Volker later in the hearing. “Why didn’t you tell us about this?”