Gordon Sondland Returns To Impeachment Inquiry As A Key Witness With An Updated Story

Nov 19, 2019
Originally published on November 20, 2019 10:55 am

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who has emerged as the impeachment inquiry's most pivotal witness, is set to make a much-anticipated appearance before House investigators on Wednesday.

Sondland will face lawmakers who have many questions about conversations he had with President Trump about U.S. aid to Ukraine — and why his story changed since he first appeared before them in a closed-door session last month.

"He has some big explaining to do," says former Watergate prosecutor Nick Akerman. "You've got a whole bunch of witnesses now that have contradicted him, and he's got some serious explaining to do as to what the facts are and what he really remembers at this point, particularly since he's changed his testimony once already."

Sondland, a hotel developer in Portland, Ore., was confirmed as ambassador in June 2018. Trump tapped Sondland for an additional assignment handling Ukraine-U.S. policy with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Kurt Volker, then the U.S. special representative for Ukraine.

It's this assignment that connects Sondland to the Democrats' impeachment inquiry, which was sparked by a whistleblower complaint alleging that on a July 25 phone call, Trump delayed military aid for Ukraine to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Sondland first testified in October that he did not know about any plan to hold up U.S. military aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations into the Democratic National Committee and Joe Biden.

Eighteen days later, on Nov. 4, Sondland's lawyers submitted a three-page addendum to the House Intelligence Committee that stated that the testimony of two other witnesses had "refreshed" his memory about a conversation he had with a top Ukrainian official named Andriy Yermak on Sept. 1. The addendum says:

"I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said 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."

It is now known that the statement was to affirm investigations that Trump wanted into Joe Biden and his son, who was on the board of a major Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.

And in the last few days, another revelation: According to a State Department official named David Holmes, Sondland was pushing the investigation into the Bidens because Trump wanted him to.

In closed-door testimony last Friday, Holmes told House investigators that on July 26, he was with Sondland at a restaurant in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. This was one day after the call between Trump and Zelenskiy. At that restaurant, Sondland got on the phone with Trump, who was talking so loudly that Holmes could hear the back-and-forth.

Holmes said Sondland told Trump that Zelenskiy "loves your ass." Trump then asked about the investigation, and Sondland said of Zelenskiy, "He's going to do it." Holmes added that Sondland told Trump that Zelenskiy "will do anything you ask him to."

According to Holmes, after that call Sondland said the president didn't really care about Ukraine and only cared about "the big stuff that benefits the president." Sondland then cited the "Biden investigation."

This is the crux of what House investigators want to question Sondland about on Wednesday — because it's the opposite of what he said in his original testimony. Back then he testified that he had no idea that the Bidens were the subject of this anti-corruption push in Ukraine.

Akerman, the former Watergate prosecutor, said that forgetting key details like these is "pretty exceptional" given that they involved conversations with the president of the United States.

"If you go back to Watergate and [counsel to President Nixon] John Dean's testimony, one of the things that he said in his testimony ... [was] that the reason he could remember these conversations so vividly was because he was talking to the president of the United States," Akerman says. "It just defies common sense that Ambassador Sondland would not remember the conversations he had with Donald Trump."

And, Akerman says, Sondland has a lot riding on what happens on Wednesday. He says Sondland could face charges of perjury before Congress as well as obstruction of a congressional investigation.

"Both of those are serious felonies and carry up to five years in prison. Somehow, I don't think Mr. Sondland wants to put himself in that position," Akerman says. "I think there's a lot of pressure on him right now to really fess up, tell what happened, be very complete and do a mea culpa in order to avoid any kind of criminal liability."

Sondland's testimony will be closely watched for another reason: His direct conversations with the president make his testimony key to understanding whether Trump manipulated U.S. foreign policy for his own political gain.

Marc Rivers produced this story for broadcast with editors Arezou Rezvani and Shannon Rhoades. Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.

: 11/20/19

In a previous version of the audio, we misidentified Rep. Earl Blumenauer as Earl Blumenthal.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Gordon Sondland has emerged as the most pivotal witness in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

NICK AKERMAN: He has some big explaining to do.

MARTIN: House investigators have a lot of questions for the U.S. ambassador to the European Union because of conversations he had with President Trump about U.S. aid to Ukraine. This is former Watergate prosecutor, Nick Akerman.

AKERMAN: You've got a whole bunch of witnesses now that have contradicted him, and he's got some serious explaining to do as to what the facts are and what he really remembers at this point, particularly since he's changed his testimony once already.

MARTIN: And we're going to get into the inconsistencies of Sondland's testimony in a moment, but first, it's helpful to understand who Gordon Sondland is and how he got here. It's safe to say testifying as a key witness in Donald Trump's impeachment inquiry was not how he thought his tenure in this job would be marked. Here's some of a video Sondland and his wife made introducing themselves after his appointment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GORDON SONDLAND: My family is the most important thing to me. We spend a lot of time together. We travel together.

KATHERINE DURANT: I grew up here in Portland, Ore., and I'm very excited about the opportunity to spend more time in the EU, and specifically in Brussels.

SONDLAND: I was born and raised...

MARTIN: It is normal for EU ambassadors to spend time thinking about Ukraine and its connection to Europe. But Ukraine is not a member of the European Union, and Sondland's work there was out of the ordinary, by his own account. Here's a clip from an interview he did with Ukrainian television the day after that now-infamous phone call between President Trump and Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARI ODERMANN: You're the U.S. ambassador to the EU, but you've been spending a great deal of time in Kyiv. Why is that?

SONDLAND: Well, President Trump has not only honored me with the job of being the U.S. ambassador to the EU, but he's also given me other special assignments.

MARTIN: Those special assignments included working with two other high-level members of the Trump administration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SONDLAND: We have what are called the three amigos. And the three amigos are Secretary Perry, again, Ambassador Volker and myself. And we've been tasked with sort of overseeing the Ukraine-U.S. relationship between our contacts at the highest levels of the U.S. government and now the highest levels of the Ukrainian government.

MARTIN: Gordon Sondland had wanted to be a U.S. ambassador for a long time, and he had cultivated a network to try to make it happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID NIERENBERG: I collect books and wine bottles. And Gordon, among other things, collects relationships.

MARTIN: This is David Nierenberg. He got to know Sondland when they both worked as fundraisers for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in 2012. He and others said back then it was clear Sondland wanted to hitch his wagon to whichever presidential candidate could make him an ambassador, preferably to a German-speaking country. Sondland's Jewish parents fled Germany in the lead-up to World War II. They ended up in Washington state and opened a dry-cleaning business. It's a story Sondland has told a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

SONDLAND: I'm the first in my family that was born in the U.S. My parents were both European immigrants. I started...

They had to escape Nazi Germany. That was the beginning of the uprising of Hitler.

Yeah, my mother was able to escape. My father was smuggled out of Germany before things got bad.

Soon, Gunther, Frieda and my sister Lucy found fortunate permanent refuge in Seattle, Wash.

MARTIN: David Nierenberg told me Sondland saw an ambassadorship as a way to square the circle of his family's legacy - some kind of symbolic justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NIERENBERG: It's not uncommon among the people I know who've come through this experience to want to have relationships to powerful people in government, because - let's face it - almost anyone who either personally survived or whose parents or grandparents survived the Holocaust did so because of the intervention of someone who helped them.

MARTIN: And you think that explains Gordon Sondland's support of President Trump.

NIERENBERG: I think it may. I think it may.

MARTIN: It wasn't a straight line, though. Sondland supported Trump in the Republican primary. And then when Donald Trump disparaged a Gold Star family, Sondland backed out of a Trump fundraiser. And then Trump became the nominee, and Sondland didn't just change his mind. He went all-in and made a million-dollar donation to President Trump's inaugural committee.

Len Bergstein spent a decade working as a consultant for Sondland. Bergstein describes him as a political pragmatist who would align himself with whomever could get him his dream job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEN BERGSTEIN: Here was a chance. He'd tried to kind of ride the Romney horse into that position. He tried to be involved in the Jeb Bush campaign. And here was his - kind of like his ticket to the ball here. And I think with Trump, he saw a chance to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SONDLAND: Good afternoon. It's an honor to appear before you as the president's nominee to serve as the United States ambassador to the European Union.

MARTIN: I asked Len Bergstein if he understands who Sondland is at his core.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARTIN: Would you describe him as someone who has a strong moral compass or a clearly defined code of ethics?

BERGSTEIN: You know, I've been thinking about that. I'm not sure I'm able to kind of answer that. I didn't - he certainly never asked me to go over any lines. He was someone who not - wasn't looking to kind of bend the rules necessarily but was trying to bend the narrative, trying to make sure that he - if he could tell his story in his way, he would win.

MARTIN: But Gordon Sondland's story has been changing. On October 17, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union testified before House investigators that he did not know about any plan to hold up U.S. military aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations into the Democratic National Committee or Joe Biden. Then, on November 4, 18 days after his original testimony, Sondland's lawyer submitted a three-page addendum to the House Intelligence Committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A key witness has now reversed himself, and he conceded that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Ambassador Gordon Sondland now backs up the testimony of several other witnesses who said there was a quid pro quo.

MARTIN: In his addendum, Sondland claims that the testimony of two other witnesses had refreshed his memory about a conversation he had with a top Ukrainian official. That official's name is Andriy Yermak, and they talked on September 1 - quote, "I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said 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," end quote. We know now that statement was to affirm investigations that President Trump wanted into Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who was on the board of this major energy company in Ukraine called Burisma.

But in the last few days, another revelation. According to a State Department official named David Holmes, Gordon Sondland was pushing the investigation into the Bidens because President Trump wanted him to. This is what Holmes told House investigators in closed-door testimony - that on July 26, Holmes was with Sondland at a restaurant in Kyiv. This was one day after the phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy. At that restaurant, Sondland got on the phone with President Trump, who was talking so loudly Holmes could hear the back-and-forth. Sondland said to Trump, Zelenskiy, quote, "loves your ass." Trump then asked about the investigation, and Sondland said of Zelenskiy, quote, "he's going to do it," adding, "he will do anything you ask him to."

Again, according to Holmes, after the call, Sondland said the president didn't really care about Ukraine. He only cares about, quote, "big stuff" that benefits the president. And then Sondland cited, quote, "the Biden investigation."

This is the crux of what House investigators want to question Sondland about today because it is the opposite of what he said in his original testimony. Back then, he testified he had no idea that the Bidens were the subject of this anti-corruption push in Ukraine. I asked former Watergate prosecutor Nick Akerman how unusual it is for a witness to forget key details.

AKERMAN: Well, it's pretty exceptional in this circumstance because the conversations he had weren't with just any ordinary person off the street. It was the president of the United States. And if you go back to Watergate and John Dean's testimony, one of the things that he said in his testimony - he was the counsel to Richard Nixon - he said that the reason he could remember these conversations so vividly was because he was talking to the president of the United States. It just defies common sense that Ambassador Sondland would not remember the conversations he had with Donald Trump.

MARTIN: David Nierenberg doesn't quite know what to think about his friend's memory lapses.

NIERENBERG: So there are at least two episodes that he did not discuss in his first round of testimony with the House investigators. So, yes, I am disappointed on his behalf that his original testimony was not more complete and more forthcoming.

MARTIN: A couple of weeks before Sondland testified in closed session, Nierenberg sent him an email urging him to be as honest as possible.

NIERENBERG: I counseled him to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and in which I reminded him that Nixon lost the White House not because of the DNC break-in but rather because of two years of lying and covering up about it.

MARTIN: Nierenberg is worried that his friend might face legal consequences for changing his testimony.

NIERENBERG: There's an opportunity for Gordon to come clean. I think America loves to forgive people who make mistakes and give them a second chance. And I just hope and pray that when he testifies on Wednesday, he will be completely truthful and contrite. He has a long life ahead of him. He's a very bright and accomplished person. And I hope he makes things right.

NOEL KING, HOST:

So, Rachel, Gordon Sondland has a lot riding on what happens today.

MARTIN: Right. He does. That former prosecutor I talked with, Nick Akerman, says that Sondland could face a perjury charge, which can carry up to five years in prison. And, I mean, eventually, Sondland might want to return to his life in Portland, Ore.

KING: Yes. You have reminded us this man is not a career politician.

MARTIN: Yeah. He owns several high-profile boutique hotels in Portland, Ore., which is not exactly a GOP stronghold, right? So before his original testimony, Oregon Democratic Congressman Earl Blumenauer had actually called on people to boycott Sondland's hotels, and that was before Sondland had changed his story, which has now caused Republicans to question his integrity. So Sondland is going to need to restore the damage that has been done to his reputation through all this.

But, Noel, the other person who has a lot riding on what happens today is President Trump because of all the witnesses who have gone before the impeachment inquiry thus far, Gordon Sondland could be the key to really understanding whether, or to what degree, President Trump manipulated U.S. foreign policy for his own political gain.

KING: All right. We will be watching all of that play out this afternoon. Rachel, thanks so much.

MARTIN: You bet.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION:In a previous version of the audio, we misidentified Rep. Earl Blumenauer as Earl Blumenthal.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.