Amid a Democrat-led impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, the attorney of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, has contradicted multiple key allegations in the testimony of William B. Taylor Jr., the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.
In particular, Taylor’s testimony claimed that U.S. security aid to Ukraine was conditioned on Zelensky carrying out “investigations.” Taylor further claimed that Sondland had knowledge of the alleged quid pro quo and had also communicated that arrangement to Ukraine. Luskin disputes the allegations.
There had been claims that Trump had withheld military aid and floated its release as a quid pro quo for an investigation into Burisma and presidential hopeful Joe Biden. However, Trump had earlier said that he temporarily blocked the aid because of high levels of corruption in the country; he said the move also sought to spur European partners to contribute more security aid to Ukraine.
Details Pushing Key Allegations Disputed
Taylor, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, testified to Congress behind closed doors on Tuesday, Oct. 22. Taylor said there had been a “push” to have Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “publicly commit to investigations of Burisma and alleged interference in the 2016 election.”
Taylor also said he was told U.S. security aid funding to Ukraine was conditional upon a public announcement from Zelensky to commit to such investigations.
In his testimony, Taylor recounted a conversation between himself and Tim Morrison, a National Security Council official, on Sept. 1, in which Morrison spoke about a conversation between Sondland and Zelensky aide Andrey Yermak.
“[According to Morrison], Ambassador Sondland told Mr. Yermak that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue the Burisma investigation,” Taylor said. “I was alarmed … This was the first time I had heard that the security assistance … was conditioned on the investigations.”
The conversation reportedly took place when Sondland was traveling with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to meet with Zelensky in Warsaw, Taylor said.
But Sondland does not recall such a conversation, according to Luskin.
“Sondland does not recall any conversation in Warsaw concerning the aid cutoff, although he understood that the Ukrainians were, by then, certainly aware of the cutoff and raised the issue directly with Pence,” Luskin wrote to the Post.
Luskin also noted that Sondland had “strongly opposed the cutoff of aid and believed (and advised internally) that it should be restored unconditionally,” reported the Post.
Sondland had earlier testified to Congress on Oct. 17 saying Trump had specifically told him that there is no quid pro quo related to his request to Ukraine.
“I asked the President: ‘What do you want from Ukraine?’ The President responded, ‘Nothing. There is no quid pro quo,” Sondland said at the time.
Sondland also testified that he was unaware of Trump’s mention of the Bidens to Zelensky until the White House released the transcript of the July 25 call between the two leaders.
Luskin also disputed two conversations that took place in September as recounted by Taylor. One of the conversations had taken place on Sept. 7, and was relayed by Morrison, Taylor said in his testimony.
“According to Mr. Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a ‘quid pro quo,'” Taylor said. “But President Trump did insist that President Zelenskyy go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference and that President Zelenskyy should want to do this himself.”
But Sondland does not recall the above conversation, Luskin told the Post. Luskin said that in Sondland’s Oct. 17 testimony to Congress, he “was asked about all of his interactions with Trump on this subject matter. These did not include another call on the 7th.”
Luskin also disputed a Sept. 8 conversation that Taylor said happened between Sondland and himself.
In the conversation, Taylor said, “Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelenskyy and [Zelensky aide] Mr. Yermak and told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelenskyy did not ‘clear things up’ in public, we would be at a ‘stalemate.’ I understood a ‘stalemate’ to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance.”
To this, Luskin said that Sondland did not recall that such a conversation took place in Warsaw.
Sondland also disagreed with Taylor over his account of an incident in June, Luskin said.
Taylor said in his statement, “Sondland told me on June 28 that he did not wish to include most of the regular interagency participants in a call planned with President Zelenskyy. . . . Sondland said that he wanted to make sure that no one was transcribing or monitoring as they added President Zelenskyy to the call.”
Luskin, however, characterized the call with Zelensky as a routine call and said that Sondland “believes that it was monitored routinely and that an appropriate file memo was prepared. He never suggested otherwise,” the Post reported.
Phone Call at Heart of Impeachment Inquiry
The Trump-Zelensky July 25 phone call is the focus of an impeachment inquiry into Trump, which was announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Sept. 24. The White House released the transcript of the call on Sept. 25.
According to the transcript, Trump, in a part of the call, asked Zelensky to look into CrowdStrike—a technology firm that was hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC)—to probe what happened to its computer network after an alleged hack of a DNC server. The suspected hack had reportedly resulted in a release of emails from the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign to Wikileaks just months ahead of the U.S. 2016 presidential election.
The DNC-hired Crowdstrike had determined the Russians hacked into the server. However, the authenticity of Crowdstrike’s report has been called into question, in part because the DNC had refused to let the FBI examine the server—a point that Trump had also noted in an interview with the Associated Press in 2017.
Trump also noted in the interview that he heard that Crowdstrike was “Ukraine-based” and “owned by a very rich Ukrainian.”
In the phone call with Zelensky, Trump said, “Our country has been through a lot, and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation in Ukraine; they say CrowdStrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
In another part of the call, Trump asked Zelensky to look into the firing of a top Ukrainian prosecutor, Victor Shokin, in 2016.
There was no mention of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, in the call. However, Shokin was in charge of an investigation into Burisma before he was fired in April 2016. In March of the same year, Joe Biden, who was then the U.S. Vice President, had threatened to cut off $1 billion in guaranteed loans to Ukraine unless Shokin was dismissed. Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was hired by Burisma to sit on its board from 2014 to 2019.
Shokin later wrote in a sworn statement that he was fired due to pressure from Biden because he refused to drop the Burisma investigation.
Trump had said in the July 25 phone call: “The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went about bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”