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Sondland says all the president's men focused on Biden probe

Analysis: The ambassador did not accuse the president of bribery — but implicated Trump and several of his closest advisers in putting personal political interests ahead of the country's.
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Gordon Sondland flipped on President Donald Trump — and all the president's men.

"We followed the president's orders," Sondland told lawmakers Wednesday at the House impeachment inquiry hearing.

The U.S. ambassador to the European Union described in detail how Trump and several of his top lieutenants — including personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — were all "in the loop" on a policy that increasingly focused on securing the announcement of investigations affecting American politics.

"Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma," Sondland said. "Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president."

The announcement of such probes would have benefited Trump politically by casting aspersions on one of the president's leading rivals — former Vice President Joe Biden — and on the intelligence community's finding that Russia intervened on his behalf during the 2016 election.

Under intense questioning from Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., Sondland conceded that a Biden investigation would help Trump — though he said he didn't originally understand the effort to be aimed at the former vice president — and that the request for it would put Ukraine in a terrible position.

Sondland testified that administration officials collectively used the lure of a White House meeting, and possibly the release of $391 million in aid, to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to announce the investigations.

Sondland also said the group's demands were on a "continuum of insidiousness" that grew worse over a period of months, and that there was a "quid pro quo" relationship between the meeting and the proposed probes.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are pushing to gather enough evidence to justify an article of impeachment involving bribery, and they believe Sondland's testimony moved them further in that direction.

But even short of that, he provided a mountain of fresh details about the breadth and depth of the administration's focus on using the powers of the executive branch for what Democrats say are partisan political purposes — justification, perhaps, for articles based on "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Several of those named, including Pence, Pompeo, Mulvaney and Perry — none of whom have testified — quickly denied elements of Sondland's story personally, or through aides.

As for the military aid, Sondland said he had come to the conclusion that the president had frozen $391 million in taxpayer dollars as leverage to win those political probes before speaking to Trump in early September. His decision to tell an aide to Zelenskiy that funds would not be unfrozen until a public announcement of the investigations was made was "based on my communications with Secretary Pompeo," he said.

What he carefully declined to do was either condemn or exonerate Trump on the question of whether the president was actually using federal money to extort Ukraine. If someone accuses Trump of extortion or soliciting a bribe, it won't be him.

In a moment Republicans were quick to point to in the president's defense, Sondland testified that "President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on the investigations."

He also testified that Trump told him "no quid pro quo" when Sondland called in early September to ask what was needed to free up the money.

"I want nothing," a cranky Trump said, Sondland testified. "I want nothing. No quid pro quo. Tell Zelenskiy to do the right thing."

Republican staff lawyer Steve Castor noted that Sondland hadn't mentioned in an opening statement the fact that Trump had not connected the aid to investigations in direct conversations.

"This is an exculpatory fact shedding light on the president's state of mind," Castor said.

But at the time, the White House was already aware that a whistleblower complaint involving a possible exchange of foreign aid for political investigations was making its way through the intelligence community's inspector general process and the Justice Department.

At one point in October, Mulvaney said that the money was conditioned on an investigation into possible Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election — based on what U.S. officials have called a conspiracy theory — but he later walked that back and said his remarks had been misconstrued.

"We do that all the time with foreign policy," Mulvaney said before reversing course.

Sondland said in his opening statement that he watched as the White House piled on more demands of the Ukrainians over the summer, and he agreed with Democratic lawyer Daniel Goldman's formulation that he made a "two plus two equals four" calculation to arrive at the conclusion that the money wouldn't flow without the announcement of investigations.

If you can't get a meeting without the statement, he said, "what makes you think you’re going to get a $400 million check?"

In the end, Sondland threaded a careful needle. He pulled up short of accusing his boss of bribery.

But he also implicated the president and several of his closest advisers in putting Trump's political interests ahead of his country's. And he said "quid pro quo."