NOEL KING, HOST:
Gordon Sondland, the most important witness in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, says the secretary of state knew about his efforts, Sondland's efforts, to pressure Ukrainians. Sondland said during this morning's public hearing, quote, "everyone was in the loop. It was no secret."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GORDON SONDLAND: The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false. I have now identified certain State Department emails and messages that provide contemporaneous support for my view. These emails show that the leadership of the State Department, the National Security Council and the White House were all informed about the Ukraine efforts from May 23, 2019, until the security aid was released on September 11, 2019.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That was Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, earlier this morning giving his opening statement on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are trying to understand why Sondland changed his original testimony once before and how his current version of events might implicate the president.
KING: All right. Rachel, you have been doing some deep-dive reporting on Sondland over the past couple of weeks, and we also have in studio NPR's David Welna. Both of you guys have been reading his prepared remarks and listening to the statement that he gave, the opening statement he gave this morning.
KING: What are we learning?
MARTIN: So the headline, really, Noel, out of the testimony thus far, is that Gordon Sondland is not going to be the fall guy here. Up until now, Republicans and Democrats have criticized him for changing his original testimony. You'll remember a few weeks after his closed-door deposition, his lawyers submitted this three-page addendum in which he changed a fundamental part of his testimony. Not only did he admit there that there was a quid pro quo but that he was the one who delivered it. It was damning information for the Trump administration. And there are and have been questions today about what Sondland meant when he changed his story.
He doesn't actually clarify in his prepared remarks, did not clarify why he had the change of heart, why he suddenly recalled this meeting in which he said U.S. aid to Ukraine was contingent on investigations that the president wanted. Instead, he shifts the blame to the highest levels of government.
KING: Yeah. I'm going to come back to this quote because it really is striking. He says, everyone was in the loop. It was no secret. David Welna, when he says everyone, who is he talking about and what did they know?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, he cites an email that he sent on July 19. This was six days before the call between Trump and Zelenskiy, the one where Trump mentioned Biden by name. And this was to sort of prepare officials for that call. And he, in that email, says that he had just spoken with Ukrainian President Zelenskiy and that he intends - this is quoting him - he "intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will turn over every stone." And he says that he sent this email to Secretary of State Pompeo, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, to Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and other officials, and they were all in the loop about this.
Of course, Sondland himself was not on that July 25 call, but he was apprising officials to the fact that an investigation is something that was being sought by the U.S. And then after that, he talks about a September 1 meeting in Warsaw that he attended with Vice President Pence. And he, at - before that meeting, talked with Pence about his concerns that the security assistance for Ukraine and a meeting with the president, Zelenskiy, were not happening and that Ukraine would have to do something to make that happen, and that was the investigations.
MARTIN: You know, it's really interesting. He disputes the notion, Noel, that he was part of any kind of rogue diplomacy, right? He's got a - we've got a little bit of tape of his testimony. Let's listen to this.
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SONDLAND: First, Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the president of the United States. We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we were playing the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose a very important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the president's orders.
MARTIN: He points out time and again, numerous times throughout his prepared remarks, that he was operating at the behest of Rudy Giuliani, that President Trump had given him no choice. If he wanted to put Ukraine on better footing with the United States, which was his writ as U.S. ambassador to the EU, that the president had given him no alternative but to work through - it bears repeating - his own personal lawyer. He said he had to work through Rudy Giuliani for any Ukraine policy and that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo knew it.
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ADAM SCHIFF: In August, when you worked with Rudy Giuliani and a top Ukrainian aide to draft a public statement for President Zelenskiy to issue that includes the announcement of investigations into Burisma, you understood that was required by President Trump before he would grant the White House meeting to President Zelenskiy?
SONDLAND: That's correct.
SCHIFF: And the Ukrainians understood that as well?
SONDLAND: I believe they did.
SCHIFF: And you informed Secretary Pompeo about that statement as well?
SONDLAND: I did.
KING: OK, so he is saying that Secretary Pompeo knew about this, was involved in this. It does bear asking - we've heard so much, David Welna, about this irregular channel, separate from the U.S. government, separate from the State Department, that was - you know, that was doing things in Ukraine. Does this blow up the idea that there was a separate channel or does this reinforce it?
WELNA: Well, I think you could say that there were double channels, and both of them were official. Yesterday, we heard from special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker saying that he was part of the official channel, not part of the irregular channel. But in Sondland's telling, this effort that he was undertaking to, as he put it, break the logjam was something that was sanctioned by the top officials at the State Department, and he was keeping them in the loop the whole time.
MARTIN: And it's another interesting thing to note here, Noel - Sondland was asked about the phone call...
MARTIN: ...That he had in this restaurant in Kyiv, right? Like, it's been reported by David Holmes, a U.S. official who was working in Ukraine, that Sondland called President Trump from this restaurant - and the president was talking really loud, so he could hear clearly the back and forth - and that the president inquired about the investigations and that Sondland in turn said, the Ukrainians are ready to go.
And in his testimony today, Sondland didn't dispute that account of David Holmes'. Holmes, in his closed-door testimony, went on to say that Sondland recounted Trump saying he only cared about the big stuff. And then Sondland cited the Bidens.
KING: So does that mean Sondland understood that investigations, particularly the one into the energy company Burisma, meant investigation into the Biden's?
WELNA: Well, Sondland says that he didn't understand that Biden - or the Bidens were part of the Burisma investigation. He said that, in fact, he doesn't recollect having mentioned Biden in that July 26 phone call, which is contrary to what David Holmes has said. And in fact, he says that he didn't even speak with Rudy Giuliani about all of this until sometime in August.
So he maintains a stance very similar to that of Kurt Volker, saying that while he understood that there was a desire for investigations, that he did not understand the connection between Burisma and the Bidens, that by mentioning Burisma, that was almost code for saying the Bidens.
KING: It may sound like an obvious question, but can you talk about why it is so important for these men to have said, I understood there was an investigation, but I didn't understand it meant, by extension, including the Bidens in the investigation? Because this is something that they are really, really, really hammering at this point.
WELNA: Because they are trying to make the point that they were trying to patch things up with Ukraine; they were not trying to carry out what was characterized as a drug deal by former National Security Adviser John Bolton by getting Ukraine to do something that would benefit Trump politically, personally. They are separating themselves from that and taking distance. They're both saying that they were basically kept in the dark, that they weren't told why the security assistance was being withheld and that Biden was not on this wish list.
MARTIN: And there are real concerns about corruption in Ukraine, have been for many years. It's been something that previous U.S. ambassadors to the European Union have worked on. The difference here, though, is that this wasn't just a general inquiry, a general investigation into corruption. What Democrats are focused on is a potential abuse of power on the part of the president - did he instruct a specific quid pro quo in which he would benefit politically, where he would solicit negative information about a leading political rival?
KING: A last question to you both, very briefly - we are about 2 hours and 15 minutes into this hearing. It's still relatively early. The Republicans will certainly question Gordon Sondland's credibility. He's reversed his testimony once, right?
WELNA: He has. And it's a question of whether the Republicans are going to try to discredit him or if they're going to try to characterize him as basically carrying out President Trump's orders and doing an honorable job of doing it. Democrats, I think, had been counting on Sondland to portray President Trump as being the mastermind behind this, but Sondland is saying that he didn't hear directly from President Trump that he was seeking these investigations. This came to him via Giuliani or others who are saying, talk to Giuliani.
MARTIN: And we should point out Gordon Sondland is not a career politician, right? He was a private business owner. He owns hotels in Portland, Ore. - not a GOP stronghold. He has worked with Democrats and Republicans over a long career. He is going to, at some point, need to go back to his former life. So what kind of work can he do today to start to repair the damage that's been done to his reputation? And will that come at the expense of President Trump?
KING: Rachel Martin and David Welna, both of NPR. Thank you, guys, so much for the reporting.
MARTIN: Sure. You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.