US ambassador testifies Trump directed diplomats to work with his lawyer on Ukraine


Gordon Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union (File photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 (Xinhua) -- U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland on Thursday testified to House committees over their impeachment inquiry, saying he and other U.S. diplomats were "disappointed" by President Donald Trump's directive to work with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters.

In his opening statement for the closed-door testimony, Sondland criticized the president's handling of U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine on a number of fronts, including Trump's July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky requesting that Ukraine probe Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden, who served as vice president during the Barack Obama era. Trump had halted nearly 400 million U.S. dollars in aid to Ukraine days before that call.

"Based on the President's direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region; or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the president's concerns," Sondland said.

"It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president's mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani," Sondland said.

"Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong. Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong," Sondland said.

However, in his testimony, Sondland said he once asked Trump about what he wanted from Ukraine, and the president responded, "Nothing. There is no quid pro quo."

The ambassador also said he didn't understand until months later that Giuliani was working to push Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Fiona Hill, former National Security Council Russia adviser, told House committees earlier this week that she and then-National Security Adviser John Bolton were alarmed by Sondland's mention of investigations in a July meeting with senior Ukrainian officials, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence declined to submit documents related to the Trump administration's dealings with Ukraine as requested by a congress request.

In a letter to the House of Representatives, Matthew Morgan, the vice president's counsel, repeated the Trump administration's view that the ongoing impeachment inquiry led by House Democrats is "unfair" and lacks "due process," claiming that Pence's office will cooperate on the probe only when it is conducted "in a manner consistent with well-established bipartisan constitutional protections and a respect for the separation of powers."

Also on Tuesday, Giuliani refused to comply with Congress' demand as well.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the initiation of a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump on Sept. 24 over the president's conduct during a controversial phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart on July 25.

The impeachment inquiry was prompted by a whistleblower complaint filed in late August alleging that Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, whom Trump accused of involvement in a corruption case in Ukraine.

Pelosi and three House committees leading the impeachment inquiry -- Intelligence, Oversight and Reform and Foreign Affairs -- believe Trump's conversation with Zelensky, as well as administration officials' interactions with the Ukrainian authorities before and after the call, manifested "efforts to pressure foreign powers to intervene in the 2020 elections."

Trump has denied wrongdoing, insisting that the call was "perfect" and calling the impeachment inquiry "another witch hunt" against him. The White House also considers the impeachment proceedings illegitimate, citing the absence of a full House vote.

Hunter served on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian gas company, while his father oversaw U.S. policy on Ukraine as vice president. Both have denied wrongdoing.

A Fox News Poll released last week saw over half of U.S. respondents support impeachment, a noticeable increase from 42 percent in July.