US ambassador Gordon Sondland has told impeachment investigators that President Donald Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani explicitly sought a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine.
He said it was his understanding that the president was holding up nearly 400 million US dollars (£361 million) in military aid in exchange for an announcement of investigations into the company that hired Mr Trump’s political rival Joe Biden’s son and Ukraine’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election.
Mr Sondland conceded that Mr Trump never told him directly the security assistance was blocked for the probes, a gap in his account that Republicans and the White House seized on as evidence the president did nothing wrong.
But Mr Sondland said his dealings with Mr Giuliani, as well as administration officials, left him with the clear understanding of what was at stake.
In opening remarks Mr Sondland said: “Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
The rest, he said, was obvious: “Two plus two equals four.”
Mr Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union and a major donor to Mr Trump’s inauguration, was the most highly anticipated witness in the House’s impeachment inquiry into the 45th president of the United States.
He painted a picture of a Ukraine pressure campaign that was prompted by Mr Trump himself, orchestrated by Mr Giuliani and well-known to other senior officials, including US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
Mr Sondland said he raised his concerns about a quid pro quo for military aid with vice president Mike Pence – a conversation an adviser to Mr Pence denied.
Mr Pompeo also dismissed Mr Sondland’s account.
However, Mr Sondland said: “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
He said that he and Mr Trump spoke directly about desired investigations, including a colourful mobile phone call in the summer overheard by others at a restaurant in Kyiv.
Mr Trump himself insists daily that he did nothing wrong and the Democrats are just trying to drum him out of office.
As the hearing proceeded, he spoke to reporters outside the White House. Reading from notes written with a black marker, Mr Trump quoted Mr Sondland quoting Mr Trump to say the president wanted nothing from the Ukrainians and did not seek a quid pro quo.
He also distanced himself from his hand-picked ambassador, saying he did not know him “very well”.
Mr Trump concluded that the impeachment proceedings were “all over”.
The impeachment inquiry focuses significantly on allegations that Mr Trump sought investigations of former vice president Joe Biden and his son — and the discredited idea that Ukraine rather than Russia interfered in the 2016 US election — in return for the badly needed military aid for Ukraine and a White House visit.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was pleased that the “political battles” in Washington had overtaken the Russia allegations, which are supported by the US intelligence agencies.
Mr Putin said: “Thank God. No one is accusing us of interfering in the US elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”
Mr Sondland said that conditions on any potential Ukraine meeting at the White House started as “generic” but more items were “added to the menu including Burisma and 2016 election meddling”. Burisma is the Ukrainian petrol company where Mr Biden’s son Hunter served on the board. And, he added, “the server” the hacked Democratic computer system.
Mr Sondland said he did not know at the time that Burisma was linked to the Bidens but today knows “exactly what it means”.
He said he and other diplomats did not want to work with Mr Giuliani. But he and the others understood that Mr Giuliani “was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president”.
He also came to understand that the military aid hinged on the investigations, though Mr Trump never told him so directly.