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Democratic debates: Democrats prepare for fifth debate after key impeachment witness says Trump directed Ukraine 'quid pro quo' in bombshell testimony

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Clark Mindock
New York
,Andrew Feinberg,Alex Woodward
Wednesday 20 November 2019 23:39
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Donald Trump reenacts conversation with Gordon Sondland after bombshell impeachment testimony

Gordon Sondland has implicated a number of White House officials who were “in the loop” with Donald Trump's direction to withhold aid to Ukraine in an exchange for a meeting and a public statement announcing an investigation into the president’s political opponents.

The testimony came as Democrats were preparing to hold their fifth debate of 2020 in Atlanta, where they will undoubtedly be asked about the freshly sprung impeachment inquiry that has dominated headlines.

Mr Sondland, a US ambassador to the EU, affirmed that there was a so-called quid pro quo, dropping a bombshell testimony into another pivotal hearing in the House impeachment inquiry into the president’s alleged abuses of power in his dealings with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

According to his testimony, Mr Sondland worked under the president’s order to work with Rudy Giuliani “not because we liked it but because it was the only constructive path” to building a relationship with a vulnerable Ukraine. In emails and other conversations with US officials — including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry — Mr Sondland established a clear link from the president, through Giuliani, and efforts to engage Ukraine with investigations into the 2016 election and Burisma.

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Mr Trump told reporters outside the White House that he barely knows Mr Sondland, who he previously called a "great American", and that he seems like a “nice guy".

The president read from a stack of papers in his hand, which included, in capital letters, his recollection of a conversation with Mr Sondland in which Trump said "I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO."

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said that "the US aid to Ukraine flowed, no investigation was launched, and President Trump has met and spoken with President Zelensky. Democrats keep chasing ghosts."

Mr Pence and Mr Perry also released statements during the hearing denying Mr Giuliani’s influence in their dealings with Ukraine. They’ve refused to testify in the impeachment probe.

Mr Trump also lashed out at his Democratic opponents conducting the House impeachment inquiry, mocked key witnesses giving testimony for their sartorial choices and denied that the onset of a heart attack was what prompted his sudden trip to hospital on Saturday.

"These people are sick. They’re sick. And the press really in this country is dangerous. We don’t have freedom of the press in this country. We have the opposite. We have a very corrupt media," the president ranted from the Cabinet Room of the White House on Tuesday.

The inquiry heard from four witnesses on Tuesday who detailed the administration’s coercion of Ukraine.

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Sondland is delivering his opening statement and providing some personal and career background — his parents fled Germany for Uruguay then Seattle, where they where "eager for freedom and hungry for opportunity."

As ambassador, his mission is to promote a "strong, united and peaceful Europe," he says.

Phil Thomas20 November 2019 14:37
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Sondland, addressing discrepancies in his testimony, says he was denied access to documents that would allow him to "reconstruct" what he said.

"I'm not a note-taker or a memo writer," he says. "My job requires that I speak with heads of state, senior government officials, members of the cabinet, the president, almost each and every day ... Talking with foreign leaders might be memorable but this is my job and I do it all the time."

Phil Thomas20 November 2019 14:40
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Sondland says he worked with Rudy Giuliani by Trump's direction.

"We were playing the hand we were dealt. ... We followed the president's orders."

But he says he doesn't believe Giuliani's role was "improper."

He would not have "acquiesced to his participation" if he had known Giuliani's business dealings, including associates who were arrested by the feds.

"The suggestion we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false," Sondland says.

Phil Thomas20 November 2019 14:42
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Sondland: "Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the President.”

"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 played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the President’s orders."

Sondland drops the hammer in his prepared statement: “I know that members of this Committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a 'quid pro quo?' As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes."

Phil Thomas20 November 2019 14:43
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Sondland has pointed to delegations with former Ukraine president Poroshenko as well as a meeting in Odessa arranged by former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch as part of his long-standing interest in Ukraine in his portfolio.

He says arranging a phone call and a meeting in the White House between Trump and Zelenksy would have been "vital to cementing" a relationship between the countries.

Sondland says Trump told him that Ukraine had tried to "take him down" in 2016. Sondland was then directed to "talk with Rudy."

Phil Thomas20 November 2019 14:50
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Sondland says he planned to meet with Giuliani "not because we liked it but because it was the only constructive path."

Phil Thomas20 November 2019 14:53
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The Independent's Chris Riotta on Sondland's opening statement:

Donald Trump’s ambassador to the EU has delivered explosive public testimony linking top White House officials and the president’s personal attorney to a “quid pro quo” involving Ukraine. 

Gordon Sondland said in his opening remarks that the highest-level officials working on US-Ukraine policy at the White House and US State Department “knew what we were doing and why” by encouraging Ukraine to launch investigations. 

Phil Thomas20 November 2019 14:58
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After Sondland saw a copy of the amended transcript of the 25 July phone call between Trump and Zelensky, Sondland said he found it "very odd, very odd" that he didn't receive a detailed transcript that included references to the Bidens.

Phil Thomas20 November 2019 15:02
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Some perspective from The Independent's Andrew Feinberg, as he watches the hearing from inside the room:

"This testimony is simply devastating for Republicans. Sondland is driving the bus and he’s running it over the President, Mick Mulvaney, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Pompeo, Rick Perry, and everyone else involved in what Trump’s ex-national security advisor John Bolton called a 'drug deal.'"

Phil Thomas20 November 2019 15:04
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Sondland says he "never was able to obtain a clear reason" for the withholding of military aid but came to believe the aid was "jeopardised" as Ukrainians became aware of the hold some time before 1 September.

Phil Thomas20 November 2019 15:11

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