Sondland Pressed Ukraine to Smear Biden at Trump’s Direction, Diplomat Says

Testimony from David Holmes, a State Department official, strongly suggests that Gordon Sondland lied to Congress on Wednesday.

David Holmes, a State Department official stationed at the US Embassy in Ukraine testifies during the House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC on November 21, 2019. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
David Holmes, a foreign service officer at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, testified to the House impeachment inquiry on Thursday. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s point man on Ukraine, Gordon Sondland, admitted during a conversation in July that the president had directed him to press Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open a sham investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a State Department official testified on Thursday to the House impeachment inquiry.

The official, David Holmes, is a career foreign service officer who said in his opening statement that Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told him over lunch in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on July 26 that Trump’s main interest in relations with Ukraine was the “Biden investigation” publicly demanded by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer.

The conversation in Kyiv took place one day after Trump had directly asked Zelensky to do him “a favor” by investigating a discredited Republican conspiracy theory that Biden had abused his power as vice president in 2016 to block a corruption investigation of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that employed his son Hunter on its board.

If Holmes’s account is accurate, it suggests that Sondland lied in his own sworn testimony to the House panel on Wednesday. Sondland insisted that when he pressed Zelensky and his aides to investigate Burisma throughout the summer, he had done so at the direction of Trump and Giuliani but had no idea that Biden would be a subject of the probe.

As in the private deposition he gave on Friday, Holmes clearly indicated that he was directly quoting what Sondland had told him about the target of the investigation demanded by Trump being Biden.

An excerpt from the Nov. 15, 2019, deposition of David Holmes to the House impeachment inquiry.

Holmes testified that his conversation with Sondland took place after the ambassador had taken out his cellphone during lunch at a restaurant in Kyiv and called Trump to brief him on his meetings earlier that day with Zelensky and his senior aide Andriy Yermak. Holmes, who had attended the meeting with Zelesnky and other officials as the embassy’s note-taker, said that he had been excluded from Sondland’s private meeting with Yermak, the Zelensky aide who met directly with Giuliani in Madrid a week later.


David Holmes, near right, took notes during a July 26 meeting in Kyiv in which Ambassador Gordon Sondland was seated directly across the table from President Volodymyr Zelensky on Ukraine.

Photo: U.S. Embassy Kyiv, via Twitter

According to Holmes, when Sondland was patched through to the president, the volume of Trump’s voice was so loud that the ambassador held the phone away from his ear — a gesture the witness mimicked for Congress — making both sides of the conversation audible to others at the table.

“I heard Ambassador Sondland greet the President and explain that he was calling from Kyiv,” Holmes recalled. “I heard President Trump then clarify that Ambassador Sondland was in Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland replied, yes, he was in Ukraine, and went on to state that President Zelensky ‘loves your ass.’ I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’ Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to.’”

Sondland testified on Wednesday that he did make that call to the president — on an unsecured line from a public place in a country where the phone calls of American diplomats have been intercepted and posted online by Russian intelligence — and acknowledged that the president had mentioned “investigations,” which he called unsurprising at the time. “I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the President’s concerns,” Sondland told the House panel. “However, I have no recollection of discussing Vice President Biden or his son on that call or after the call ended.”

Sondland’s claim that he did not understand, in late July, that Burisma was connected to the Bidens is almost impossible to believe. That’s because, as Holmes also noted in his testimony, news coverage of Ukraine had been dominated for nearly three months by Giuliani’s claims that Joe Biden’s role in getting Ukraine’s chief prosecutor fired in 2016 was a major scandal that warranted criminal investigation.

“Mr. Giuliani was also making frequent public statements pushing for Ukraine to investigate interference in the 2016 election and issues related to Burisma and the Bidens,” Holmes noted. “For example, on May 1, 2019, the New York Times reported that Mr. Giuliani had ‘discussed the Burisma investigation, and its intersections with the Bidens, with the ousted Ukrainian prosecutor general and the current prosecutor.’ On May 9, the New York Times reported that Mr. Giuliani said he planned to travel to Ukraine to pursue investigations into 2016 election interference and into the involvement of former Vice President Biden’s son in a Ukrainian gas company.”

In the wake of those two front page reports in The Times, as other news outlets, including The Intercept, debunked the conspiracy theory, Giuliani appeared repeatedly on cable news channels to call for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens in relation to Burisma.

In May and June, Holmes pointed out, Giuliani “also issued a series of tweets, asking ‘why Biden shouldn’t be investigated,’” and “attacking the ‘New Pres of Ukraine’ for being ‘silent’ on the 2016 election and Biden investigations.”

Another witness who testified to the inquiry on Thursday, Fiona Hill — the senior Europe and Russia expert on the National Security Council until mid-July — said that the connection to Biden was clear to her, in large part because of Giuliani’s media appearances. At a July 10 meeting in the White House, Hill recalled, she heard Sondland tell Yermak and Oleksandr Danyliuk, Ukraine’s national security adviser, that there was “a deal” with Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, to schedule a White House visit for Zelensky “if the Ukrainians open up or announce these investigations into 2016 and Burisma.”

“By this point, having heard Mr. Giuliani over and over again on the television,” Hill explained, “by this point it was clear that Burisma was code for the Bidens, because Giuliani was laying it out there.”

Hill went on to say that “it is not credible to me at all” that Sondland could have been “oblivious” to the fact that he was working to get an investigation started into Biden.

All of which is to say that Sondland would have to have been living in a total information black hole to really have had no idea, in late July, that the aim of the sham investigation into Burisma he was working so hard to get Ukraine to announce was to tarnish Joe Biden, the Democrat seen by Trump as the main obstacle to his reelection.

That’s true generally for anyone who had even the slightest interest in U.S. relations with Ukraine or American politics, but it is particularly hard to believe for Sondland and Kurt Volker, the former special envoy for Ukraine. The two diplomats, who exchanged calls and text messages with Giuliani all summer, worked with the president’s lawyer on the text of a statement Trump wanted Ukraine’s president to deliver on CNN, in which he would announce investigations of Burisma and supposed Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election.

Sondland, who is no doubt eager to avoid going to jail for perjury, has already revised his testimony twice, offering the excuse that his memory is hazy without access to all of the State Department records he needs. But it seems more likely that he and Volker were both shading the truth when they first testified under oath that they did not set out to smear Joe Biden, and now find themselves forced to stick to that story, even as further testimony renders it preposterous.

The politics of impeachment might help Sondland and Volker get away with lying that they were too dim to realize what they were doing as they carried out a scheme to coerce a foreign leader into opening politically motivated prosecutions of the president’s rivals. Republicans on the House intelligence committee are engaged in an effort to deflect attention from the damning admissions from Sondland and Volker, who are both also Republicans, that they were indeed carrying out orders from Trump, and that the vice president, the secretary of state, and the White House chief of staff were all “in the loop.” Democrats, on the other hand, probably don’t want to confuse matters by saying that two of the witnesses who provided useful testimony implicating Trump also lied about their knowledge of the scheme.

Sondland’s own Twitter feed, however, makes it obvious that he was deeply engaged with Ukraine diplomacy in May, when the newly elected Ukrainian president reportedly convened an emergency meeting of advisers to figure out how to deal with the public demands from Giuliani.

On May 2, the same day Giuliani’s embrace of the conspiracy theory about Biden and Burisma first appeared on the front page of the Times print edition, Sondland and Rick Perry, Trump’s energy secretary, met in Brussels with senior advisers to Zelensky, including Danyliuk and Ruslan Riaboshapka, who is now Ukraine’s chief prosecutor. Five days later, Sondland met with Olena Zerkal, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, who continued in that role after Zelensky took office.

Twelve days later, Sondland was in Kyiv, to attend Zelensky’s inauguration as part of the U.S. delegation that was supposed to have been led by Vice President Mike Pence, until Trump ordered Pence not to go, in what was perhaps an early element in the campaign to hold back U.S. support for the new leader.

The following week, when Sondland, Perry, and Volker met Trump, the president directed them to “talk with Rudy,” to find out what needed to be done before he would agree to host Zelensky at the White House.

As a result, the three men who now claim that they had no idea that Giuliani linked Biden to Burisma spent much of the summer talking to him about what he wanted them to get Zelensky to do.

Speaking to the Washington Post last month about his role in crafting language for the statement Trump wanted to see Zelensky deliver on CNN, Giuliani suggested that it was obvious what he meant when he said that the goal was an investigation into Burisma. “I said it should include collusion and Burisma,” Giuliani said of the draft text he worked on with Sondland and Volker. “It’s quite possible we never mentioned Biden. Of course, Biden was part of that.”

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