congress

'It kept getting more insidious': What Sondland and Volker told Trump impeachment investigators

House Democrats released transcripts of the testimonies of the diplomats most closely involved in a shadow campaign to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.

Kurt Volker

House impeachment investigators on Tuesday released the transcripts of the hours-long testimony of two diplomats involved in carrying out an alleged shadow foreign policy campaign aimed at pressuring Ukrainian leaders into delivering political favors to President Donald Trump.

The depositions of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Kurt Volker, the former special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, were among the most highly anticipated testimonies in the impeachment inquiry. The transcripts appear to bolster Democrats’ case that Trump, through his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, encouraged the off-the-books diplomacy.

Early last month, House Democrats released encrypted text messages between Volker and Sondland that demonstrated their active involvement in the plan to get Ukraine’s newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky to publicly commit to the investigations Trump demanded. They released a new batch of text message on Tuesday, including some exchanges between Volker and Bill Taylor, who was tapped to run the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

Two of the most striking passages in the transcripts come from Sondland. In one exchange, he describes how Giuliani's demands of Ukraine "kept getting more insidious as [the] timeline went on." In another, he expresses his view that the insistence that Ukraine investigate former vice president Joe Biden was "improper," and possibly illegal.

Volker casts himself as a somewhat naïve diplomat, caught in machinations he didn’t fully understand. He says, for instance, that he didn't initially connect the Burisma gas company to the Bidens, even though Giuliani and Trump apparently were. He also describes feeling compelled to connect Giuliani with Ukrainian officials, both because they wanted it and because Trump wanted it.

Democrats' highlights of Sondland's testimony | Full transcript
Democrats' highlights of Volker's testimony | Full transcript

Sondland: “I assume” shadow Ukraine efforts were “illegal.”

Sondland testified that Trump and Giuliani’s positions “kept getting more insidious,” evolving from a general interest in fighting corruption to an interest in Burisma and finally to an investigation of the Bidens. The EU envoy noted he was not a lawyer but said he “assumed” an effort to pressure Ukraine to do so, as pursued by Giuliani with Trump’s support, would be illegal.

Trump’s allies have recently begun to embrace a new defense: that Trump might have sought a quid pro quo, but that doing so is neither improper nor impeachable. In a criminal trial, a witness's legal opinion is considered irrelevant. But impeachment is a political process — and with Sondland's testimony, that talking point has now been complicated by Trump’s own appointee.

Trump told Sondland Ukraine was “a problem.”

Sondland testified that Trump was not specific in what he wanted Sondland to work with Giuliani on in Ukraine, saying only that “Ukraine is a problem.” The president also repeatedly told Sondland, Volker and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry during a May 23 meeting to “talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy” about Ukraine policy — despite Giuliani having no formal foreign policy role and, by then, publicly demanding that Ukraine investigate the Bidens.

Sondland asked Trump point-blank: What do you want from Ukraine?

Sondland testified that he called Trump on Sept. 9 after receiving a text from the acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor expressing alarm over the withholding of military aid, and asked what he wanted from the Ukrainians. This conversation has been of intense interest to investigators because after he hung up with Trump, Sondland wrote a lawyerly note to Taylor denying that the aid was linked to political favors and suggesting they not speak by text anymore.

Trump was in a “very bad mood” on the phone call, Sondland recalled. But all the president would say was that he wanted Zelensky “to do the right thing” and wasn’t asking for a quid pro quo. “I want him to do what he ran on,” Trump said, according to Sondland.

Sondland could not recall … a lot.

Sondland appeared to cover himself on key questions by claiming he didn’t recall certain discussions of the Bidens with Giuliani, conversations with Zelensky about issuing a public statement committing to the investigations, talks with acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney about scheduling a White House visit for Zelensky, or details about a July 10 meeting with Ukrainian officials that alarmed White House aides.

Sondland also testified that he could not recall whether he ever mentioned the word “Burisma” in his meetings and conversations with the Ukrainians—Burisma is the gas company on whose board Hunter Biden sat—or whether he told Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), as has been reported, that U.S. military assistance aid was contingent upon Zelensky committing to the probes Trump demanded.

Sondland submitted new testimony last week, however, following rumblings among Democrats that he might have committed perjury. In that supplemental testimony, Sondland confirmed having a conversation with a top Zelensky aide in Warsaw on Sept. 1, in which he told the aide that U.S. military assistance funds would likely not be reinstated “until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”

In his initial testimony, however, when asked “what facts or what firsthand accounts” he could provide about the aid holdup, Sondland replied: “None … other than I was aware of it. I didn’t know why I kept getting different answers from different people.”

A White House summit for Zelensky was contingent on political investigations.

Sondland acknowledged that Trump and Giuliani were making “demands” of Zelensky, including that he commit to investigating Burisma and the unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. “If you mean that those conditions would have to be complied with prior to getting a meeting, that was my understanding,” Sondland said, referring to the investigations Trump was demanding and effectively confirming that the president attempted a quid pro quo.

Sondland admits to asking Perry for help in “refreshing” his memory.

One of Democrats’ biggest reasons for holding the depositions behind closed doors was so that witnesses could not coordinate their testimony. But Sondland admitted in his transcript that he asked Perry, another key witness in the impeachment probe, to “refresh my memory about a couple of meetings” prior to his testimony. The meeting he said he spoke to Perry about was one that former NSC official Fiona Hill told Congress she was deeply alarmed by, in which Sondland linked support for Ukraine to political investigations.

Sondland testified that he didn’t remember anything improper happening in the meeting, so when details of Hill’s deposition leaked, he reached out to Perry to ask about it. Sondland said he consulted his lawyer before calling Perry, but that he didn’t think was “inappropriate” to do so.

It wasn’t the first time he and Perry spoke amid the impeachment inquiry, according to Sondland. They also connected before Hill’s testimony, but Sondland said he could not recall what they discussed.

Pompeo told Sondland to continue to work on Ukraine, but the State Department “discouraged” him from testifying about it.

As the U.S. ambassador to the EU, Sondland’s primary responsibility was not dealing with Ukraine policy. But he told lawmakers he became interested in the subject after traveling to Odessa in February on a trip that the Ukrainians and the EU “really liked.”

Sondland had previously said in an interview on Ukrainian TV that Trump had given him a “special assignment,” but told lawmakers that that was not really true—Pompeo encouraged him to keep working on Ukraine policy, he said, and he couldn’t recall whether he ever represented to other officials that Trump had specifically asked him to pursue it.

Despite encouraging him to work on Ukraine policy, however, the State Department “discouraged” Sondland from complying with a congressional subpoena to discuss that work, he testified. “They directed me not to appear, which is why I did not appear on the 8th. And once you issued the subpoena, again, they discouraged me from complying with the
subpoena, but I decided to come in anyway,” Sondland said.

Trump hears what he wants to hear. And in this case it was Giuliani.

Volker testified that when he and others tried to convince Trump to meet with Ukraine’s new president, Trump hinted that he didn’t trust the government in Kyiv because he believed it had tried to undermine his election in 2016.

“They are all corrupt, they are all terrible people,” Volker described Trump as saying. “And they tried to take me down.”

When Volker and other officials tried to persuade Trump that the new Ukrainian president was different, Trump remained skeptical. He also indicated that Giuliani had been telling him other things.

“I think he said, not as an instruction but just as a comment, talk to Rudy, you know,” Volker described Trump as saying, adding that he further said of Giuliani: “‘He knows all of these things, and they’ve got some bad people around [Zelensky].’ And that was the nature of it.”

Volker also told lawmakers he came to see Giuliani’s role as a problem.

“The negative narrative about Ukraine which Mr. Giuliani was furthering was the problem,” Volker said. “[I]n my view, it was impeding our ability to build the relationship the way we should be doing.”

Volker was puzzled as to why the military aid was held up, but even he didn’t immediately make the connection.

The former envoy told lawmakers that he learned on July 18 that there had been a hold placed on several hundred million dollars worth of military aid to Ukraine. Impeachment investigators are trying to establish whether Trump ordered the hold to pressure Ukraine’s government into investigating his political rivals.

But at that point, Volker himself didn’t make any such connection, not least because the Trump administration has at various times tried to cut foreign aid for other reasons.

The “Pentagon, military, civilian, State Department, National Security Council—they all thought this is really important to provide this assistance. And so, in that circumstance, for there to be a hold placed struck me as unusual,” Volker said. “I didn’t know the reason. No reason was ever given as to why that was. It came from [the Office of Management and Budget], so I immediately thought about budgetary issues, that, for whatever reason, there’s a hold placed."

Volker told Giuliani he didn’t believe Joe Biden had done anything improper.

Volker dismissed the idea that Joe Biden pushed Ukraine’s government to oust a prosecutor to benefit his son Hunter, an allegation that has been fueling much of the conservative pushback against the impeachment process.

And Volker said he tried to convince Giuliani to let that notion go at breakfast on July 19.

“He was repeating all of the things that were in the media that we talked about earlier, you know, firing the prosecutor general and his son being on the company and all that,” Volker said. “And I said to Rudy in that breakfast the first time we sat down to talk that it is simply not credible to me that Joe Biden would be influenced in his duties as vice president by money or things for his son or anything like that. I’ve known him a long time. He’s a person of integrity, and that’s not credible."

Volker says that at the time, he wasn’t equating Burisma with Biden.

Volker’s testimony indicates that there were so many different events happening that he didn’t always make the links that can seem obvious in retrospect.

For instance, he says he was fine with the idea that Ukraine’s government would release a statement that mentions the gas company Burisma and the 2016 election as matters they would investigate as part of an anti-corruption effort, and that he even helped propose language.

But, although he admits he knew that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma, he didn’t quite think through the implications. Those implications later became clear when the White House released a transcript of a July 25 call in which Trump urged Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.

“In my mind, those are three separate things,” Volker explained to lawmakers. “There is Bidens; there is Burisma as a company, which has a long history; and there is 2016 elections.

“And part of what I was doing was making sure and why I wanted to make sure I was in this conversation that we are not getting the Ukrainians into a position about talking about anything other than their own citizens, their own company, or whether their own citizens had done anything in 2016.”

Giuliani tried to get Volker to vouch for him, but Volker was not inclined.

As questions were swirling over Giuliani’s role in the Ukraine drama, the former New York City mayor went on TV, waved around text messages from Volker, and insisted everything he did in Ukraine was at the “direction” of the State Department.

Then, Giuliani pushed Volker to back that claim up in public.

“All I need for you is to tell the truth,” Giuliani texted Volker on Sept. 22, according to Volker’s testimony, adding later, “Really, this is not hard. Just fair to affirm truth.”

But Volker told lawmakers he was not about to satisfy Giuliani. Although it was true that he’d connected Ukrainian officials with Giuliani, Volker insisted Giuliani was taking things too far because it was incorrect to say that the State Department was directing Giuliani’s many actions in Ukraine.

“I wasn’t giving direction to him in any way,” Volker said.

Bill Taylor relays concerns about “snake pit” before taking charge in Kyiv.


In late April 2019, after Marie Yovanovitch was suddenly recalled from her post as ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor texts Volker about the request that he head back to Kyiv as charge d’affaires for the U.S. Embassy there.

“You should!” Volker responds. But Taylor says Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent “described two snake pits, one in Kyiv and one in Washington.”

Volker tries to downplay Taylor’s concerns, asking “what’s new?” -- to which Taylor responds that what he’d heard from Kent sounded “very ugly.”

Taylor remains concerned about taking a temporary post in the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, citing concerns with a “Giuliani-Biden issue.”


About a month later, Taylor texts Volker again, telling the Ukraine envoy he is “still struggling” with whether or not to go to Kyiv, asking if anyone can “hope to succeed with the Guliani-Biden issue swirling for the next 18 months?” Taylor suggests Volker had also been approached about the post, and argues he thinks that would be a better choice.

“No one knows the issues better,” Taylor says.

Volker deflects Taylor’s suggestion, responding, “I don’t know if there is much to do about the Giuliani thing, but I do think the key thing is to do what we can right now since the future of the country is in play right now.”

Taylor takes issue with chain of command in coordinating White House visit from Zelensky.


Two days later, Taylor texts Volker to ask whether the White House was putting together a letter inviting Zelensky to the White House. Fiona Hill, who was then the White House’s top Russia adviser, doesn’t think so, Taylor says.

Volker responds that he’d heard of such a letter from Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, drawing concern from Taylor that Hill, given her role on the National Security Council staff, would have been the normal channel for an invitation.

“I don’t know how things work over there. In a normal world, of course. But …” Volker replies.

“Do I want to enter this non-normal world?” Taylor asks, to which Volker responds that “despite everything,” he is happy with the progress of the last two years and that “I think it is worth it to continue to keep pushing.”