Sondland testimony raises new questions on Perry’s role
President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the European Union told congressional investigators that he first heard the White House wanted an investigation into a Ukrainian energy company that employed former Vice President Joe Biden's son from Energy Secretary Rick Perry, his chief of staff and the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine.
The testimony from Ambassador Gordon Sondland appeared to contradict Perry’s statements that he was unaware that the White House was pressing Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden's involvement in Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma before agreeing to a meeting with Trump and releasing military aid to the country.
According to a full transcript of his Oct. 17 testimony released on Tuesday, Sondland told the House committee that U.S. demands that the newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would need to crack down on corruption before he could get a White House meeting with Trump was later expanded to include an investigation into Hunter Biden's employer Burisma, as well as unfounded claims about Ukrainian influence in the 2016 U.S. election.
“It started with corruption,” Sondland said during his testimony. “Then it was Burisma and 2016 election. And then at some point in the continuum, late in the game, I connected Burisma with Biden.”
Sondland said he believed those conditions came from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, but were conveyed to him in July or August at least in part by Perry, Perry’s chief of staff and former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker.
“It must have [originated from] Giuliani, because I wasn’t talking to the president about it. So I was hearing this all from Volker and Perry and Perry’s chief of staff [Brian McCormack], who was heavily involved,” Sondland testified.
The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment.
Sondland, Volker and Perry collectively referred to themselves as the “three amigos” for the Trump administration on Ukrainian policy. The three House panels conducting the impeachment probe also released Volker’s deposition on Tuesday.
Sondland, a key witness in the impeachment inquiry, has revised his testimony to reveal that he told a top Ukrainian official that hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the U.S. ally would “likely” be held up unless the country’s government announced the investigations — an explosive shift that threatens to upend claims by the president’s allies that military aid was not used as a bludgeon to advance his domestic political interests.
The Energy Department last week said Perry, who intends to leave the administration Dec. 1, would not give a deposition as part of the impeachment process but would consider providing testimony in open proceedings. Perry also refused to comply with a congressional subpoena for information on his meetings with Ukrainian government officials, White House staff and Giuliani.
Perry has proclaimed throughout the impeachment process that he never heard the names of former Vice President Joe Biden or Hunter Biden in his work in Ukraine, and that he only discussed the issue of corruption broadly.
“In our conversations dealing with this issue, I never heard the president say the words Biden. I never heard the word Biden mentioned, not from him, not from staff, not from the EU ambassador, not from Kurt Volker,” Perry told radio host Hugh Hewitt in an Oct. 23 interview.
Sondland also said he spoke with Perry in the days before his testimony about a pivotal July 10 meeting at the White House with Ukrainian officials. That meeting was abruptly halted by then-NSC chief John Bolton when the topic of an investigation into Burisma was raised, according to press reports of testimony by NSC staffer Fiona Hill, who attended the meeting.
Sondland said neither he nor Perry remembered Bolton abruptly halting the White House meeting.
“He said, I don't remember anything of the kind,” Sondland said, according to the transcript. “I thought it was a great meeting and we all left happy.”
However, text messages from Volker that Congress released Tuesday show him describing the meeting differently, telling Ukraine Ambassador Bill Taylor it was “not good.”
Sondland convened a second meeting on July 10 in the White House's Ward Room with several of the attendees from the first meeting. Sondland said he, Perry, McCormack, Hill and the National Security Council official Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman all attended the follow up meeting, though he could not recall if Ukrainian officials were present. Hill previously testified that an investigation into Burisma was discussed at this meeting, and Vindman testified that he had objected during that meeting to Sondland's urging the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens.
“I stated to Amb. Sondland that his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security, and that such investigations were not something the [National Security Council] was going to get involved in or push,” Vindman's statement said.
Daniel Goldman, an aide to Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff and a former federal prosecutor, questioned why Sondland had reached out to Perry ahead his testimony.
“Do you understand that that may have the appearance of trying to line up your testimony with Secretary Perry?” he asked during the October hearing.
“I wanted to refresh my memory,” Sondland said in response, adding he consulted with his attorney prior to doing so.
Sondland said that, on the advice of his attorney, he did not speak to anyone else who worked on Ukraine issues after the whistleblower report became public on Sept. 26, but he did acknowledge two conversations with Perry came after that date.