The US House Intelligence Committee heard testimony Wednesday morning from Gordon Sondland, US Ambassador to the EU, followed by testimony from Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affiars, and David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs, in the evening.
In his opening statement, Sondland emphasized that he agreed to work with President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, at the direction of the president and, though he disagreed with Giuliani’s involvement, he did not believe it to be improper. Further, despite his hesitation to work with Giuliani, there was no improper or rogue diplomacy. Key decision makers at the State Department, National Security Council and White House were aware of important details of the diplomatic situation with Ukraine. Finally, there was a quid pro quo as Giuliani demanded that Ukraine “make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma” in exchange for arranging a visit to the White House for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. However, Sondland was “adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid” and “never received a clear answer” regarding the suspension of security aid in July and August of 2019. It was only later that he came to believe the security aid was contingent on the public statement Giuliani and Trump demanded.
Of the nearly seven hours of testimony, some key exchanges stand out. The Democratic Counsel, David Goldman, questioned Sondland about his evolving understanding of the nature of the quid pro quo. In late August or early September, Sondland came to believe that it was not just the White House visit that was contingent on a public announcement of the investigations but also the release of security aid that had been “log jammed” since July. Sondland never received a credible explanation for the delay in aid but “it became common knowledge that it was kind of tied together,” or as Goldman said a “two plus two equals four conclusion … the only logical conclusion given all these factors that the aid was part of the quid pro quo.” Steve Castor, the Republican Counsel, attempted to paint Sondland’s conclusion as “speculation,” “a guess” for which Sondland had “no evidence.” Sondland pushed back and said it was a “presumption” based on the fact that “the aid wasn’t being released.”
In their closing remarks, the Republican and Democratic representatives took two very different tacks. Ranking member Devin Nunes (R-CA) reiterated that there is no direct evidence that the aid to Ukraine was held up for “nefarious” reasons and characterized Sondland’s conclusion as “hearsay” rather than evidence. Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) called the testimony “seminal.” Schiff emphasized the President’s intention to make security aid contingent on a public statement from the Ukrainian president regarding an investigation into Hunter Biden.
Wednesday evening’s testimony from Cooper and Hale focused on the hold to aid to Ukraine. In her opening statement, Hale said that in July she became aware of a hold on the aid to Ukraine due to the president’s “concerns about corruption in Ukraine.” The Department of Defense had certified to Congress that sufficient progress was being made on anti-corruption in Ukraine to warrant the release of the funds. And, Cooper was primarily concerned because the Department of Defense needed sufficient time to obligate the funds by the end of September or there would be legal implications.
The highlight of the testimony came when Cooper revised her deposition testimony based on information from her staff. Previously, she testified that Ukraine first expressed concern about the hold in early September but has since learned from her staff that Ukraine first expressed concerns as early as July 25th. She testified that the aid had been conditioned on progress on corruption, conditions that were met. Republican representatives raised the point that aid to other countries had been held, but Cooper could not comment on those countries because they were outside of her purview. However, Ukraine was engaged in a hot war with Russia and the delay had real national security implications. Cooper said the Department of Defense “advocated strenuously for the release of these funds because of their national security importance”.
During his allotted time, Representative Swalwell (D-CA) said Cooper’s testimony “destroys two of the pillars of the President’s defense” that Ukraine did not know about the hold and that the President was a “real champion of anti-corruption in Ukraine.”
Thursday, Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia, and David Holmes, counselor for political affairs at the US Embassy in Ukraine are scheduled to testify.