WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. diplomat who is a pivotal witness in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he worked with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine issues on “the president’s orders,” confirming Trump’s active participation in a controversy that threatens his presidency.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told the inquiry that Giuliani’s efforts to push Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for investigations into Trump’s political rivals “were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit” for the Ukrainian leader.
Quid pro quo is a Latin term meaning a favor exchanged for a favor.
Sondland, a wealthy hotel entrepreneur and Trump donor, said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was aware and “fully supportive” of their efforts on Ukraine, providing a fuller role of the top U.S. diplomat’s role in the affair.
Pompeo, a close Trump ally, has declined to defend State Department witnesses who have been attacked by Trump and other Republicans over the Ukraine controversy.
Sondland was appearing on Wednesday before the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, which is taking the lead in the impeachment inquiry. He smiled and laughed as he took his seat at the witness chair in the hearing room on Capitol Hill in the fourth day of public proceedings in the investigation.
Sondland testified that Trump had ordered him and two other senior officials to work with Giuliani, who has refused to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry. Giuliani at the time had been working to get Ukraine to carry out the investigations that would benefit Trump politically.
“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 said.
The inquiry focuses on a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to carry out two investigations that would benefit him politically including one targeting Democratic political rival Joe Biden. The other involved a debunked conspiracy theory embraced by some Trump allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Ahead of his request that Zelenskiy carry out the two investigations, Trump froze $391 million in U.S. security aid approved by Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.
Democrats have accused Trump of using the frozen aid and Zelenskiy’s desire for an Oval Office meeting as leverage to pressure a vulnerable U.S. ally to dig up dirt on political adversaries. Trump is seeking re-election next year.
“I think we know now … that the knowledge of this scheme was far and wide and included among others Secretary of State Pompeo as well as the vice president,” said Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, referring to Vice President Mike Pence.
Schiff said Pompeo and Trump “have made such a concerted and across-the-board effort to obstruct this investigation and this impeachment inquiry. They do at their own peril.”
Sondland was one of three Trump allies who largely took over U.S.-Ukraine policy in May, with Giuliani also playing a key role despite holding no official government position. Career U.S. diplomats have portrayed Sondland in their testimony as a central figure in what became a shadow and “irregular” Ukraine policy operation, undercutting official channels and pressing Kiev to investigate the Bidens.
Sondland said he was “adamantly opposed” to any suspension of aid to Ukraine because Kiev needed it to fight against Russian aggression.
“I tried diligently to ask why the aid was suspended, but I never received a clear answer. In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded,” Sondland said.
Trump has denied wrongdoing, called the inquiry a witch hunt and assailed some of the witnesses including current White House aides.
Sondland was tapped as Trump’s envoy after he donated $1 million to the president’s inauguration. In October, Trump called him “a really good man,” but after Sondland’s amended statement to House investigators this month the president told reporters at the White House, “I hardly know the gentleman.”
The investigation could lead the House to approve formal charges against Trump – called articles of impeachment – that would be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial on whether to remove him from office. Few Republican senators have broken with Trump.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday it was “inconceivable” that two-thirds of the Republican-controlled chamber would vote to convict Trump.
According to Reuters/Ipsos polling, 46 percent of Americans support impeachment, while 41 percent oppose it.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Andy Sullivan; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Karen Freifeld and Susan Heavey; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by