US president Donald Trump faced his most damaging day in the impeachment inquiry to date, as the US ambassador to the European Union testified that the president directed a pressure campaign on Ukraine.
Appearing before the House intelligence committee on Wednesday, Gordon Sondland told legislators that he and others pressed Ukraine to open investigations "at the direction of the president" who instructed officials to "talk with Rudy," a reference to his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Mr Sondland told a packed hearing room that "everyone was in the loop," including vice-president Mike Pence, White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
“The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false,” he said. “Throughout these events, we kept state department leadership and others apprised of what we were doing. State department was fully supportive of our engagement in Ukraine affairs, and was aware that a commitment to investigations was among the issues we were pursuing.”
In information that could incriminate Mr Pompeo, Mr Sondland displayed an email exchange he had with the secretary of state on August 22nd which suggests that the top US foreign policy official knew about the administration’s demand for investigations from Ukraine.
Mr Sondland also answered a question that has been at the heart of the impeachment inquiry into Mr Trump. “Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’,” Mr Sondland said in his opening statement. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
However, Mr Sondland said it was only later that he came to realise that the provision of military aid to Ukraine was also contingent upon Ukraine publicly announcing investigations into former vice-president Joe Biden and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry in September amid concerns that Mr Trump improperly requested Ukraine to open an investigation into Mr Biden – a potential political rival – in exchange for military aid.
Mr Sondland, a Seattle hotelier who donated $1 million to Mr Trump’s inauguration fund and was subsequently appointed ambassador to the EU, appeared confident and relaxed during Wednesday’s hearing.
Responding to the testimony that gripped Washington on Wednesday, Mr Trump appeared to distance himself from Mr Sondland. “I don’t know him very well,” he said as he left the White House for an event in Texas, apparently undercutting his recent descriptions of the man he appointed as ambassador as a “really good man and great American”.
Mr Trump also seized on a section of the testimony which described Mr Sondland asking Mr Trump what he wanted from Ukraine, and the president replying: “Nothing.” “This means it is all over,” Mr Trump declared, returning to the point later on Twitter.
But Democrats hit back at this defence, pointing out that the conversation took place just as the whistleblower complaint about Mr Trump’s July 25th phone call with president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky emerged.
As Republicans sought to defend Mr Trump during the testimony, they called for Mr Biden’s son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father was vice-president, to be subpoenaed.
Mr Sondland's powerful testimony on Wednesday reinforced expectations that the House of Representatives will hold a vote to impeach Mr Trump as early as next month. If the House votes to impeach the 45th president of the US, it would then go to a trial in the Senate. However, with Republicans holding a majority in the Senate, it appears unlikely that Mr Trump will be convicted.