Aide confirms Trump-Sondland call about Ukraine investigations
A US ambassador told President Donald Trump that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “loves your ass” and that Ukraine was going to move forward with the investigation Trump had asked Zelensky for a day earlier, according to new testimony from a US official in Kiev who overheard the phone conversation.
David Holmes told lawmakers in a closed-door impeachment inquiry Friday that US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland had told Trump the Ukrainian President would do “anything you ask him to” and that Sondland had confirmed the Ukrainians were going to “do the investigation,” one day after Trump has asked Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, according to a copy of Holmes’ opening statement obtained by CNN.
Holmes’ statement confirmed the testimony from Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, who revealed the July 26 phone call with lawmakers at his public testimony Wednesday, saying Holmes had informed Taylor about it after he first appeared on Capitol Hill behind closed doors last month. Holmes’ testimony places Trump closer to the push for Ukraine to open an investigation into his political rival, and raises additional questions about the testimony of Sondland, who is scheduled to testify publicly next week.
“Sondland told Trump that Zelensky ‘loves your ass,’ ” Holmes said, according to a copy of his opening statement. “I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’ Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to.'”
Holmes, who was subpoenaed to appear on Friday, explained that Sondland had placed the call to Trump, and he could hear Trump because the call was so loud on the terrace of a restaurant, where they dined with two others.
“While Ambassador Sondland’s phone was not on speakerphone, I could hear the President’s voice through the earpiece of the phone. The President’s voice was very loud and recognizable, and Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume,” Holmes testified.
“Even though I did not take notes of those statements, I have a clear recollection that these statements were made,” he added.
Republicans downplayed the significance of Holmes’ testimony to the Democrats’ case for impeachment.
“Someone loves your ass — we’re going to impeach a President over that? OK,” said Rep. Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican who attended Friday’s deposition.
Sondland’s attorney, Kwame Manley, told CNN, “Ambassador Sondland looks forward to testifying next Wednesday.”
Holmes also confirmed Taylor’s testimony about the President’s thoughts on Ukraine, saying he had asked Sondland “if it was true that the President did not ‘give a s— about Ukraine.”
Holmes said Sondland had responded that Trump cares only about “big stuff.” When Holmes said that the Ukraine war was big, Sondland responded, ” ‘Big stuff’ that benefits the President, like the Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing,” Holmes said.
In the statement, Holmes also added details about the freezing of US security aid to Ukraine, though he didn’t have direct knowledge about the reason behind the holdup and he detailed concerns being raised from multiple officials about Giuliani.
At one foreign policy meeting, Holmes testified, Sondland said: “Damnit, Rudy. Every time Rudy gets involved he goes and f—s everything up.”
Holmes said former national security adviser John Bolton expressed frustration to Taylor and National Security Council aide Tim Morrison about Giuliani’s influence with the President. Bolton indicated at the meeting that the lifting of the aid would hang on whether Zelensky was able to “favorably impress” Trump, when they were scheduled to meet in Warsaw in September. Due to Hurricane Dorian, Trump didn’t go to Poland and Vice President Mike Pence met with Zelensky in his place.
Holmes said that he was personally aware of the episodes Taylor testified to about Sondland saying that “everything” relied on announcing an investigation. But Holmes said that Taylor told him on September 8: “Now they’re insisting Zelensky commit to the investigation in an interview with CNN.”
“I was surprised the requirement was so specific and concrete,” Holmes said.
“While we had advised our Ukrainian counterparts to voice a commitment to following the rule of law and generally to investigating credible corruption allegations, this was a demand that President Zelensky personally commit to a specific investigation of President Trump’s political rival on a cable news channel,” Holmes said.
Holmes said that on September 13, two days after the freeze on security aid was lifted, Taylor had met with Zelensky and they ran into Zelensky’s aide, Andriy Yermak, as they left. Holmes said Taylor stressed the importance of staying out of US politics and he hoped no interview was planned, but Yermak “shrugged in resignation and did not answer, as if to indicate they had no choice,” Holmes testified.
Holmes’ testimony also explains how he ended up with Sondland at the restaurant. He said Sondland was in meetings in Ukraine with Taylor and others, and that when Taylor was departing Kiev, Holmes offered to go to lunch with Sondland to get briefed on the July 25 call. Holmes also said that he was supposed to be included in a meeting between Sondland and Yermak. Holmes said he was supposed to be a note-taker for the meeting, but when he arrived he was told by an aide to Yermak that they wanted a one-on-one meeting with “no note-taker.”
On the call, Sondland also talked to Trump about the US rapper who had been arrested in Sweden, A$AP Rocky, telling Trump that Sweden “should have released him on your word,” and later adding that Trump could “tell the Kardashians you tried.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.
CNN’s Lauren Fox and Katelyn Polantz contributed to this report.