WASHINGTON — President Trump sought to defend himself from hours of damaging congressional testimony on Wednesday from Gordon Sondland, his ambassador to the European Union, by focusing on one detail of the ambassador’s lengthy account: a phone call in September in which the president denied withholding military aid to Ukraine as leverage to pressure that country’s leaders to announce investigations into his political rivals.
“Ready?” Trump yelled at reporters on the South Lawn, having stopped on his way to boarding Marine One. “Do you have the cameras rolling?”
The president then began reading from a notepad of talking points scrawled in Sharpie paraphrasing Trump’s comments in the phone conversation, as recounted by Sondland: “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky” — referring to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine — “to do the right thing.”
In Trump’s final line of notes, he wrote that it would be the “final word” from him on the matter.
Speaking to reporters later in the day during his factory tour in Austin, Trump described Sondland’s testimony as “fantastic” and said it proves he “did absolutely nothing wrong.”
“They have to end it now. There was no quid pro quo. . . . Not only did we win today; it’s over,” Trump said.
Sondland testified on Wednesday that he had a conversation with the president on Sept. 9, and that an irritated Trump had told him he had never requested a “quid pro quo” from Zelensky.
But Trump’s comments ignored the bulk of the testimony offered by Sondland, who asserted that the president had expressly ordered him to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to dredge up unflattering information on his political rivals. Sondland also said the senior-most members of the administration were aware of the effort, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff.
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said. “It was no secret.”
The call between the president and Sondland — who was a high-dollar donor to Trump’s inauguration before embarking on a career in diplomacy — took place the same day the whistle-blower complaint that formed the basis for the impeachment inquiry was delivered to the House Intelligence Committee.
Sondland said Trump was “not in a good mood” that day.
“It was a very short abrupt conversation,” Sondland said about the September call. “He just said, ‘I want nothing, I want nothing, I want no quid pro quo.’”
But Trump disputed that he’d been cranky that day.
“I’m always in a good mood,” Trump said. “I don’t know what that is.”
The president’s comments, delivered as he departed for a day trip to Austin, Texas, were followed by a statement from the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, who said Sondland was detailing “one of the few brief phone calls” with Trump.
“The US aid to Ukraine flowed, no investigation was launched, and President Trump has met and spoken with President Zelenskiy,” Grisham said. “Democrats keep chasing ghosts.”
Even as he quoted from Sondland’s testimony to defend himself, Trump sought to distance himself from the more damaging parts of the ambassador’s testimony.
“I don’t know him very well,” Trump said to reporters of Sondland. “I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though.”
Throughout his presidency, Trump has used some version of the phrase “I don’t know him very well” when commenting on people who have become threats, from his former lawyer Michael Cohen to the political strategist Roger Stone.
Later in the day, Sondland responded to Trump’s claim that he didn’t know the ambassador well.
“We have a professional, cordial working relationship,” Sondland said, adding that he had paid “a lot of money” to attend Trump’s inauguration, and had spoken to the president on the phone some 20 times.
Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.