Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, on Tuesday changed the story he told congressional investigators in closed-door testimony, admitting that he knew Donald Trump wanted a quid pro quo from Ukraine. On Friday, Trump sharply distanced himself from Sondland, CNN reported.
Sondland, a hotel magnate, handed over a million-dollar donation to Trump's inaugural committee before being named EU ambassador, despite having no previous diplomatic experience.
But on Friday, Trump, in an exchange with reporters outside the White House, essentially disavowed Sondland.
"Let me just tell you, I hardly know the gentleman," Trump said, as quoted by CNN. His brush-off of Sondland was a significant reversal from just one month ago, when, in a series of posts to his Twitter account, he lavished praise on Sondland, calling him "a really good man and great American."
Even though Ukraine is not part of the European Union, Sondland was a central figure in what he now says was Trump's attempt to force Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden in exchange for a resumption of military aid which was being held back by the Trump administration.
In October, when Trump praised Sondland, the ambassador was best known for a text message to the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, in which he insisted that he had spoken on the phone with the president, and that Trump was "crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind."
Three weeks ago, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney admitted the quid pro quo demand in a public press conference. Mulvaney said that rather than investigate Trump's potential abuse of power, his opponents should simply "get over it."
In his revised testimony to the impeachment inquiry earlier this week, however, Sondland admitted that he told top Ukraine negotiator Andriy Yermak that there would be no military aid until Trump got what he wanted out of that country's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, according to CNN.
"I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks," Sondland said in the reversal of his previous claim, as quoted by CNN.
But according to testimony on Thursday by George Kent, a deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state, what Trump wanted was not exactly an "anti-corruption statement."
Instead, Trump was demanding that Zelensky "go to a microphone and say investigations, Biden and Clinton," Kent testified, as reported by The Washington Post.
Kent said his view that Trump wanted Zelensky to announce investigations into both his potential 2020 rival, Biden, and also his 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, came directly from a conversation with Sondland, according to The Washington Post report.