Fact-checking the Gordon Sondland impeachment hearing about Trump, Ukraine

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, said he was following orders of President Donald Trump to have Ukraine investigate a company that hired the son of Vice President Joe Biden, and many officials knew about it.

Sondland said he and others worked with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the "express direction" of Trump, Sondland said.

"I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’" Sondland said in his Nov. 20 opening statement. "As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes."

When pressed by Republicans of the House Intelligence Committee, Sondland said that it was his strong impression that the orders came from Trump via Giuliani, rather than being laid out explicitly by the president.

At one point, the GOP committee counsel asked whether Trump personally told him about any preconditions for a White House meeting with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Sondland said he did not.

Trump emphasized this distinction in brief remarks to reporters.

"I’d say to the ambassador in response: ‘I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo.  Tell Zelensky — President Zelensky — to do the right thing," Trump said, citing Sondland’s earlier deposition.

We heard several claims to fact-check from the hearing and the commentary around it, including President Donald Trump and his supporters.

Trump: "I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well."

The term "very well" is in the eye of the beholder, but the available evidence suggests more than a passing acquaintance between the two men.

There are numerous photos of the Sondand and Trump together, including aboard Air Force One. In October, Trump tweeted that he "would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify."

During Sondland’s public testimony, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., read Trump’s comments aloud and asked Sondland if he knew the president well. Sondland said they were not "close friends" but have a "professional, cordial working relationship."

RELATED FACT-CHECK: Donald Trump's claim he doesn’t know Gordon Sondland very well

While Sondland testified that "I haven’t had that many communications with the president," he later added, when pressed by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., that it was in the neighborhood of 20 conversations, not all of which were about Ukraine.

Sondland said he couldn’t be sure of the exact number because the White House has not turned over all his call records.

House Intelligence Ranking Member Devin Nunes, R-Calif.: Kurt Volker testified that he was a proud part of the Three Amigos.

This may have been one of the hearing’s lighter moments, but it’s not accurate.

Nunes and Sondland bantered about the "three amigos" — the name of the group that pursued an alternative diplomatic channel to Ukraine. The three "amigos" were Sondland; Kurt Volker, who was then the special representative to Ukraine; and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. According to testimony, these three officials conducted an irregular channel of diplomacy to to Ukraine, spearheaded by Giuliani.

Nunes said, "Did you know you were part of the Three Amigos?"

Sondland responded, with a smile, "I am. I’m a proud part of the Three Amigos."

Nunes answered, also with a smile: "And that’s the same thing Ambassador Volker said yesterday."

Here’s what Volker actually said Nov. 19:

"Much has been made of the term 'Three Amigos.' ... I've never used that term and frankly cringe when I hear it, because for me the 'Three Amigos' will always refer to Sen. (John) McCain, Sen. (Joe) Lieberman, and Sen. (Lindsey) Graham in witness to their support for the surge in Iraq."

Nunes: There were "anti-Trump efforts by DNC operative Alexandra Chalupa."

This is misleading. 

Alexandra Chalupa, a Ukrainian-American consultant for the Democratic National Committee, looked for compromising information about former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and revealed some findings to Ukrainian embassy officials and the DNC, according to Politico.

We found no evidence that the DNC authorized Chalupa’s research or worked directly with Ukraine’s government.

RELATED FACT-CHECK: Fact-checking what Chalupa and the DNC did in Ukraine

Chalupa said she took it upon herself to research Manafort’s connections to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who fled Ukraine amid protests. As Trump’s campaign surged, she started researching Trump’s ties to Russia, too.

Chalupa shared some rumors and findings with officials from the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, according to the Politico report.

But Chalupa took issue with the Politico article. She told CNN she was not an opposition researcher and that the DNC never asked her to seek dirt from Ukraine.

Kenneth Vogel, one of the reporters behind the Politico story, clarified on Twitter that the "DNC consultant was not repping DNC" in her communications with Ukrainians.

Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the DNC, told PolitiFact that Chalupa was a part-time consultant hired to help the DNC "engage in outreach to American ethnic communities."

"The DNC’s contract with Chalupa permitted her to have other clients and/or engage in activities not on behalf of the DNC, which she presumably did," Watson said.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas: "I'd like to enter into the record a Washington Post article from today headlined, ‘Schiff’s claim that the whistleblower has a ‘statutory right’ to anonymity.’"

Our friends at the Washington Post Fact Checker gave Three Pinocchios to the assertion by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., that the whistleblower whose letter prompted the impeachment inquiry has "a statutory right to remain anonymous."

We came to similar conclusions Nov. 11 and again Nov. 19.

RELATED FACT-CHECK: Is outing the whistleblower only a crime if the inspector general does it?

A whistleblower has a statutory right not to be retaliated against, but under that law, it’s not at all clear that this includes a right to anonymity.

U.S. Code Section  3033 specifically bars the inspector general for the intelligence community from releasing a name, but it is silent on others who would do so.

Another part of Section 3033 does provide broader protection for workplace "reprisal." But by addressing "disclosure" and "reprisal" separately, the law suggests that disclosure by itself doesn’t amount to reprisal — and that disclosure alone doesn’t qualify for the stronger protections granted against "reprisal."

Pam Bondi, Trump impeachment adviser, on CBS News: Says Gordon Sondland "was ambassador to the Ukraine. He is ambassador to the Ukraine. And the president knows him, the president does not know him very well. He’s a short-term ambassador."

This is false. 

Sondland is ambassador to the European Union, not Ukraine. The Trump campaign donor and Pacific Northwest hotel magnate was confirmed by the Senate on June 29, 2018.

Bondi: "You know, this all started in a bunker with Adam Schiff and Democrats. Republicans weren't allowed in the door. in fact, they were kicked out of the hearings."

This is also false. 

There were 47 Republicans across three House committees that were allowed to participate in the closed-door depositions in the early stages of the impeachment inquiry, before the formal House vote.

Bondi was referencing an attempt to disrupt the hearings led by fellow Floridian Matt Gaetz, a representative from the Panhandle. Gaetz and other members with him were not allowed in because they were not on the relevant committees. Some, such as Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida, chose not to attend despite being able to. 

RELATED FACT-CHECK: Limbaugh wrongly claims Republicans are being shut out of impeachment hearings