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Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, leaves after testifying before the House impeachment inquiry hearing on Nov. 20, 2019.DOUG MILLS/The New York Times

President Donald Trump ordered U.S. diplomats to push Ukraine to investigate his political opponents, a high-ranking envoy told a congressional impeachment inquiry Thursday.

Gordon Sondland, ambassador to European Union, said there was a “quid pro quo” to withhold nearly US$400-million in military aid and a White House invitation for Ukraine’s President to put pressure on Kyiv to launch the probes.

And he said several people at the highest levels of the administration – including Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mick Mulvaney, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff – knew about the plot and, in some cases, encouraged it.

“Was there a quid pro quo?” Mr. Sondland told the House intelligence committee on the fourth day of hearings. “The answer is yes.”

In separate testimony later in the day, Pentagon official Laura Cooper confirmed that Mr. Trump ordered the freeze on military aid and that Ukraine was aware of it weeks before the freeze was revealed publicly.

The dramatic day on Capitol Hill added further evidence to the Democrats’ case that Mr. Trump personally directed a sustained pressure campaign to get a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election by tarnishing Joe Biden, one of his potential presidential rivals, and the Democratic National Committee with investigations.

And it made increasingly likely the possibility that the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will move forward with articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump.

Republicans on the committee, however, tried to discredit Mr. Sondland by pointing out that he did not hear directly from Mr. Trump about any plan to trade money or White House access for the investigations. And on one occasion, Mr. Trump even explicitly denied to Mr. Sondland that there was a quid pro quo.

An Oregon hotelier and lifelong Republican, Mr. Sondland received his ambassadorship after donating US$1-million to Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

Mr. Sondland’s involvement in the campaign began last May, he said, when Mr. Trump ordered him and other diplomats to “talk with Rudy” Giuliani. The President’s lawyer told them Mr. Trump wanted Kyiv to investigate Burisma, a Ukrainian company tied to Mr. Biden’s son Hunter Biden, as well as a conspiracy theory involving Ukrainian help to the Democratic Party in the 2016 election.

Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Sondland said, made clear Mr. Trump would not grant newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky an Oval Office meeting until he announced the investigations. When Mr. Trump halted the military aid, Mr. Sondland said he could not get any explanation for the move from the White House and so deduced that it was also withheld in exchange for the investigations.

“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt,” Mr. Sondland said. “We followed the President’s orders.”

Mr. Sondland confirmed that he pressed Ukraine to announce the probes, including during a July 10 White House sit-down with Ukraine’s then-national security adviser and in a meeting in Warsaw on Sept. 1 with a top adviser to Mr. Zelensky. Mr. Sondland said he told the Ukrainians that the military aid and the meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky were contingent on the investigations.

And the ambassador said he kept both Mr. Pence and Mr. Pompeo apprised of what he was doing.

In one e-mail, Mr. Sondland wrote to Mr. Pompeo that he had “negotiated a statement” for Mr. Zelensky to deliver on the investigations. And before a Warsaw meeting between Mr. Pence and Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Sondland said he told the Vice-President that the military aid was tied to the probes.

Mr. Sondland confirmed that Mr. Trump spoke directly with him about the investigations, but said he could not remember details of the conversations because he did not take notes.

At one point, Mr. Sondland said, he asked a “cranky” Mr. Trump what exactly he wanted on Ukraine. “He just said, ‘I want nothing, I want nothing, I want no quid pro quo. Just tell Zelensky to do the right thing,’ ” Mr. Sondland said. The conversation happened Sept. 9, the day Congress began investigating Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

Steve Castor, lawyer for committee’s Republicans, slammed Mr. Sondland’s patchy memory. “You don’t have records. You don’t have notes because you don’t take notes. You don’t have recollections. This is a trifecta of unreliability," he said.

Mr. Trump tried to distance himself from Mr. Sondland. “I don’t know him very well,” he told reporters. And Mr. Pence’s office denied the Vice-President discussed Ukraine investigations or military aid with Mr. Sondland.

Ms. Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of defence whose portfolio includes Ukraine, testified that Ukrainian officials knew their military aid had been frozen earlier than previously known. She said the country’s embassy contacted both the Pentagon and State department to ask about the freeze in late July, around the time of the telephone call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky in which Mr. Trump demanded an investigation of Mr. Biden.

Ms. Cooper said Mr. Trump had personally ordered the aid frozen. “In a series of interagency meetings, I heard that the President had directed the Office of Management and Budget to hold the funds because of his concerns about corruption in Ukraine,” she said.

Ms. Cooper appeared alongside David Hale, a top State official who said OMB officials also told him Mr. Trump had ordered the freeze.

The inquiry will hear from two more witnesses Thursday, including a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine who says he overheard Mr. Trump speaking with Mr. Sondland by telephone about the investigations.

The committee could begin drafting articles of impeachment as soon as next week.

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