The US ambassador to the European Union told an impeachment hearing Wednesday that he was following the orders of President Donald Trump in seeking a "quid pro quo" from Ukraine.
Gordon Sondland — who was a Trump ally and whose appearance before Congress is subsequently being watched especially closely — said he believed the president was pressing Ukraine to investigate his potential 2020 rival Joe Biden.
"We followed the president's orders," Mr Sondland said in his prepared testimony to an open hearing of the House Intelligence Committee.
He said that Mr Trump forced US diplomats to work with his personal lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
"We did not want to work with Mr Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt," he said.
"We weren't happy with the presidential directive to 'talk with Rudy'... but ... it was the only course open to us."
Mr Sondland testified that Mr Trump told him Ukraine had tried to "take him down" during the election
He said that Mr Trump held off on offering a summit with Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, as Mr Giuliani demanded that Kiev publicly announce that it was investigating a gas company on which former vice president Joe Biden's son Hunter held a paid board position.
Mr Giuliani also wanted Mr Zelensky to investigate a widely discredited conspiracy theory in which Ukraine planted evidence on a server of Mr Biden's Democratic Party to show that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
"Mr Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky," Mr Sondland said.
According to Mr Sondland, he "never received a clear answer" on why the United States suspended security aid to Ukraine, which is battling Russian-backed separatists, but that he "came to believe" it was also tied to the investigations sought by Mr Trump.
"I was adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid, as the Ukrainians needed those funds to fight against Russian aggression," he said.
"In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded."
The White House on Wednesday pushed back against Mr Sondland's testimony that there was a quid pro quo involving the US and Ukraine.
"Ambassador Sondland previously testified that the president told him directly that he was not interested in a quid pro quo," the White House said in a statement, referring to his closed-door testimony last month. "He testified that President Trump repeatedly made it clear he wanted no quid pro quo."
Mr Sondland was appearing in the second week of televised impeachment hearings, in which Democrats are seeking to establish whether Mr Trump abused the power of his office by leveraging military aid and a White House meeting to extract a commitment from Mr Zelensky to probe the Bidens.
The House investigation could conceivably wrap up this week, with evidence then sent to the House Judiciary Committee to draw up articles of impeachment.
Mr Trump's impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House would place the president on trial in the Senate, where a Republican majority could protect him from removal.