DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK. So that's the testimony today. Yesterday we heard from a star witness in this inquiry - Gordon Sondland. As we just heard, he's the ambassador to the European Union. He testified that if the Ukranian leader wanted a meeting in the Oval Office, he had to announce investigations into Democrats. According to Sondland, Ukraine's leader had to announce an investigation into this debunked theory about the 2016 election as well in - as into Burisma, this Ukranian company that had the son of former Vice President Joe Biden on its board.
Both Democrats and Republicans are characterizing Sondland's testimony as a win for their side of the inquiry. And earlier this morning, my co-host Rachel Martin spoke about this with special assistant to President Trump Steven Groves.
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Laura Cooper, Defense Department official, testified that the Ukrainians sensed that something was amiss with the military aid on July 25. This is the day of the phone call between President Trump and President Zelenskiy. Can you explain why that aid was withheld?
STEVEN GROVES: Well, I think we have yet to get to that part of this inquiry. I think there are some witnesses coming up that know more about the funds, the hold on the funds and the release of the funds from the Office of Management and Budget. That's OMB. That's inside the White House.
MARTIN: So you're saying the...
GROVES: I think...
MARTIN: ...President did not direct the aid to be delayed.
GROVES: Well, there's obviously zero - zero evidence that that's ever happened. We'll wait to hear from the people who actually had control over those funds to see what they were instructed or not instructed to do. But thus far, in all of the hearings that we've heard and the deposition transcripts that have been released, there has not been a scintilla of evidence that any aid was withheld in return for any investigation or announcement of investigation from anyone.
MARTIN: The president came out yesterday and defended himself against Gordon Sondland's allegations, mainly by relaying details of a phone call that the two of them had on September 9 in which the president told Sondland, quote, "I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelenskiy to do the right thing," end quote. Do you think that's the president's best defense, considering this was on the same day that the House investigation started into the whistleblower complaint?
GROVES: Well, it's just going to be one thing that everyone's going to have to consider. It's not about qualifying what is the best of his many defenses. What you have to look at is what evidence has been presented before this - this so-called impeachment inquiry. And what we have so far - conjecture and presumptions and hearsay but not a scintilla of evidence that the president directed any type of quid pro quo.
And so I think it is relevant when Gordon Sondland calls him directly when these allegations are starting to come out and he tells him right to his face - no, I don't want anything; I don't want the quid pro quo. So the one time...
MARTIN: So it's just a coincidence that he had that phone conversation after he knew about the whistleblower complaint?
GROVES: We'll let people decide whether it's a coincidence or not. I think, you know, Democrats will see something nefarious and evil in it. And I think that other people viewing it from an objective standpoint will see it for what it is, which is a direct instruction to your EU ambassador not to engage in a quid pro quo.
MARTIN: Even if the president himself never articulated a quid pro quo in specific language, he directed Gordon Sondland and others to work with Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer. And multiple witnesses have testified that Giuliani was explicit that the Ukrainian leader wouldn't get what he wanted until he announced investigations into Joe Biden and the 2016 election. I want to play a bit of tape here. Let's listen.
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GORDON SONDLAND: Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the president of the United States. We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we were playing the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose a very important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the president's orders.
MARTIN: That was Ambassador Sondland testifying yesterday before the House Intelligence Committee. So my question to you - was Rudy Giuliani going rogue, or was he carrying out the president's explicit directions?
GROVES: Well, that would call for an opinion on - on my part. I know that there's been no evidence presented at this so-called impeachment inquiry of anyone going rogue. What was clear after Mr. Sondland was actually given questions about these broad and unequivocal statements he made during his opening statement - that even Rudy Giuliani never directed him to take any actions that would be - that would condition U.S. aid to Ukraine on a White House meeting or on anything else.
So it's one thing to play the opening statement of Mr. Sondland. But when Republicans questioned him very closely about his allegations, they fell apart right in real time. In real time, you had statements from the secretary of energy, the vice president of the United States - real time saying, I don't know what this Gordon Sondland's talking about. I didn't have anything to do with this.
MARTIN: But Rudy Giuliani was - as Sondland testified, as did others, that Rudy Giuliani was very clear-cut about what President Trump wanted - an investigation into Burisma and an investigation into the 2016 election. And he insisted on that before...
MARTIN: ...Any White House meeting.
GROVES: No. No, that's not true. He didn't hear that from Giuliani. Sondland made it crystal clear - and you need to be very careful, Rachel; this is evidence before the committee under oath. Sondland said, I did not hear that from Giuliani; I did not hear that from the president; that was my presumption. And in this country, you don't - you don't give someone a traffic ticket based on a presumption, much less overturn a democratic election and impeach somebody on a presumption.
MARTIN: It was his - I'm sorry to interrupt you. It was his presumption about military...
MARTIN: ...Aid. He said...
GROVES: ...Full stop.
MARTIN: ...I later came to understand, which is indeed a presumption. But...
GROVES: Yeah, I later came to understand.
MARTIN: ...He was very clear about the understanding that the White House meeting was contingent. That's what he described as the quid pro quo.
GROVES: Then - but then who did he hear that from?
MARTIN: Sondland has testified that Rudy Giuliani was very clear that the president of the United States was insisting on investigations - that was a critical priority for him - and that...
MARTIN: ...He was not going to...
GROVES: He said he told Zelenskiy, enough.
MARTIN: ...Engage with the President Zelenskiy until those investigations had been announced.
GROVES: That's - I'm not aware of that testimony, Rachel. I know that the president spoke to Zelenskiy about investigations. I know that - that investigations were part of a discussion. But I have yet to see any evidence that there was any - the link - the linkage or any quid pro quo about those investigations.
MARTIN: Is Rudy Giuliani still employed as President Trump's attorney?
GROVES: I don't have the faintest clue.
MARTIN: What about Ambassador Sondland? Does he still enjoy the full support and confidence of the president?
GROVES: As far as I know, he remains the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
MARTIN: Steven Groves, special assistant to President Trump. We appreciate your time.
GROVES: Thanks for having me on, Rachel.
MARTIN: I want to circle back to NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. I mean, we heard a discrepancy there, Franco - Steven Groves insisting that Gordon Sondland was making a presumption not only about the U.S. military aid but also about a White House meeting being contingent upon announcing investigations that the president wanted. Can you clarify that discrepancy for us?
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: What I can say is that certainly there was testimony that Gordon Sondland said it was very clear that Rudy Giuliani made it clear that it was President Trump's desire to have these investigations and that Sondland said that Giuliani told them that an investigation was the condition for which they needed to have the White House meeting.
MARTIN: All right. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
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