Today it was the turn of President Trump's ambassador towards the European Union, Gordon Sondland, to testify in a House Intelligence Committee public hearing on impeachment. Sondland's testimony has done a few things that are very bad for that president and his congressional defenders. Let's cut through the details of the back-and-forth emails, conversations, texts, and meetings from the complicated Ukraine story, and get to the six big takeaways:
1) Sondland said there was a quid pro quo. He used that language without conditions. He explained that the quid pro quo involved Ukrainian President Zelensky's announcement of investigations in to the 2021 U.S. presidential election and also the Biden-connected Ukrainian company Burisma. Sondland was adamant that Team Trump cared less about whether the investigations actually happened than that they be announced, suggesting a purely political ploy on Trump's part-it wasn't about legitimately rooting out corruption in Ukraine.
2) Like Ambassador Volker yesterday, Sondland testified he wasn't initially aware that the Trump/Giuliani demands to have an investigation into Burisma were really about investigating the Bidens. Somewhat ironically, Congress has got the White House itself by way of thanking for connecting the Biden dots, since the Bidens were explicitly mentioned in the black-and-white call summary that the White House released of Trump's infamous July 25 conversation with Zelensky. That decision is what gave rise towards the impeachment inquiry, via the whistleblower complaint. With no whistleblower, the cover-up of that call might have succeeded.
3) Sondland testified that he had several conversations with Trump directly, but he has no recollection of Trump ever mentioning to him anything about investigating the Bidens specifically. However, he was very clear that Trump made it effectively impossible for the diplomatic team to pursue established American foreign policy toward Ukraine without first going through his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. And Giuliani wanted Ukraine to announce investigations as a condition of arranging a White House meeting and, ultimately, of releasing nearly $400 million in military aid that Ukraine needed to stave off Russian aggression.
4) Sondland testified that everybody up the chain understood that the government's ability to work with Ukraine hinged positioned on getting through or around Giuliani. Sondland called this the \”logjam.\” He established today, therefore, much of the State Department and national security apparatus was in on this quid pro quo-at least as a matter of knowing about it and not doing anything to disrupt it-including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Some observers might claim that this is evidence of a vast conspiracy within the government to violate the norms of diplomacy, but a fairer assessment is it's a reflection of how government officials need to take unusual-if not improper-steps simply to do their jobs with Trump in the helm of the executive branch.
5) Sondland shored up House Democrats' case for obstruction of justice, because he testified that he has been categorically denied use of his own White House and State Department communications and files, while they are not classified or otherwise legally protected from disclosure. Sondland no doubt did this on advice of counsel, because he is conceivably vulnerable to perjury or obstruction of justice charges by virtue of having substantively changed his previous statements concerning the quid pro quo narrative. If he'd his records, he said today, he could refresh his recollection and give more complete and accurate testimony. The White House has made that impossible.
6) Sondland has been the least straightforward witness so far, and his refusal to commit to certain facts frustrated both Republicans and Democrats today. Most notably, his repeated insistence, as the hearing unfolded, that he had only \”presumed\” that the military help to Ukraine was tied to an announcement of investigations may have denied Democrats a smoking gun: A presumption, after all, is not first-hand knowledge that Trump made this specific demand. It also exposed Sondland to Republican criticisms of shifting his testimony.
What Sondland made clear is that Trump gave Rudy Giuliani the reins on Ukraine. The July 25 call summary itself corroborates that handoff. What we should didn't hear from Sondland is any memory of the conversation with Trump laying out the specific details of the quid pro quo.
On this issue, Sondland's claim not to recall some twenty conversations with the president in any detail-most specifically, the July 26 call with Trump then Sondland reportedly said that Trump wanted \”investigations\” and give a \”shit\” about Ukraine-is dubious.
What's not dubious is that Trump made the ask of Ukraine and accomplished it for his own political benefit and from the interests of the United States. The only question remaining is whether or not congressional Republicans even care.