WASHINGTON — Gordon Sondland was billed as the most dangerous witness against President Trump this week: And he did not disappoint.
In gripping testimony at the impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill Wednesday, the Trump-appointed EU ambassador confirmed a quid pro quo at the heart of Democrats’ impeachment case, and said Trump and his inner circle knew about everything he was doing to encourage Ukraine to investigate Trump’s Democratic enemies.
Sondland even confirmed placing an unsecured cell phone call to Trump from a restaurant in downtown Kyiv to say that the investigations Trump wanted were all set to happen — adding that, yeah, he probably told Trump that Ukraine’s president “loves your ass,” because that's the way they talked to each other.
“That sounds like something I would say,” Sondland affirmed. “That’s how President Trump and I communicate. A lot of four-letter words. In this case, three-letter.”
That account flies in the face of Trump’s previous insistence that he barely knows “the gentleman” — which Trump repeated at the White House Wednesday, saying, “I don’t know him very well.”
Sondland’s Wednesday morning bombshells promise to shake up the impeachment case, forcing Republicans to adjust their talking points and Trump’s top officials to rebut his claims that they knew all about his actions to press Ukraine to launch investigations into the Bidens and Ukraine meddling in the 2016 election.
Even Ken Starr, the lead investigator of former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment drama who has largely defended Trump in recent times, called Sondland’s testimony damaging. This morning, Starr admitted things have changed.
“We’ve gotten closer to the president,” Starr told Fox News. “It doesn’t look great for the president, substantively.”
Bad News Sondland
Trump’s allies in the House couldn't even staunch the flow of damaging information. Instead, at one point, they instigated one of the most explosive declarations of Sondland’s testimony.
When the Republicans’ counsel asked about the “irregular channel” with Ukraine, Sondland shot back: “I’m not sure how someone could characterize something as an ‘irregular channel’ when you’re talking to the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, the Chief of Staff of the White House, [and] the Secretary of Energy.”
“I don’t know how they can consider us to be the irregular channel, and they to be the regular channel, when it’s the leadership that makes the decisions,” he added.
That appeared to be Sondland’s position throughout: “Everyone was in the loop” about what he was doing.
Sondland’s testimony looks like especially bad news for:
- President Trump. Sondland provided firsthand testimony of Trump’s involvement. Republicans have been arguing it didn’t exist.
- Mike Pence, Trump’s Vice President. Sondland said explicitly that he warned Pence that military aid to Ukraine might be tied to investigations, suggesting Pence knew much more than he’s admitted.
- Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer. Sondland complained repeatedly and bitterly about being forced to work with Giuliani on pushing Ukraine to launch investigations, even though Giuliani had no official government role.
- Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s Chief of Staff. Sondland presented emails showing he was in direct touch with Mulvaney before the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call, and that Zelensky had said “he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone.’” Mulvaney replied that he would help set up the call.
- Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State. Sondland showed he repeatedly emailed Pompeo and his top aide multiple times during the summer keeping them apprised of his activities. Pompeo was copied on Sondland’s email chain with Mulvaney. In mid-August, Sondland let Pompeo know that he’d negotiated a statement from Zelensky that would “hopefully make the boss happy enough to authorize an invitation” to the White House. Later, Pompeo approved Sondland’s efforts to set up a direct meeting between Trump and Zelensky.
Sondland said he assumed any direction about investigations coming from Giuliani was really coming from Trump.
“When the president says, ‘Talk to my personal attorney,’ and then Mr. Giuliani makes certain requests or demands, you assume it’s coming from the president,” Sondland said.
Sondland even provided fresh evidence for an article of impeachment against Trump for obstructing the congressional investigation, Starr told Fox, by noting that he hasn’t been able to access to his own records from the administration.
“This, obviously, has been one of those bombshell days,” Starr said.
The limits of Sondland
Sondland’s testimony still left holes for Trump’s defenders to use in their efforts to rebut his narrative, however.
Sondland claimed he didn’t realize that an investigation of “Burisma” (where Hunter Biden had a seat on the board) was the same thing as investigating former Vice President Joe Biden’s family, a claim Democrats argue should have been clear ever since Giuliani began to make the case for investigating Biden in Ukraine publicly last spring.
Sondland also said that no one else told him to explicitly connect military assistance to Ukraine to the announcement of investigations against Democrats — that he made that connection himself before presenting it to a Ukrainian official in September.
“I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement [of investigations],” Sondland said.
“The aid was my own personal guess,” Sondland said. “Two plus two equals four.”
Cover: U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)