Sondland deals reeling Trump another blow
The 'read the transcript' defense just got even less plausible
Gordon Sondland, the wildly unqualified U.S. ambassador to the European Union and one of the central figures in President Trump's off-off-off-Broadway Ukraine extortion conspiracy, this week revised his previous testimony from October and admitted that there had, indeed, been a quid pro quo at the heart of the matter currently roiling American politics.
Saying that he had "refreshed my recollection," in the wake of last month's 10-hour testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Sondland confirmed in a three-page addendum that nearly $400 million in military assistance was held up over the summer by the Trump administration as it sought a public announcement from newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky that he was opening an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter as well as Ukraine's alleged role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It was a reminder that nothing "refreshes your memory" like seeing other people swear that you just lied under oath to Congress.
Sondland's revised testimony immediately upends the Trump administration's blinkered plan to weather the impeachment inquiry by simultaneously caterwauling about "Soviet-style" hearings in the House and denying that this quid pro quo had happened. It has been quite obvious to anyone who has even skimmed the rough transcript of the president's July 25 call with Zelensky that the central allegation in the impeachment inquiry is undeniably true. The true believers in the "Read the Transcript!" t-shirts at Trump's Monday rally in Kentucky are going to need a wardrobe change, perhaps to something like, "Imprudent, But Not Impeachable!"
The key revision to Sondland's 375-page testimony from Oct. 17 concerns a Sept. 1 meeting he had with Zelensky aid Andriy Yermak. Last month, he told the committee that it had not occurred to him that military aid was being held up for a pledge to investigate the Bidens until U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor texted him on September 9. Yesterday, Sondland pulled this Yermak meeting from his newly-jogged memory and claimed that he had, indeed, told him that the aid would be withheld until Zelensky publicly announced the investigations — one into Hunter Biden's role at the energy firm Burisma, and the other into the cockamamie theory that Russian hacking of DNC emails in 2016 was actually a Ukrainian interference operation and that the DNC server is being held somewhere in the country like an ISIS hostage.
"I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak," Sondland said, "where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks."
This confirms a key detail from Taylor's damning testimony which Trump's apologists relentlessly slammed as containing too much second-hand information. It's a bit of a head-spinner, but here goes: Taylor recalled a conversation with former Trump advisor Tim Morrison in which Morrison told Taylor that Sondland told him about the Yermak meeting. Well we can now cut Taylor and his memories out of the equation altogether, because Sondland himself confirms that this "pull-aside conversation" indeed took place in Warsaw on the Sept. 1, precisely as Taylor said that Morrison said it did. And while Sondland says he doesn't recall his conversation with Morrison, he also says he has "no reason to question the substance of their recollection about my September 1 conversation with Mr. Yermak."
President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, once again surfaces as a central figure. Sondland's revision says that the statement Zelensky was supposed to make had to please Giuliani in particular. "I understood that satisfying Mr. Giuliani was a condition for scheduling the White House visit," which was also being denied the new Ukrainian president until he capitulated and went on CNN to announce these fake investigations. In his earlier testimony, Sondland made it clear that Giuliani was demanding specific investigations. "Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President [Volodymyr] Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues... Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the president."
President Trump, of course, doesn't care about Ukrainian corruption any more than he does about West Virginian coal miners. The Trump organization's entire international business model was built on a ready supply of buyable functionaries willing to grease the skids for whatever skyline-marring phallic eyesore the president and his wayward children wanted to erect. They literally could never have succeeded at their decades-long grift without the existence of struggling countries with transparency and corruption problems like Ukraine. The announcement President Trump sought from Zelensky, instead, was pure theater, designed to taint Biden's presidential campaign and fuel ludicrious far-right conspiracy theories about the origins of the Mueller probe. It was always about the president's own interests.
You can be sure of this for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that it is clear that no one involved in this escapade believed for a second that the Bidens did anything wrong, let alone the glue-sniffing hallucination that Ukraine was the origin of the "Russia hoax," an incredibly laughable and prima facie absurd conspiracy theory sustained entirely by the willingness of normal-seeming people like Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist to say that it is the truth. Instead, Trump's demented scheme, executed as the worst-kept secret in world history by the brain-rotted Giuliani, set off alarm bells and a cascade of memo-writing and lawyer-contacting as one by one, Trump appointees like John Bolton and Fiona Hill learned of it, and as career public servants like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman tried to put a stop to it. Sondland described the plot as "insidious" and thought it was "probably illegal." You can sift through his testimony for hours without finding anything remotely exculpatory for the president.
So far there is no sign that Sondland's devastating revision is moving the president's most ardent sycophants off of their Trump-led denialism. Rep. Mark Meadows, who has emerged as one of the president's chief toadies in the House, tweeted that, "The Volker/Sondland transcripts lay it out: @realDonaldTrump wanted to clean up corruption in Ukraine, and ensure taxpayer funded aid wasn't going to corrupt causes." Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters that "I've written this whole process off" and that he hadn't read Sondland's revisions. That's some good juroring right there!
Most Senate Republicans, however, are not going to be able to sell this in anything resembling good faith. Eventually, they are going to have to move on from "I can't talk about this because I'm going to be a juror" to an explanation of what will almost certainly be their vote to acquit the president, and the only thing that will make sense is to condemn his conduct while saying that it doesn't quite rise to the level of impeachment. That's going to sound, frankly, pretty discordant if President Trump is still in Read the Transcript! mode and refuses to admit that he did anything wrong.
After an election in which the president's putative allies in Kentucky and Virginia got clobbered, reconciling Trump's absurd story with a minimally credible defense is a task that just got more urgent, and much more difficult.
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