Sondland just obliterated Trump and put the entire White House in peril
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland delivered Wednesday the most explosive and damaging testimony of the week-old impeachment hearings into President Trump's alleged Ukraine bribery and extortion scheme. Frequently struggling to contain a smirk, Sondland methodically dismantled nearly every strained Republican talking point offered in defense of Trump's conduct and offered little in the way of wiggle room under often confused and halting cross examination from GOP counsel Steve Castor and others.
Unlike prior witnesses, Sondland had spoken personally with both the president and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and used his recollections to confirm the president's worst-case scenario: that Trump ordered Giuliani to execute an extortion and bribery scheme which would force the new president of Ukraine to announce phony investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter as well as Ukraine's imagined interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sondland said that he, former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry were operating "under the express direction of the president" in carrying out the scheme.
Sondland had extensive documentary evidence that a White House visit — which committee chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) was careful to characterize as "an official act" — was conditioned on the announcement of these investigations. And he argued that by early September, he had realized that the weeks-long hold placed on nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine was also contingent on Zelensky going on TV and announcing the investigations.
Not content merely to knife his former comrades in smarm, Sondland also chose to highlight the Trump administration's efforts to obstruct the impeachment inquiry in general, and to prevent him in particular from giving accurate testimony. Announcing that he is "not a note-taker," the ambassador complained that he couldn't access his own State Department records "that in fairness ... should have been made available." This was an early clue that Sondland was about to turn decisively against his Trumpworld patrons and that he did not intend to go down for these crimes without taking a lot of other people with him. If this were a movie, that was the moment where the camera would have cut to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) loosening his tie. (That moment came later.)
Sondland sought to distance himself from Giuliani. He said that "if I had known of all of Mr. Giuliani's dealings or of his associations with individuals now under criminal indictment," that he would not have agreed to work with him to extract phony investigations from the Ukrainian government. He said that "relevant decisionmakers at the National Security Council and State Department knew the important details" of their efforts, and produced emails to prove it.
That's a clear shot across the bow for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, among others, who Sondland insisted were "in the loop" throughout the escapade. Sondland had more bad news for Pompeo when he revealed that Kurt Volker had spoken to Giuliani on Sept. 24, long after the scandal broke, at the explicit direction of Pompeo himself. Sondland even had a Whatsapp message to prove it.
The ambassador also confirmed that President Trump instructed him to "talk to Rudy" about what was needed for Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky to secure a phone call and a White House visit. He noted that "Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into corruption issues. Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two topics of importance to the President."
Later, he noted that "He had to announce the investigations. He didn't actually have to do them, as I understood it." In other words: Trump himself knew that there was nothing to these allegations and all he wanted was the political damage inflicted on Democrats.
Sondland, in essence, tossed a number of high-ranking officials including the president and the secretary of state, under an oncoming bus in broad daylight and then held their blood-smeared political corpses up for an international audience on live television. Republicans, both in the room and elsewhere, were shell-shocked. If you were watching Fox News in the immediate aftermath of Sondland's first bloc of testimony this morning, you knew that it was both explosive and very bad for President Trump. Even Clinton inquisitor Ken Starr admitted that "it doesn't look good substantively for the president."
Republicans were left flailing. Nunes did his tiresome shtick about Hunter Biden and Ukrainian election interference. Castor tried desperately to get Sondland to say that his Sept. 9 phone call with the president was exculpatory, without success. Sondland, for his part, was clearly trying to justify his partipation in the scheme as part of a sincere effort to, as he put it repeatedly, "break the logjam" that was holding up the White House meeting and the aid. Your mileage may vary on the extent to which you believe him about that.
Republicans also seized on Sondland's admission that he had no direct proof that the aid was being held up and became fixated on proving that Sondland's work with Perry, Giuliani, and Volker was totally normal and not part of an "irregular channel," which Sondland also maintains. But it all added up to very little, and the demeanor of Nunes, Jordan and others suggested that they were all coping with the realization that one of the key participants in a criminal conspiracy involving the president just basically admitted to everything on camera.
There's really only one move from here for the Republicans. They can no longer credibly claim that Trump did not attempt to condition at least a White House visit on the announcement of phony investigations. The public wasn't buying it before today, with 70 percent of Americans believing that the President did something wrong, and they certainly won't be more inclined to believe it after Sondland's testimony. Republicans, instead, will have to argue that Giuliani himself was freelancing this whole affair, and that Trump never ordered him to extort the Ukrainians into announcing these investigations. Democrats, curiously, have not actually subpoenaed Giuliani, and so Republicans could theoretically spend hours grandstanding about how no one yet has any concrete, documentary evidence that Trump ordered his personal lawyer to do these things.
Yet doing so will risk flipping Giuliani, who has loudly and repeatedly proclaimed on national television about all the incriminating text messages he has. Giuliani's new centrality to the proceedings points to a contradiction in the Republican defense strategy from the get-go. On the one hand, the White House and the State Department are withholding all cooperation in the impeachment hearings. They are hiding Mulvaney. They are hiding Perry. They are hiding Pompeo. They are hiding Trump himself, of course. No documents. No cooperation. Total stonewalling.
On the other hand, Nunes and Jordan and others have made sure to complain about how Democrats won't call people like Hunter Biden and Alexandra Chalupa to testify about Burisma and Republican fever dreams related to the 2016 election. Democrats at this point really should be willing to make that trade — Biden and Chalupa for Mulvaney, Giuliani, Perry and the president himself, provided the latter cohort goes first. Call the bluff.
There's no reason to wrap everything up by Christmas. Democrats are doing real damage to President Trump, and Republicans are in obvious disarray. Every day, seemingly, brings fresh revelations about both wrongdoing and attempted cover-ups. And most important, the American people deserve to know the full truth about what transpired.
What I really want to know, though, is what Sondland will be drinking on his flight to Brussels tonight after publicly playing Judas to President Trump. I'm guessing it will be a Screwdriver.
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