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Sondland testimony seen as critical point in impeachment inquiry

With Gordon Sondland’s testimony, the Trump defense has taken a series of major wounds and the talking heads are declaring that the House vote to impeach Donald Trump feels like a growing certainty.

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland
Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland appearing at Wednesday's House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearing.
REUTERS/Loren Elliott

As I write during the first break after the initial round of impeachment hearing questioning of Trump donor and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, the Trump defense has taken a series of major wounds and the talking heads are declaring that the House vote to impeach Donald Trump feels like a growing certainty.

I don’t claim to see the future and don’t know what’s a certainty, but Sondland has confirmed or at least supported in many important ways the basic narrative underlying the Democratic narrative that President Donald Trump was using the hold on aid to Ukraine as leverage to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to publicly announce that Joe and Hunter Biden were under investigation for alleged corruption.

Sondland now agrees that this pressure can be understood as a quid pro quo, and he laid out plenty of facts from his experience to support that conclusion. “Was there a ‘quid pro quo?'” Sondland said in his opening remarks to the Intelligence Committee. “The answer is yes.”

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Sondland was in the middle of various alleged efforts by Trump and others in his administration to pressure Zelenskiy to say and do things that would help Trump politically, in order to get the hold lifted on desperately needed U.S. military aid to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian occupation and attacks.

Ambassador has repositioned himself as truth-teller

Sondland, a wealthy businessman and Trump donor, was until recently viewed as a Trump loyalist, but he has repositioned himself as a truth-teller, caught between his own desire to get the military aid to Ukraine and whatever it was that had caused Trump to put a hold on the aid.

Sondland was in the middle of the effort to get the hold on the aid lifted, which it eventually was (although perhaps because it was becoming publicly obvious that something fishy was going on with the hold on the aid).

In his testimony, Sondland acknowledges that he was active in the efforts to coach Zelenskiy to say the magic words that Trump wanted to hear.

Says he was unclear on one element

In his own defense, Sondland portrays himself as unclear on one fundamental element of the controversy. He testified that he understood that Trump wanted to hear Zelenskiy announce there would be a Ukrainian investigation of the endemic corruption for which Ukraine was infamous, and that the announcement should specifically mention the (discredited) allegation that Ukraine had engaged in some anti-Trump skullduggery during the 2016 campaign, the country’s longstanding reputation for “corruption,” and the Ukrainian company Burisma, which is known for its own corruption.

Burisma is, of course, the company that put Joe Biden’s son Hunter in a highly compensated position on its board. Sondland claims that he was unaware at the time that the importance Trump attached to the mention of Burisma was likely code for Hunter and Joe Biden, meaning (at least to Democrats’ ears) that Trump was seeking dirt on Joe Biden in advance of possibly facing Biden in the 2020 election.

In the famous Trump-Zelenskiy phone call, Trump did mention Biden as one of the issues he wanted investigated. But Sondland testified that he understood that Trump wanted to hear Zelenskiy say that the anti-corruption campaign would target “Burisma,” but he was unaware that Trump also wanted an investigation of the Bidens.

The Sondland testimony is still going. I just wanted to pass along that the testimony of Sondland is being treated by many observers as the biggest news produced in the hearings so far, in terms of its impact on a possible impeachment vote in the House.

Of course, I, and probably most of you, have long thought it likely that the House (controlled by Democrats) would likely approve articles of impeachment. That is quite separate from the likelihood of a two-thirds vote, in the Republican-controlled Senate, to convict and remove Trump. The chances of that, at present, still strike me as remote, pending developments.

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