Gordon Sondland, the U.S ambassador to the European Union, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee November 20, 2019 (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Today was not a good day for House Republicans. First, during his 45-minute opening statement, Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, plainly said during his 45-minute opening statement that “there was a quid pro quo” regarding U.S. policy towards the Ukraine.
He then charged that top Trump officials Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Vice President Mike Pence, and President Donald Trump himself all “knew what we were doing and why,” and that “everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
Sondland testified that before Trump would meet with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House, certain conditions had to be met. At first, Sondland understood those to be investigations into corruption; but over time, he learned that the investigations had to be of Burisma Holdings, of which Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden was a board member, and the 2016 election specifically, and that Zelensky would need to make a public announcement that such investigations were being pursued before Trump would move forward.
During questioning, Sondland asserted that he could “not remember” if it was President Trump, or the President’s lawyer Rudy Guiliani, who had made the quid pro quo explicitly clear. Sondland also said he couldn’t remember when he realized that the aid, the phone call between the two leaders, and then the White House meeting with Trump were all conditioned on Guiliani’s demand for investigations into Burisma and the 2016 election.
Republicans couldn’t do much with Sondland’s inability to remember, however, because Sondland testified that the executive branch blocked his access to all emails, call readouts, and notes that would have allowed him to jog his memory. He said that the changes in his testimony were due to the admissions of other committee witnesses who had taken contemporaneous notes and had “refreshed” his recollection.
He also brought with him a few emails and text messages that corroborated his account that senior level officials, including Pompeo and Mulvaney, had been cc’d on and responded to emails about the details of the Trump/Guiliani demands. These same officials have defied a Congressional subpoena to be questioned by the committee, said Democrat chairman Adam Schiff.
Additionally, Democrat counsel Daniel Goldman got a lot of mileage out of asking if top White House leaders really had “no idea” about the investigations being requested, why they didn’t push back or ask what he was talking about when Sondland referenced “investigations” in the emails. Sondland also testified that he took his concerns about the military aid holdup directly to Pence, and Pence nodded but did not respond. That’s hardly the reaction of someone who was unaware of the reasons behind the holdup, Goldman pointed out.
Republican counsel Steve Castor turned out to be completely outmatched by Goldman, a career prosecutor with experience targeting organized crime in the southern district of New York. Several times in the hearings, Castor actually walked witnesses down a path of questioning that provided even more damning evidence than originally revealed.
The cringiest moment came today when Castor badgered Sondland about the alleged “unofficial channel” of U.S. policy towards the Ukraine and the Burisma investigations.
Castor: Okay. Just getting back to the irregular channel, did anyone else express any concerns about this so-called irregular channel?
Sondland: I don’t know how someone could characterize something as an irregular channel when you’re talking to the President of United States, the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, the Chief of Staff of the White House, the Secretary of Energy. I don’t know how that’s irregular. If a bunch of folks that are not in that channel are aggrieved for some reason for not being included, I don’t know how they can consider it to be the ‘irregular channel’ and they to be the ‘regular channel’ when it’s the leadership that makes the decisions.
Ouch. Republican counsel shouldn’t be asking questions that solicit statements incriminating all the highest White House officials; but here we are.
Castor repeatedly used this ineffective line of questioning; he did so yesterday with Vice President Mike Pence’s aide Jennifer Williams and National Security Council staffer Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. He asks witnesses to characterize statements or to give opinions on what other people think; and he repeatedly solicits damaging information (to the White House) because of his disastrous approach to interviewing witnesses.
Sondland remembers all the details of one phone call with Trump, which occurred after a Politico article suggested the White House was holding up military aid to Ukraine. Sondland said he explicitly asked what Trump wants from Ukraine, and Trump said “I want nothing, I want nothing, I want no quid pro quo.”
The exculpatory phone call could have been an opening for House Republicans; but again, GOP Counselor Castor blew the opportunity. Instead, Sondland refused to say whether he thought Trump was telling the truth because he didn’t want to “opine on whether the president was being truthful or untruthful.”
And who could possibly think that it was helpful to the Trump White House to solicit this:
Castor: When you talk in your statement about the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, ‘I later came to believe,’ it was your speculation, it was your guess, that ‘the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of 2016.’ I believe you said at this point, you believed everyone knew this, is that correct?
Sondland: I think once that Politico article broke, it started making the rounds that, you know, if you can’t get a White House meeting without a statement, what makes you think you’re going to get a $400 million check? Again, that was my presumption.
Admittedly, the Republicans have a tough job to do here. It doesn’t help that White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney openly acknowledged that there was a quid pro quo, so “get over it.” For Republicans to assert that Sondland was making wild assumptions about something the Chief of Staff admitted seems a tad preposterous.
Zelensky never did get that White House meeting. He also never publicly promised to investigate Burisma as requested. These are facts that are hard to spin.
Republicans want to emphasize that eventually Ukraine got the lethal aid Congress had appropriated. But they deliberately leave out that only happened after news about the shadow diplomacy and Guiliani’s demands had leaked out.
Sondland did not always come across as credible. He often said it was his personal characterization that there was a quid pro quo and he didn’t give many specifics as to how he arrived at that conclusion (allegedly due to lack of notes or emails to guide his memory.) His numerous memory lapses seemed to always come at exculpatory moments for himself or for Trump. He was unable to pinpoint when exactly he became aware that the Burisma investigation involved the Bidens; but testified it might have been as late as news reports. Yet Tim Morrison testified yesterday that he immediately realized there was a political motive to the importance of the Burisma investigation after one Google search.
On the other hand, Sondland is not a career diplomat. He is the son of immigrants that escaped the Holocaust, a wealthy hotelier who donated a million dollars to the Trump campaign. In his opening statement, he earnestly states that he was trying to do the right thing, and that’s why he defied a State Department order to appear before the committee.
There are several takeaways from Sondland’s testimony: donors don’t make for very savvy diplomats; and Republicans are utterly failing to do effective witness questioning.
Sondland repeatedly told the committee that he is not an attorney and did not want to opine on the legality of the things he witnessed. While Sondland didn’t say it, that’s the ultimate thousand dollar question that the Senate will have to decide.