Sondland testimony reveals no smoking gun, but no vindication of Trump in impeachment hearing

WASHINGTON — The morning began badly for President Trump, as his ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, delivered an opening statement to the House Intelligence Committee that raised and answered the question of whether there was a quid pro quo in the administration’s demands for the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation that would benefit the president politically. 

“The answer is yes,” Sondland declared.

But even if that damning opening statement set the tone on cable news and social media, much of the rest of Sondland’s testimony was ambiguous with respect to the points Democrats have been hammering relentlessly in the investigation. He agreed, upon questioning by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., that Trump never explicitly told him that military aid to Ukraine would not be released until President Volodymyr Zelensky announced an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter over the latter’s business dealings with Ukrainian energy company Burisma. 

“I don’t believe I was part of something wrong,” Sondland said later, when Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, asked about the July 25 phone call between Zelensky and Trump that prompted a whistleblower complaint and kicked off what eventually became the impeachment inquiry.

Sondland was one of the key figures in carrying out Trump’s Ukraine policy. He did so, he said Wednesday, on orders from the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, the bombastic former mayor of New York City.

Throughout his testimony, Sondland maintained that he took at face value Trump’s purported interest in rooting out corruption in Ukraine as a reason to withhold military aid and postpone a White House meeting sought by Zelensky. He claimed that he only belatedly understood that the real purpose of Giuliani’s demands was to damage Biden, a potential 2020 rival to Trump. That was also the testimony of Kurt Volker, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, on Tuesday.

That strained credulity for many observers, as there would have been little other reason for the White House to express such acute interest in an obscure energy company. “This does not pass the smell test,” tweeted David Axelrod, the former top adviser to President Barack Obama.

Sondland also said he was unaware of “any drug deal,” a reference to the infamous description of Giuliani’s work by John Bolton, the national security adviser during most of the period during which the Ukraine affair took place. 

Perhaps Sondland’s most damaging testimony was that Trump did not actually want the Ukraine investigations, only a public announcement they were underway. “He [President Zelensky] had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it,” Sondland testified. That demonstrated that Trump mainly sought the political damage to his Democratic rivals that investigations would inflict, rather than any genuine effort to root out corruption.

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Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the EU
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Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the EU
FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2019, file photo U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, center, arrives for a interview with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

As the impeachment hearings enter their second week - one of the most highly anticipated testimonies will be Wednesday’s appearance from Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU.

Unlike the other witnesses in the inquiry, Sondland is not a career diplomat versed in the protocols of the State Department or a foreign policy expert. He’s a Seattle businessman who gave a million dollars to Trump’s inauguration and later became Trump's pick for envoy to the European Union. But Sondland’s direct interactions with Trump, and testimony from other witnesses about his dealing with Ukraine, have put him front and center in the controversy, over whether Trump made aid to Ukraine contingent on opening an investigation into his political rival, Joe Biden.

Sondland was one of three officials - along with Kurt Volker, the former representative for Ukraine, and Energy secretary Rick Perry - to take the lead on American policy toward Ukraine after Trump abruptly removed the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, Marie Yovanovitch.

Alexander Vindman, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and Ukraine expert on the NSC, said he heard Sondland explicitly press Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe Biden and his son, according to a transcript of his private testimony.

And On Friday David Holmes, a U.S. embassy official in Kiev, told lawmakers in closed-door testimony, that he overheard a phone call between Trump and Sondland, in which the ambassador told the president his Ukrainian counterpart was ready to carry out the investigations. The phone call occurred on July 26, one day after the phone conversation between Trump and Zelenskiy.

The top US diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor discussed that call in his public hearing.

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) DIPLOMAT WILLIAM TAYLOR, SAYING:

“The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’ Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of [Joe] Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”

Sondland appeared in released texts saying there was no quid pro quo in withholding aid. But after testifying behind closed doors, he then had to revise his testimony to say that by September he had come to view a suspension of U.S. security aid as being held up as leverage to get Ukraine to commit.

Up until now – among the GOP's main defenses of Trump are that there was no quid pro quo, and that no witnesses has spoken directly to Trump about the withheld aid. Democrats hope Sondland could undercut those arguments..

Gordon Sondland headshot, as US Ambassador to the European Union, arriving to testify before congressional lawmakers as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Trump, graphic element on gray
US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland walks to a secure area of the Capitol to testify as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
ARCHIVO - En esta foto del 10 de julio del 2018, el presidente estadounidense Donald Trump es acompañado por Gordon Sondland, embajador ante la Unión Europea, al llegar a la Base Aérea Melsbroek, en Bruselas, Bélgica (AP Foto/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, left, and European Union Vice President Maros Sefcovic speak with reporters about trade as they travel with President Donald Trump, Tuesday, May 14, 2019, aboard Air Force One. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Senior Advisor to the President of the United States Jared Kushner, center, and US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, right, meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at EU headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, left, listens as European Union Vice President Maros Sefcovic speaks with reporters about trade as he travels with President Donald Trump, Tuesday, May 14, 2019, aboard Air Force One. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Sondland’s job was made easier by the fact that he wasn’t able to recall details of some key events and by his lack of notes (though he did offer that he remembered the first girl he kissed). The State Department is withholding from investigators — and Sondland himself — whatever records exist. This seemed to frustrate both sides. “You don’t have records,” said the lead Republican attorney for the committee. “You don’t have notes, because you didn’t take notes. You don’t have a lot of recollections. I mean, this is like the trifecta of unreliability, isn’t that true?” 

The Democrats’ attorney also chided Sondland on his poor record-keeping, asking him, “You agree people who take contemporaneous notes are more able to remember things than people who don’t?”

For the most part, however, both sides were careful not to alienate Sondland, who has changed his version of events enough times to pose potential trouble for both the president and his detractors — or, possibly, himself. Even Trump, who has lashed out at some witnesses he has perceived as hostile, including Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman of the National Security Council, who testified Tuesday in his medal-bedecked dress uniform, was relatively restrained about Sondland.  

“I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy, though,” Trump said of Sondland during remarks to members of the press on the South Lawn of the White House. He did not attack Sondland as a “Never Trumper” or a member of a fictitious “deep state” intent on undermining his presidency — a charge that would have been difficult to make, considering that he was named ambassador by Trump himself, on the basis of no diplomatic or government experience but a $1 million donation to the president’s inaugural committee.

Later, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham sent a statement to the press headlined “Ambassador Sondland Completely Exonerates President Trump of Any Wrongdoing.” That was not the assessment of most neutral observers.

Sondland’s testimony seemed especially damaging to Giuliani, who came off as the enforcer of Trump’s demands on U.S. diplomats, who were expected to convey them to Zelensky. The former U.S. attorney and New York City mayor resorted to the Trumpian tactic of defending himself on Twitter. “Sondland is speculating based on VERY little contact,” he said in one message. “I never met him and had very few calls with him.”

Sondland also seemed to implicate Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The loyal Trump acolyte, who has political ambitions that are rumored to include a Senate seat in his home state of Kansas, and eventually even the White House, has generally done his best to stay as far away as possible from all aspects of the impeachment inquiry, most notably by declining to defend officials in his own department from Trump’s attacks.

However, that distance may become increasingly difficult to maintain. Sondland depicted Pompeo as aware of and involved in the pressure campaign on Zelensky. Asked at a press conference what he made of Sondland’s testimony, Pompeo shot back sourly at the journalist who posed the question: “I didn’t see a single thing today. I was working. Sounds like you might not have been.” 

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Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky
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Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky
In this photo dated Feb. 6, 2019, Ukrainian comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy seen during the shooting of a popular TV series, where he plays the president during the filming in Kiev, Ukraine. Zelenskiy played the president and now is running for the same office in upcoming presidential elections on March 31.(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukrainian actor and candidate in the upcoming presidential election, hosts a comedy show at a concert hall in Brovary, Ukraine, Friday, March 29, 2019. Zelenskiy now surging ahead of both Tymoshenko and Poroshenko in the presidential context according to polls. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukrainian presidential candidate and popular comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy listens to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during their final electoral campaign debate at the Olympic stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, April 19, 2019. Friday is the last official day of election canvassing in Ukraine as all presidential candidates and their campaigns will be barred from campaigning on Saturday, the day before the vote. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy, holds his ballot before voting at a polling station, during the presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, March. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Ukrainian presidential candidate and popular comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy makes the victory sign during the debate with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the Olympic stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, April 19, 2019. Friday is the last official day of election canvassing in Ukraine as all presidential candidates and their campaigns will be barred from campaigning on Saturday, the day before the vote. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and his wife Olena Zelenska smile as they greet supporters at his headquarters after the second round of presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, April 21, 2019. Ukrainians voted on Sunday in a presidential runoff as the nation's incumbent leader struggles to fend off a strong challenge by a comedian who denounces corruption and plays the role of president in a TV sitcom. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy shows his ballot before casting his ballot at a polling station, during the second round of presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, April 21, 2019. Top issues in the election have been corruption, the economy and how to end the conflict with Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and his wife Olena Zelenska congratulate each other at his headquarters after the second round of presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, April 21, 2019. Ukrainians voted on Sunday in a presidential runoff as the nation's incumbent leader struggles to fend off a strong challenge by a comedian who denounces corruption and plays the role of president in a TV sitcom. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
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Republicans kept returning to a Sept. 9 phone call between Sondland and Trump in which Trump told Sondland he wanted Zelensky to “do the right thing” and that he wanted “no quid pro quo.” In his questioning of Sondland, the customarily spirited Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, one of the president’s most unfailing supporters, asked why Sondland had failed to mention that exculpatory detail in his opening statement.

“You can’t find time to put that in a 23-page opening statement?” Jordan speculated. 

It fell to Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., to later point out that Trump brought up the phrase “quid pro quo”  unprompted, in response to a request from Sondland to explain what the president wanted him to do. The implication seemed to be that Trump was eager to get on the record as brooking no impropriety, should the matter become, as it inevitably did, a matter of investigatory interest.

“What prompted him to use that term?” Demings asked.

Sondland stuck to the diffidence that had served him so well throughout most of the day: “I have no clue,” he said. 

 

But Democrats said they had a clue: The phone call took place on the same day that the inspector general of the intelligence community wrote to Congress about a whistleblower complaint over Trump’s pressure on Zelensky. The complaint itself had been filed in August, and the White House appears to have been aware of its contents by the time Trump spoke to Sondland.

Two days later, the hold on military aid to Ukraine was suddenly lifted without explanation.

Republicans maintained, as they have throughout the impeachment inquiry, a no-harm-no-foul attitude. Jordan pointed out that the assistance was paid without the announcement Trump had sought from Zelensky.

“God bless America,” Jordan concluded. “It all worked.”

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