Washington: Gordon Sondland, President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, bolstered Democrats’ impeachment narrative as he repeatedly talked of a “quid pro quo” involving Ukraine and provided some of the most significant testimony to date in the inquiry.
Sondland said “everyone was in the loop” about Trump’s push for Ukraine to announce investigations into a Ukraine gas company and the 2016 US election. Sondland was one of the most anticipated witnesses as Democrats are holding a rigorous week of hearings into whether Trump’s dealings with Ukraine are grounds for impeachment. Here are the key takeaways from the testimony of Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union:
Sondland was acting on Trump’s orders
Sondland said he “followed the president’s orders” as he pressured Ukraine to undertake investigations that could boost the president’s November 2020 re-election prospects. He said Trump did not specify what he wanted Kiev to investigate, but told him to work with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer. He also said Giuliani pushed to investigate Burisma, a natural gas company on which Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Trump’s rival, served as a director.
According to Sondland, Giuliani also wanted Ukraine to look into a discredited conspiracy theory that Kiev, not Moscow, interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. Sondland said he gradually realised the White House was also withholding $391 million in security aid in order to pressure Kiev.
It was a case of ‘This for That’
Sondland repeatedly referred to a quid pro quo — one thing in return for another — in describing the administration’s dealings with Ukraine. It was a remarkable spectacle: Trump’s own ambassador using the exact term that the president himself has disavowed. Sondland is hardly a Never-Trumper: He donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee before being named ambassador.
“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” Sondland said.
That contradicts Trump’s main defence — that there was no explicit exchange of favours between the two countries.
Pompeo faces an uncertain future
Sondland said he kept senior administration officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney updated about his efforts, contradicting other witnesses who said he was part of a rogue operation that circumvented regular diplomatic channels. He says he notified Vice President Mike Pence in September that the delayed Ukraine aid appeared to be tied to the demand for investigations. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” he said.
His testimony could be damaging for Pompeo should he make a bid to run for the US Senate from Kansas. “You’re doing great work; keep banging away,” Pompeo told Sondland in early September, according to correspondence cited in Sondland’s testimony. Messages like those could help Pompeo’s potential rivals make the case that the secretary of state was more concerned with catering to Trump’s whims than ensuring the integrity of US foreign policy. Pompeo declined to comment.
Case for impeachment got stronger
Sondland’s testimony almost certainly advanced the case for impeaching Trump. It moved the effort to get Ukraine to announce an investigation of the Bidens closer to the president. The testimony also may help House Democrats build a separate impeachment charge against Trump for getting in the way of their investigation, said former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, whose investigation led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment 20 years ago. “That just got drawn up today thanks to Ambassador Sondland,” Starr said on Fox News. Sondland said that the administration refused to give him access to records that might have helped him prepare his testimony.
In a normal criminal case, Trump’s side would try to damage Sondland’s credibility, exploit inconsistencies in his testimony and note that Sondland said the president never personally directed him to dangle a White House meeting in return for announcing the investigation. The effort could create a reasonable doubt that would prevent a jury from returning a conviction.
But impeachment takes place in a political arena, not a court of law. Impeachment scholars stress the standard of proof for impeachment is lower than it is in the courtroom. Though that would seem to work against Trump, the political nature of impeachment ultimately benefits him. Republicans have been united in defence of Trump and, even if he is impeached, it’s difficult to see Republican-run Senate removing him from office.
Trump is always in a ‘good mood’
Sondland directly tied Trump to the effort to push Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. But Trump is seizing upon a portion of that testimony to make his defence. While Sondland was testifying, Trump briefly addressed reporters as he left the White House on his way to Texas. Trump normally speaks off-the-cuff, but on Wednesday he read from handwritten notes that appeared to be scrawled in the black Sharpie that the president favours.
Trump launched into a defence, selectively recounting Sondland’s testimony that Trump told him there was no quid pro quo and that he wanted nothing from Ukraine. “That means it’s all over. This is the final word from the president of the United States. I want nothing,” Trump said, before resorting to his usual description of someone from whom he wanted to distance himself. “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 also disputed what he said was Sondland’s characterisation that Trump was in a bad mood during their conversation. “I’m always in a good mood. I don’t know what that is.”