The Rush to Testify is Bad News for the White House

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - MAY 02 : US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry (R) chats with U.S Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland (L) at the 1st EU-U.S. Energy Council High-Level B2B Forum on LNG at the European Co... BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - MAY 02 : US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry (R) chats with U.S Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland (L) at the 1st EU-U.S. Energy Council High-Level B2B Forum on LNG at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium on May 2, 2019. European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Canete (not seen) and Executive director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol (not seen) also attended the forum. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) MORE LESS
October 5, 2019 12:14 a.m.

This afternoon we learned that Gordon Sondland, Ambassador to the EU and GOP megadonor, will appear for a closed door deposition before House committees on Tuesday, October 8th. According to CBS News it will be the “same format” as Ukraine Envoy Kurt Volker’s testimony yesterday. (I take this to mean that he will appear without a government lawyer.) This seems to me to be a development of great importance.

The White House is putting up a strong bluff. They say they won’t comply with subpoenas. They are even hinting at a challenge to the House’s internal governance, arguing that there actually is no impeachment inquiry because Speaker Pelosi has not held a vote of the whole House to authorize it. It’s the same brash, aggressive and total defiance that has served them so well for the last nine months. The President says he has every right to do what he’s done and his top lieutenants are lining up to agree.

But the people closest to the action, the ones with the most at stake are belying that confidence not with their words but their actions. Secretary Pompeo threatened a dogged fight against any attempt to depose State Department officials or get documents for the House inquiry. Volker, Yovanovitch, Sondland and others could have used that shield Pompeo threw up around them to refuse or at least delay or negotiate over testifying. That was clearly the intention. But they haven’t. Volker resigned his appointment and quickly testified. Now Sondland, much more of a Trump partisan and apparently much more of a driving force in the extortion scheme, is doing the same.

Take it as a given that everyone here will act in their own interests. If the President’s position was strong and he had the ability to protect or threaten these secondary players they’d almost certainly be following his lead. But they’re not. They’re moving quickly, if not to make deals with the Congress then at least to share what they know and hand over documents in their possession. In other words, they’re protecting themselves. We don’t know for certain Sondland is doing this yet. But if he weren’t it would be folly to submit to a deposition without a government lawyer present and without trying to negotiate protective ground rules.

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One of the things we learned over the last nine months is that a posture of total defiance can be quite effective. If no one talks or produces any records it’s almost impossible for an investigation to get traction or build momentum. By cooperating they are significantly undermining the administration’s strategy and creating incentives and pressures for others to come forward as well. For a White House where law means little and loyalty means everything that is total betrayal. But that does not appear to be stopping them.

Again, everyone will act in their own interests. The White House is telegraphing a cavalier defiance meant to tell everyone they still hold all the cards. But these underlings’ actions speak louder than words. They know much more than we do and they have much more on the line. So we should listen closely to what their actions are telling us.

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