EU Ambssador Gordon Sondland was widely expected to be a bumbling mess at his testimony before the House on Wednesday.
But, instead, he took aim at key bulwarks in the Republican defense of Trump.
Sondland did not embrace the conspiratorial counter-narratives put forth by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) at the hearings in the impeachment inquiry. Sondland did not go out of his way to protect the President or to endear himself to the House GOP.
Rather, Sondland’s testimony blew holes in substantive rebuttals put forth by Republican politicians and White House officials seeking to defend President Trump. Those defenses have sought to distance the President from allegations that he used military aid as a tool to extort Ukraine into announcing politically beneficial investigations, or that have called into question the credibility of essential witnesses in the inquiry.
Sondland, an enthusiastic participant in much of what occurred who was in touch with President Trump throughout the pressure campaign, dealt a serious blow to the GOP’s remaining defenses.
Proximity to POTUS
Trump defenders have argued that many witnesses were far removed from the President himself.
On Tuesday, for example, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) criticized Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for having “never met the President of the United States.”
“You do know this impeachment inquiry is about the President of the United States, don’t you?” Turner asked sarcastically.
Separately, Trump distanced himself from Sondland on Wednesday, saying “this is not a man I know well.”
“Seems like a nice guy, though,” Trump added.
But Sondland, in his testimony, put himself in direct contact with Trump at multiple points throughout the pressure campaign.
Namely, the Trump donor said that he did what he did at the “express direction” of President Trump. Sondland also said that Giuliani’s involvement in the matter only occurred because Trump directed it.
“We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine,” Sondland said. “So we followed the President’s orders.”
Who said hearsay?
Trump’s defense has also relied on accusations that witnesses in the inquiry are not direct witnesses at all; rather, the argument goes, they’ve presented “hearsay” to Congress.
Under that interpretation, witnesses like Ambassador Bill Taylor or George Kent were relying not on fact, but on gossip, rumor, and insinuation.
Sondland emphasized in his testimony that he was a direct witness, if not an active participant in what Trump wanted.
“I thought we were operating well within the center lane of US diplomacy,” the ambassador said.
He said in his opening statement that “my job requires speaking with heads of state and senior government officials every day.”
“As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the President,” Sondland said, while citing phone conversations he had with Trump directly in which the President demanded “investigations” from Kyiv.
Lack of evidence
Axios reported on Nov. 11 that a key part of Republican strategy in defending Trump against the impeachment inquiry consisted in the supposed lack of evidence of “pressure” on Ukraine or “conditionality” relating to Trump’s alleged use of military aid to extort Kyiv into announcing politically useful investigations.
Sondland testified on Wednesday that he himself carried a message of “conditionality” to top Ukrainian officials, and that he kept top White House officials like acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apprised of his activities.
In Warsaw on Sept. 1, for example, Sondland said he told a top Ukrainian official that “the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on the public statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
That public statement would have been President Zelensky announcing investigations into his country’s involvement in the 2016 elections and the Bidens.
Separately, Sondland testified that he told Ukrainian officials in a July 10 meeting that investigations were a “pre-requisite” for “any White House call or meeting” between Zelensky and Trump.
“But I do not recall any yelling or screaming as others have said,” Sondland added.
The role of Trump’s personal attorney continues to present a problem for Republicans.
Trump’s defenders in Congress have not staked out a clear position on Giuliani.
His actions make him difficult to defend. At the same time, his proximity to President Trump makes it complicated for much of the GOP to reject him entirely.
That position grew even more precarious on Wednesday, after Sondland very cleanly placed America’s mayor as a malefactor in the scandal.
Sondland flatly stated that he and others only agreed to work with Giuliani on Ukraine policy because it came on Trump’s orders.
“We weren’t happy with the President’s directive to talk with Rudy. We did not want to involve Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said. He added that Trump presented them with a choice: “abandon the efforts” to schedule Zelensky’s call and White House visit, or “do as President Trump had directed and ‘talk to Rudy.'”