Impeachment, Ukraine

Six Takeaways from Gordon Sondland’s Testimony

After Day Four of the public hearings, articles of impeachment are an absolute certainty.
by Kim Wehle
November 20, 2019
Featured Image
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testifying before the House Intelligence Committee in a public impeachment hearing on November 20, 2019. (Courtesy PBS)

Today it was the turn of President Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, to testify in a House Intelligence Committee public hearing on impeachment. Sondland’s testimony has done a few things that are very bad for the president and his congressional defenders. Let’s cut through the details of the back-and-forth emails, conversations, texts, and meetings of the complicated Ukraine story, and get right to the six big takeaways:

1) Sondland said there was a quid pro quo. He used that language without conditions. He explained that the quid pro quo involved Ukrainian President Zelensky’s announcement of investigations into the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Biden-connected Ukrainian company Burisma. Sondland was adamant that Team Trump cared less about whether the investigations actually happened than that they be announced, suggesting a purely political ploy on Trump’s part—it wasn’t about legitimately rooting out corruption in Ukraine.

2) Like Ambassador Volker yesterday, Sondland testified that he wasn’t initially aware that the Trump/Giuliani demands for an investigation into Burisma were really about investigating the Bidens. Somewhat ironically, Congress has the White House itself to thank for connecting the Biden dots, because the Bidens were explicitly mentioned in the black-and-white call summary that the White House released of Trump’s infamous July 25 conversation with Zelensky. That call is what gave rise to the impeachment inquiry, via the whistleblower complaint. Without the whistleblower, the cover-up of that call would have succeeded.

3) Sondland testified that he had several conversations with Trump directly, but that he has no recollection of Trump ever mentioning to him anything about investigating the Bidens specifically. However, he was very clear that Trump made it effectively impossible for the diplomatic team to pursue established American foreign policy toward Ukraine without first going through his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. And Giuliani wanted Ukraine to announce investigations as a condition of arranging a White House meeting and, ultimately, of releasing nearly $400 million in military aid that Ukraine needed to stave off Russian aggression.

4) Sondland testified that everyone up the chain understood that the government’s ability to work with Ukraine hinged entirely on getting through or around Giuliani. Sondland called this the “logjam.” He established today, therefore, that much of the State Department and national security apparatus was in on this quid pro quo—at least as a matter of knowing about it and not doing anything to disrupt it—including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Some observers might claim that this is evidence of a vast conspiracy within the government to violate the norms of diplomacy, but a fairer assessment would be that it’s a reflection of how government officials need to take unusual—if not improper—steps simply to do their jobs with Trump at the helm of the executive branch.

5) Sondland shored up House Democrats’ case for obstruction of justice, as he testified that he has been categorically denied access to his own White House and State Department communications and files, even though they are not classified or otherwise legally protected from disclosure. Sondland no doubt did this on advice of counsel, as he is conceivably vulnerable to perjury or obstruction of justice charges by virtue of having substantively changed his previous statements regarding the quid pro quo narrative. If he had his records, he said today, he could refresh his recollection and give more complete and accurate testimony. The White House has made that impossible.

6) Sondland has been the least straightforward witness so far, and his refusal to commit to certain facts frustrated both Republicans and Democrats today. Most notably, his repeated insistence, as the hearing unfolded, that he had only “presumed” that the military aid to Ukraine was tied to an announcement of investigations may have denied Democrats a smoking gun: A presumption, after all, is not first-hand knowledge that Trump made this specific demand. It also exposed Sondland to Republican criticisms of shifting his testimony.

What Sondland made clear is that Trump gave Rudy Giuliani the reins on Ukraine. The July 25 call summary itself corroborates that handoff. What we didn’t hear from Sondland is any memory of a conversation with Trump laying out the specific details of the quid pro quo.

On this issue, Sondland’s claim not to recall some twenty conversations with the president in any detail—most specifically, the July 26 call with Trump after which Sondland reportedly said that Trump wanted “investigations” and doesn’t give a “shit” about Ukraine—is dubious.

What’s not dubious is that Trump made the ask of Ukraine and did so for his own political benefit and against the interests of the United States. The only question remaining is whether congressional Republicans even care.

Kim Wehle

Kim Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She is currently a visiting professor and fellow in law and government at American University’s Washington College of Law. She is also a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, a former assistant U.S. attorney and associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation, and the author of How to Read the Constitution—and Why (HarperCollins).