This week, Gordon Sondland, the sitting U.S. ambassador to the European Union, appeared before the House Intelligence Committee’s public impeachment inquiry. The two previous times Sondland submitted testimony to the committee—he was deposed behind closed doors on October 17, and then sent a written statement partially correcting his original testimony—resulted in a mess of contradictory and incomplete statements.
In the lead-up to Sondland’s appearance this week, there was much discussion about whether, after having previously made what appear to be false statements to Congress, he would stand behind his previous testimony, change it again, or take some other course, like plead the Fifth.
So, now that Sondland’s public testimony is over, it is worth taking a close look at his remarks, especially on three key claims, and thinking about what they mean for the overall impeachment proceedings.
The “Burisma” code
As I noted in The Bulwark earlier this week, Sondland said in his October deposition that he “did not recall” Rudy Giuliani, the president’s private lawyer, discussing Joe Biden with him. Sondland said that he did not know that Biden’s son, Hunter, was a board member of the Ukrainian firm Burisma, and so when Giuliani said “Burisma,” Sondland thought it was merely an example of a corrupt company that merited investigation. He said he could “only speculate” that Trump was instructing Giuliani.
Sondland’s claim that he did not know that Giuliani (and President Trump) were pursuing Biden was contradicted by a few things. First, Giuliani’s interest in Biden and 2016 was widely reported in May 2019. Moreover, because of Giuliani’s public expression of interest in Biden, it is unlikely that Giuliani stuck to the “Burisma” code word in private discussions with Sondland, Kurt Volker, and Rick Perry. Sondland’s claim that he was simply unaware what “Burisma” actually meant strains credulity. Moreover, there is the testimony of State Department official David Holmes that Sondland said on July 26 that President Trump “did not give a shit about a Ukraine,” and only cared about “big stuff” like the “Biden investigation.” Holmes’s testimony establishes that Sondland knew in July that “Burisma” meant “Biden,” and that the president was asking him directly for updates on the pressure scheme.
In his new testimony this week, Sondland continued to claim that he did not know that Giuliani and the president were pursuing Biden. When asked by Adam Schiff, chairman of the committee, if, despite all of Giuliani’s TV appearances and news coverage, Sondland never put together that “Burisma” meant “Biden,” Sondland said: “I didn’t and I wasn’t paying attention to what Mr. Giuliani was saying on TV. We were talking to him directly.”
Sondland’s claim that, throughout the summer, Trump and Giuliani were asking for an investigation of Burisma, not Biden, is necessary to sustain Sondland’s larger claim that he did nothing wrong by pressuring Ukraine to open investigations in return for a White House meeting and security assistance. (Left unexplored is the ethics of pressuring Ukrainian officials to investigate a conspiracy theory regarding Ukraine’s responsibility for interference in the 2016 elections that are not only roundly disproven but also convenient for both the president and Russia, but I digress.)
Sondland did somewhat better regarding Holmes’s testimony. His memory refreshed, Sondland recalled this week that his July 26 call with Trump from a Ukrainian restaurant did in fact occur. He did not challenge the assertion that he spoke to Trump about the “investigations,” conceding that the substance of Holmes’s testimony is correct. Sondland, however, said this week that he has “no recollection of discussing Vice President Biden or his son on that call or after the call ended.”
This, once again, strains credulity. Sondland did not mention his restaurant call with Trump in his previous testimony; in fact, he originally testified that the president had been uninterested in Sondland’s July 26 meeting with the Ukrainians. Yet Sondland this week admitted to the substance of Holmes’s recollection of the July 26 phone call—in which the president asked about the investigation. Given this inconsistency, why should we believe Sondland’s claim about not saying “Biden” on the call with the president?
The weight of the evidence suggests Sondland knew that the investigation’s target was Biden in July, and that Sondland was closely involved in the effort to pressure Ukraine to announce it.
The July 10 meeting
In describing the July 10 meeting at the White House between U.S. and Ukrainian officials, Sondland had said in his original October testimony that he had not conditioned a Zelensky meeting with Trump on investigations of Biden and 2016.
Sondland’s October testimony, however, was directly contradicted by Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony. Vindman, an Army officer detailed to the National Security Council staff, participated in the July 10 meeting, and testified that Sondland did speak about the need for Ukraine to deliver investigations of Biden and 2016 if they wanted a White House meeting. Vindman’s recollection was corroborated by another National Security Council staffer, Fiona Hill.
In his public testimony this week, Sondland admitted that he had referenced the need for an announcement of “investigations,” but that he doesn’t know if he “said investigations or said specifically Burisma and 2016.”
So here, too, Sondland has been forced to walk back his testimony regarding a key moment, under pressure from consistent and corroborated testimony from other participants. Sondland once again admitted the substance of someone else’s testimony regarding his own actions, while still denying he said “Biden.”
Who knew about the quid pro quo?
In Sondland’s supplemental testimony, where he had admitted that he told Andriy Yermak on September 1 that Ukraine would not receive the security assistance frozen by President Trump without announcing the investigations, Sondland said he had only “presumed” that the suspension of the aid “had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement,” but that he did not have any explicit direction from the president.
Sondland stuck to this claim in his public testimony this week, but added some important details. Under questioning from minority council Steve Castor, Sondland said that he had made this presumption because the aid had been withheld by the president, it hadn’t been released by this point, and they were not “getting anywhere with the Ukrainians.”
This explanation by Sondland is convincing. By late August, the White House had withheld a vital White House meeting for Zelensky to demand the investigations, and then the president had also withheld security assistance. The conclusion that the security assistance had been withheld for the same purpose was by then inescapable; Trump sought his investigations, had conditioned a White House meeting on them, and now was withholding the assistance, too.
At this week’s public hearing, House Intelligence Committee Republicans strained to question Sondland’s judgment on this point. They said he based his “presumption” on no evidence. However, Sondland bolstered his position: He said he sent an email to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 22 asking if they should schedule a meeting in Warsaw for Trump and Zelensky, in which Zelensky would discuss moving “forward publicly and with confidence on those issues of importance to POTUS and the U.S. Hopefully, that will break the logjam.” Sondland testified that the “issues of importance to POTUS” were the investigations (the only things Trump asked of Zelensky on his infamous July 25 call), and the “logjam” included the withheld security assistance. Pompeo’s reply? “Yes.”
Furthermore, Sondland testified that on September 1 he had told Vice President Mike Pence that he “had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations.” Pence nodded, Sondland said, “like, you know, he heard what I said.”
Sondland is establishing, then, that two of the most senior officials in the Trump administration knew of his belief that the security assistance had become linked to the investigations, just as the White House meeting had been, and neither Pompeo nor Pence pushed back. Neither of them asked him what Sondland was talking about. Neither of them said, That’s crazy, and it’s false. They responded as if they were well aware.
Sondland still claims that he did not receive explicit direction from President Trump to link the assistance to the investigations. Yet he testified that the president set up a quid pro quo: a White House meeting for Zelensky in return for investigations benefiting the president. And when Trump withheld the security assistance, too, with no explanation, it appears that it was common knowledge in the highest levels of the administration that the president did so to further pressure Ukraine to give him the announcement he wanted.
And that, really, is the nut of it. Sondland’s public testimony may not have cleaned up all of his misleading statements to Congress. But he did make clear that he understood what the president was doing, and that the administration’s top officials also believed the president withheld vital support in order to pressure the Ukrainians to announce his investigations.
Perhaps we should take their word for it.