Gordon Sondland Is Aiming Right at Trump’s Achilles’ Heel

He drew a careful distinction in his testimony between actual efforts to fight corruption and a public statement that would damage one of the president’s opponents.

Andrew Harnik / AP

Nothing about Gordon Sondland’s handling of the Ukraine affair—either as the ambassador to the European Union or as a witness in the impeachment inquiry—has appeared methodical or subtle.

But in his testimony today, Sondland seems to have found his sense of care. Systematically but consistently, he is undermining all of the pillars of President Donald Trump’s defense that he did not extort political assistance from Ukraine.

Was it a quid pro quo? “The answer is yes.” Were Sondland and others acting on their own? “We all understood that these prerequisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements.”

There’s still one more defense: that however clumsy or inappropriate Trump’s pressure on Ukraine was, it is forgivable, or at least not impeachable, because he was sincerely attempting to fight corruption in Ukraine, which is a long-standing policy goal of the United States. How, his allies ask, could anyone take issue with his demands to investigate wrongdoing?

There are flaws in this defense—Trump showed little interest in corruption in any other venue, or in connection with any other company than Burisma, for which former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on the board. But Sondland’s testimony is aiming straight at the Achilles’ heel of this defense.

Under questioning from the Democratic lawyer Daniel Goldman, Sondland made clear that what Trump (via his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani) demanded from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for a meeting with Trump was not any particular outcome to an investigation. In fact, it wasn’t even a real investigation. It was just lip service.

“I never heard, Mr. Goldman, anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed,” Sondland said. “The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise was that they had to be announced in some form, and that form kept changing.”

“Announced publicly?” Goldman asked.

“Announced publicly,” Sondland confirmed.

This subtle but important distinction shows that Trump’s interest was never fighting corruption in Ukraine. All Trump cared about was a public announcement of an investigation. That would be sufficient for him to attack Joe Biden in a presidential race, by pointing out that Ukraine was investigating wrongdoing. (Despite Giuliani’s best efforts, there’s still no evidence that Joe or Hunter Biden broke any Ukrainian or American laws.)

Sondland has tried to argue in his testimony that he did not initially understand that Trump’s obsession with Burisma was connected to the Bidens. If so, that’s no compliment to Sondland’s reasoning. To believe that Trump was sincerely interested in Burisma requires believing that he was interested in a specific company, in a particular country, when in reality Trump seldom shows any interest in details. Moreover, as David Holmes, a diplomat in Ukraine, testified that Sondland said, Trump “doesn’t give a shit about Ukraine.”

It was always about domestic politics—and how Trump could press Ukraine into assisting his reelection effort.