He also said: “We all understood that these prerequisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements.”
Sondland is an imperfect messenger. His opening statement represents what is effectively his third account of the Ukraine scandal. He first testified behind closed doors. Then, after leaks from those depositions contradicted Sondland’s testimony, he appended changes. Now he offers a third version. His shift on the question of a quid pro quo is notable, for example: Previously, Sondland testified that Trump told him there was no quid pro quo. There’s no direct factual conflict: Trump saying that there was no quid pro quo isn’t mutually exclusive with the obvious fact that there was one.
But the difference in interpretation is important, and it suggests that Republican attempts to pin the Ukraine scandal on Sondland may have backfired. Sondland seems to be turning on Trump (and Giuliani) to save himself. Sondland’s version now echoes the account offered yesterday by Kurt Volker, Trump’s former special envoy to Ukraine: Both say they just wanted to help Ukraine, and gritted their teeth and worked with Giuliani to do so.
“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said. “Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. 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. So we followed the president’s orders.”
Yet despite well-founded questions about Sondland’s credibility, his newest version largely adds up with the growing evidence in the inquiry. The testimony has shown, in aggregate, a clear picture: Trump was obsessed with the Burisma and 2016 investigations, bringing them up repeatedly, and the administration resolved to withhold a promised White House meeting for Ukraine’s president and military aid until they were announced.
Some of the witnesses, including staffers in the diplomatic corps and on the National Security Council, have testified to their bewilderment about the holds. Others, who were better informed, have offered evidence of both the quid pro quo and Trump’s involvement, while avoiding drawing the conclusions that Sondland did today. A third tranche, those who are perhaps best informed—Giuliani, Trump, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry—have refused to testify.
But Sondland’s testimony shows that far from freelancing a crazy scheme, he was working closely with the president and with top policy makers in the administration, keeping them apprised. This also explains the reaction to Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The call, and a partial transcript of it, set off alarm bells throughout the policy-making staff of the administration. Trump had veered off script, talking about the investigations and airing the 2016 conspiracy theory.