“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
Those are the two most important sentences in today’s opening statement by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Sondland’s public testimony was the most hotly anticipated of the impeachment inquiry, and even before Sondland uttered a word this morning, he’d lived up to his billing.
In a blistering statement, Sondland testified that the president had personally directed American efforts to extort Ukraine’s president into announcing two investigations that would aid Donald Trump in his 2020 reelection effort.
“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland said. “The answer is yes.”
As it has become clear that there was a quid pro quo, Trump’s defenders have insisted that the president didn’t direct the effort. Sondland, who reportedly was in direct touch with Trump, destroyed that too, tracing the pressure to Trump via his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
“Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president.”
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.
Some aides concluded that the call was inappropriate; others worried that the president had broken the law; and some, while not deeming it wrong, knew that it would be politically explosive if made public. The transcript was quickly moved to a highly classified server. But some of the very highest officials seemed unbothered and unsurprised by the call, and Sondland offered an explanation for why: They all understood what was happening.
“I have now identified certain State Department emails and messages that provide contemporaneous support for my view,” he said. “These emails show that the leadership of State, NSC, and the White House were all informed about the Ukraine efforts from May 23, 2019, until the security aid was released on September 11, 2019.”
Sondland’s testimony simply states what should be clear: The effort to extract investigations from Ukraine in exchange for helping Trump’s political fortunes was extortion, and the president directed it. Everyone knows. The question is just whether, like Sondland, they are finally willing to admit it.