Gordon Sondland’s Damning—But Delayed—Testimony

Gaps in the ambassador’s recollection frustrated Democrats and offered Republicans an opportunity to undermine his revelations.

Andrew Harnik / AP

Gordon Sondland this morning delivered the most damning congressional testimony against President Donald Trump since that of James Comey, the former FBI director whose firing led to a two-year investigation that consumed Trump’s presidency.

But Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, is no Comey, whose seemingly photographic memory and extensive contemporaneous note-taking provided key evidence for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice probe.

“I’m not a note-taker, nor am I a memo writer. Never have been,” Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee this morning. Nor, it appears, does he have a particularly strong memory, and the frequent gaps in his recollection frustrated Democrats and emboldened Republicans, who used them to undermine his credibility.

Sondland’s most damaging statement was his categorical assertion that “yes,” there was a quid pro quo in Trump’s demand for Ukraine to announce investigations into the energy company Burisma and the 2016 election in exchange for a White House meeting between Trump and Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The ambassador further told lawmakers that “everyone” involved in Ukraine policy knew about the quid pro quo and that it came at Trump’s direction.

Yet Sondland’s apparent bombshells didn’t come out until his third try before the committee, after he refreshed his memory and revised his initial round of testimony to lawmakers. Sondland made no direct claim of a quid pro quo in his 10-hour private deposition last month, nor in the addendum he filed weeks later. During his closed-door testimony, Republicans pointed out that the number of times he said “I don’t recall” or “I don’t remember” would fill up multiple pages of the transcript.

When House investigators learned of a crucial phone call between Sondland and Trump a day after the president’s infamous July 25 call with Zelensky, the revelation came not from an ambassador but from an embassy staffer, David Holmes, who overheard the loud cellphone conversation in a restaurant. And although Holmes’s testimony about the call jogged Sondland’s memory, he professed not to recall an explosive detail that supposedly occurred right after he hung up with Trump—that he told Holmes that the president only cares about “big stuff,” like Ukraine’s possible investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden.

Throughout this morning’s hearing, Sondland complained that the State Department would not grant him access to documents and emails that would both refresh his memory of events and back up his assertions. Democrats seized on that gripe to renew their threat to impeach Trump in part for his obstruction of Congress.

But Sondland’s faulty memory and his lack of complete documentation also offered Republicans an opportunity to pick apart his testimony. “We don’t have records, we don’t have notes, and we don’t have recollections, right?” the GOP’s committee counsel, Steve Castor, asked him at one point. “This is the trifecta of unreliability, isn’t that true?”

Sondland replied that he thought he had “filled in a lot of gaps.”

Castor shot back: “But a lot of it is speculation. A lot of it is your guess, and we’re talking about the impeachment of the president of the United States.”

Republicans were more willing to accept Sondland’s more definitive assertion that Trump told him there was “no quid pro quo” with Ukraine and that he never personally mentioned the conditions he was putting on the release of $400 million in aid.

Democrats were also incredulous at points. Sondland testified that although he understood that Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate Burisma and the 2016 election, he did not recall ever hearing Biden’s name come up in connection with the demand. The former vice president’s son had sat on Burisma’s board, and Trump repeatedly named Biden during his July 25 call with Zelensky. Sondland acknowledged working with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, on Ukraine matters, and Giuliani was frequently making the Biden-Burisma connection publicly during this time.

“The Bidens did not come up,” Sondland said, adding that he did not hear about their involvement until “late in the game” and possibly after the call record of the Trump-Zelensky conversation came out in September. “I think a lot of people have difficulty understanding that,” Representative Adam Schiff, the committee’s Democratic chairman, told Sondland at one point.

Toward the end of the hearing, Democratic Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York lashed out at Sondland after the ambassador protested his line of questioning. “There’s a whole bunch of stuff you don’t recall,” he told Sondland. “So all due respect, sir, we appreciate your candor, but let’s be really clear about what it took to get it out of you.”

The specific memories Sondland did and did not have served the purpose of casting his actions in a more favorable light than other witnesses have described. His insistence that “everyone was in the loop” suggested that he was not part of a nefarious “irregular channel” pressuring Ukraine in a way that was inconsistent with official U.S. policy. And his denial that the Bidens ever came up keeps some distance between Sondland and a direct attempt by Trump to enlist a foreign government in damaging a potential political opponent ahead of the president’s reelection campaign.

Sondland still provided plenty of grist for the impeachment case; his description of a well-understood quid pro quo implicates both the president and a large cast of high-ranking administration officials in a possibly corrupt scheme. The ambassador was a good witness for the Democrats. But his conveniently faulty memory kept him from being a sterling one.