WASHINGTON — Gordon Sondland is a wealthy hotelier and lifelong Republican who, despite having no diplomatic experience, scored a plum gig as President Trump’s U.S. ambassador to the European Union. (Sondland’s $1 million donation to Trump’s inauguration surely didn’t hurt.) As ambassador, Sondland’s portfolio included Ukraine. From the spring to the fall of this year, Sondland was a participant in or first-hand witness to Trump’s scheme to force the president of Ukraine into publicly announcing an investigation of Joe Biden and a debunked conspiracy theory involving the 2016 U.S. election and the Democratic Party.
Sondland’s testimony was highly anticipated, as unlike other witnesses called thus far in the House impeachment investigation, the ambassador could speak with authority and direct knowledge of Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign, which Democrats have described as an abuse of power, extortion, and bribery.
And speak Sondland did. He was by no means an impeccable witness — he arrived at the hearing having already been forced to make a major clarification to his previous closed-door deposition — but he made clear he was not conducting a rogue, off-the-books operation in his efforts to do Trump’s bidding by convincing the Ukrainians to announce politically motivated investigations. Instead, he said, it was done with the full knowledge of top administration officials: “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
Here are five things you should know about Sondland’s testimony:
Sondland named a clear quid pro quo involving Trump and Ukraine. Sondland testified that Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer with whom he spoke multiple times, was explicit that Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, would not receive an official White House meeting with Trump unless Zelensky publicly announced investigations focused on the Bidens and the 2016 U.S. election.
“Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” Sondland testified. “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election DNC server and Burisma.” Burisma is a reference to Burisma Holdings, the natural-gas company on whose board Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, held a lucrative board of directors position. At the time, Sondland testified, he didn’t understand that references to Burisma were almost certainly references to the Bidens, but he said he now understood the connection.
Sondland also testified he had every reason to believe Giuliani was acting at the direction of the president when he made these requests of the Ukrainians. “Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States,” Sondland said, “and we knew these investigations were important to the president.”
Sondland did not have firsthand evidence of a second quid pro quo involving U.S. security aid for Ukraine but “came to believe” there was a quid pro quo there too. One of the key questions in the impeachment investigation is whether the Trump administration held back nearly $400 million in badly needed security aid for Ukraine until Ukraine’s president announced the Biden and DNC investigations.
Under questioning by House Republicans, Sondland testified that he had no direct knowledge of a quid pro quo arrangement when it came to the foreign aid for Ukraine. That’s different from the matter of the White House meeting sought by Ukraine, about which Sondland did have direct knowledge.
That said, based on everything he learned in the summer and fall of this year, Sondland says he “presumed” and “came to believe” that the security aid, like the White House meeting, was conditioned on Ukraine making the investigations announcement Trump wanted. “By the end of August, my belief was that if Ukraine did something to demonstrate a serious intention to fight corruption, specifically addressing Burisma and 2016 server, then the hold on military aid would be lifted,” he said in his opening statement.
To be clear: Sondland spoke directly to one quid pro quo involving a White House meeting, but did not know beyond his own presumption if a similar arrangement existed for the security money.
(Sondland may only have a presumption, but, according to the White House-approved summary of the Trump-Zelensky phone call, when the new Ukrainian president mentioned buying more military equipment, Trump responded with this now-infamous sentence: “I’d like you to do us a favor though.” He then asked Zelensky to investigate the Crowdstrike conspiracy theory and, shortly thereafter, to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden.)
Sondland implicated government officials all the way up to the vice president. This may be the most consequential part of Sondland’s testimony as part of the impeachment process. Despite previous witnesses saying the months-long push to get Ukraine to do Trump’s bidding was “irregular” or outside the usual channels, Sondland insisted that he was acting at the “express direction” of President Trump.
What’s more, he said, top administration officials such as Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney were all well aware of what Sondland was up to, including the quid pro quo for a White House meeting.
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland testified. “It was no secret.”
By implicating Pence, Pompeo, and other higher-ups, Sondland’s testimony makes it all the more important that House Democrats obtain testimony from those key officials.
Ukraine realized much earlier than previously known there was a hold on the military aid. Republicans have repeatedly argued that since the Ukrainians allegedly did not know there was a hold on military aid, it’s not possible that Trump’s team was leveraging that hold to request investigations into Burisma, Biden, and the 2016 election. One could quibble with that logic, but it doesn’t really matter much now, because it seems that at least some Ukrainians knew about the hold far earlier than has been previously reported.
Evening witness Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Ukraine, testified Wednesday that on July 25th (yes, that July 25th) her staff received a pair of emails. The first said the Ukrainian embassy was asking about the military aid, while the second, two hours later, said embassy officials knew about the military aid “situation to an extent.” Later, under GOP questioning, she said she could not be certain that meant Ukrainians were aware there was a hold on the aid, but she added: “It’s the recollection of my staff that they likely knew.”
Republicans have repeatedly asserted Ukrainians only became aware of a hold on the aid in late August, but the emails and testimony suggest some embassy officials had learned of it more than a month earlier.
Cooper included a few caveats, noting that she did not have “any additional information about precisely what the Ukrainians may have said, what may have been their source of information about a hold or possible issues with the flow of assistance, or what State Department officials may have told them.” But given how critical the aid is to Ukraine, and how frequently Zelensky and his administration inquired about it from U.S. officials, it seems unlikely that some Ukrainian embassy officials could know about the hold without Zelensky being swiftly looped in.
The effort by House Republicans and Trump allies to undercut witnesses and discredit the impeachment process has reached Orwellian levels. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, tried to dismiss the entire impeachment investigation as a sham and an “asinine theory.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told a reporter after the hearing that he had seen no evidence of a quid pro quo despite having listened for hours to a witness — who also happens to be a Trump supporter and lifelong Republican — explicitly say that was the case.
Sean Hannity, the president’s most shameless defender outside the administration, told listeners of his radio show Wednesday evening that Sondland’s hearing was a victory for Trump. “It is over. It is done. This is the end of this,” Hannity said. “This couldn’t be a better day for President Trump.”
Hannity is effectively telling his viewers: Don’t believe what you read. Don’t believe what you hear. It brings to mind a passage from George Orwell’s 1984: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”