President Trump’s European Union ambassador, Gordon Sondland, will appear today before the House Intelligence Committee in what may be the most awaited testimony of the impeachment hearings. Indeed, Sondland has few options and none of them are good as a witness. He has been skewered by witness after witness — leaving the image of a dim-witted braggart with virtually no diplomatic experience and even less judgment. Former National Security Council aide Tim Morrison simply referred to him in clinical terms as “the Gordon problem.” While some of us have questioned whether the Democrats are building a viable impeachment case, they are clearly building a compelling case for a highly inappropriate and damaging campaign for a quid pro quo. Sondland was either a dupe or a designer of that ill-conceived strategy.
In his opening statement, Sondland states that there was a quid pro quo stated by Giuliani but he is less clear about President Donald Trump. However, he makes clear that he did not want to work with Giuliani but that it was clear that Giuliani was carrying out the wishes of the President. That may throw Giuliani under the bus but it is not likely to make this day any easier for Sondland. On page 5, Sondland makes clear that he came to understand that aid was conditioned on the investigations. That will not however make today any easier for Sondland as members delve into the Trump connections and directions.
I will be doing the coverage of the hearings today for CBS News and BBC.
Sondland came to the Administration after a successful career in the hotel business — and after writing a $1 million check to the Trump inauguration committee. Just for the record, Sondland is yet another example of the ridiculous practice of allowing presidents to reward donors with diplomatic posts. Clinton, Bush, Obama, and other presidents did the same thing. It is bad for this country and I have been writing about this practice for decades. We have great professional diplomats like William Taylor and the others who have testified in these hearings. They should be the representatives of this country, not donors who bring large bank accounts and little discernible intellect or skill.
Accounts of Sondland having a loud conversation with President Trump in a Ukrainian restaurant only adds to his image as a bumbling political operative with a diplomatic title. Sondland gave generously to the Trump campaign and was rewarded with the position. He then appears to have been one of the driving forces with Rudy Giuliani in pushing this “deal” with the Ukrainians.
Sondland is in the worst possible position as a witness in coming to the hearing with conflicted testimony. He insisted that there were “no quid pro quos of any kind” but then seemed to walk that position back under questioning. His “I now do recall” pivot is deadly in a partisan take-no-prisoners hearings. The question is which direction he will jump. With the recent conviction of Roger Stone for lying to Congress, Sondland knows that any false statement could have disastrous consequences.
Sondland (like Trump) was helped and hurt by the last two witnesses before the Committee.
Former National Security Council (NSC) aide Tim Morrison and former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker denied hearing any quid pro quo or demands in key conversations. Yet, they also left the impression of Sondland as something of a braggart, or as Volker said in truly diplomatic terms, someone who is “bigger than life.” Ouch.
The most damaging testimony from highly credible witnesses like William Taylor is that it was Sondland who was unrelenting in pushing for a commitment to investigate from the Ukrainians. It was Sondland who allegedly brought a meeting with former National Security Adviser John Bolton to a sudden end by raising the issue. Sondland seems to appear at every awkward or sinister moment.
In other words, this is unlikely to go well for Sondland. It never does when your best defense is that I am a well-intentioned but clueless donor turned dupe thrashing around in the world of diplomacy.