European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland sent shockwaves around Washington after he not only confirmed what he deduced as a quid pro quo demand but that a wide circle of top officials were fully informed for the effort. Sondland did not directly implicate Trump who he recounted denied any quid pro quo to him in a call on September 9th. However, he offered compelling testimony that he was told to speak to Rudy Giuliani who pursued such a quid pro quo. His testimony suggested knowledge of these efforts by Vice President Michael Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and others. Pence and Pompeo immediately issued direct denials of that meetings or communications with Sondland ever occurred. What was striking is that Sondland made it clear that he would not go down alone. His testimony reflected a type of mutually assured destruction strategy for a wide circle of officials.
Sondland reasonably assumed that Giuliani was pursuing a strategy at the behest of the President and that the demand for investigations “reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements.”
He declared effectively that he would not be a scapegoat. He testified that “At all times, I was acting in good faith. As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the President.” He then added that he kept a wide range of officials in the loop: “They knew what we were doing and why. Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.’
He denied understanding any quid pro quo for much of the period under review and declared that “by the 8th of September, it was abundantly clear to everyone that there was a link.”
The Democrats had another good day with members advancing a consistent and coherent narrative.
On Pence, Sondland testified that “I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations. He added “I recall mentioning that before the Zelensky meeting . . . During the actual meeting, President Zelensky raised the issue of security assistance directly with Vice President Pence. The Vice President said he would speak to President Trump about it.”
On the other hand, the Republicans also scored from points. They drew their own timeline that noted that Sen. Ron Johnson spoke with Trump in late August and Trump angrily denied the suggestion of a quid pro quo. That was before the whistleblower complaint was sent to Congress. Then on September 9th, Sondland reported that Trump also angrily denied a quid pro quo to him. That later conversation can be questioned since it was the same day as the confirmation of a congressional review of the whistleblower complaint. However, the only two direct statements by Trump on quid pro quo were express denials. Then six days later, the aid was released without any announcement of investigations.
Moreover, various witnesses have testified that the Bidens were not mentioned in meetings and that much of the discussion centered on a call for investigations into the 2016 election fraud and Burisma. Again, some have raised legitimate questions over whether people like Sondland should have known that investigating Burisma meant investigating the Bidens.
I still have serious concerns over the narrowness of this impeachment and the thin (and at points conflicted) record. In particular, the recent effort to pound these facts into a case of bribery remains highly dubious in light of the case law on the meaning of that crime. Nevertheless, the witnesses are painting a damning picture of the work of Giuliani and supporting a narrative of an abuse of power in the withholding (even if briefly) of military aid.