Key Takeaways From Gordon Sondland's Watershed Impeachment Hearing

Nov 20, 2019
Originally published on November 20, 2019 4:33 pm

President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and much of officialdom was "in the loop" throughout the Ukraine affair, a key witness told Congress on Wednesday in watershed testimony.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, rejected the idea that he was part of any back channel or shadow effort.

He said he conferred with the State Department and the National Security Council all this year as he and other envoys worked to try to get concessions for Trump from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Precisely what concessions — now known to be investigations into Trump's political rival — weren't clear in real time, Sondland said.

Here were some of the key lessons from the day.

1. No one understands the story the same way

For example, although the ambassador said that eventually, it became clear to him that Ukrainian commitments were the key that would unlock a meeting with Trump and — eventually, roughly $391 million in U.S. assistance — Sondland also said he didn't realize the target was former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Only within the past few months, when evidence emerged including the White House record of Trump's phone call on July 25 with Zelenskiy, did Sondland tie the phrase often used, "Burisma," which is a reference to the Ukrainian company that paid Hunter Biden, to Trump and the election.

"It was always 'Burisma' to me, and I didn't know about the connection between Burisma and Biden," he said.

2. There are credibility questions

Impeachment inquisitors in both parties were dubious about that claim and other aspects of Sondland's testimony.

The ambassador said that he's "not a note-taker" and that he often relies on others' records.

Sondland already has revised the deposition he gave behind closed doors in an earlier phase of this inquiry, and questioners on Wednesday pressed him about what he called gaps in his recollection or whether he was stating a fact or making an inference.

But Sondland also said the White House and the State Department won't release some documents and other materials to his attorneys — a theme that chimed with Democrats' complaint about what they've called obstruction by Trump.

One question raised Wednesday was whether the hearing would move the needle with the Trump administration and prompt it to begin releasing records related to Sondland or other witnesses in the impeachment case.

3. Sondland said Trump never outlined a quid pro quo

Sondland, rare among the players in the drama, has the ability to talk directly to Trump — and did on about 20 occasions, he said.

Sondland called Trump on his mobile phone from a restaurant in Kyiv, for example, and the president asked him in that conversations about the "investigations" he wanted the Ukrainians to launch.

But Trump himself never explicitly spelled out the crux of the Ukraine affair, Sondland said — never said that if the Ukrainians made the public statements the American side requested, there would be a White House meeting and the release of the assistance appropriated by Congress.

Sondland told members of Congress that he and others inferred that was what was behind the U.S. policy. So the ambassador delivered that crucial message to a Ukrainian counterpart in Poland: Zelenskiy would need to make an announcement in order to move ahead with U.S. engagement.

Sondland did confer with Pompeo, Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, diplomatic colleagues and others, he said. But in an exchange with Republican counsel Steve Castor, the ambassador gave the answer on which Republicans can preserve the foundation for a continued defense of Trump:

"Did the president ever tell you personally about any preconditions for anything?" Castor asked.

"No," Sondland said.

4. Testimony raises questions about political heat for others

Pence and Pompeo haven't figured heavily in the Ukraine affair since it took over much of the agenda in Washington.

But an earlier understanding of the story as a "shadow" or back-channel conduit from Trump via Giuliani, Sondland and other "three amigos" was exploded by Sondland's account on Wednesday.

The ambassador plotted diplomatic strategy directly with Pompeo, Sondland testified. For example, Sondland asked whether he should try to arrange contact between Trump and Zelenskiy in Poland when the American president was scheduled to travel there.

Sondland could prime Zelenskiy about the need to tell Trump that once his "justice folks" were operating, they would move ahead with investigations, the ambassador wrote.

"Yes," Pompeo responded, according to an email that Sondland produced — although Trump never made the trip.

Instead, Pence did — and Sondland said he conferred with him about the U.S. aid for Ukraine that had been frozen by the White House.

"I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay had become tied to the issue of investigations," Sondland said.

Continued Sondland: "I recall mentioning that before the Zelenskiy meeting. During the actual meeting, President Zelenskiy raised the issue of security assistance directly with Vice President Pence, and the vice president said that he would speak to President Trump about it."

Sondland told members of Congress that Pence "nodded" but otherwise didn't respond.

All the codes and euphemisms complicate the story, however. Pence's office said on Wednesday that the vice president never had a conversation about "investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid."

But Sondland said he never had the full picture himself, and in his testimony, he said he got the impression that Pence followed what was taking place.

"He didn't say, 'Gordon, what are you talking about'?" asked Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman. "He didn't say, 'What investigations?' "

Responded Sondland: "No, he did not."

5. Sondland could mark a shift in the Ukraine affair

History may record that Wednesday divided the Ukraine affair into "before" and "after" phases — Sondland's testimony verified so many facts from earlier witnesses and expanded so much public understanding that the saga appears likely to evolve once more.

The way the Ukraine affair plays out in Washington may shift from factual questions about what happened to more political ones about whether what took place was appropriate.

Republicans and Democrats both have been laying the groundwork for that for some time, each emphasizing different aspects of the case.

Republicans argue that, in the final analysis, there was no wrongdoing. The White House released the assistance for Ukraine, and Zelenskiy did not launch the investigations that Trump wanted. Although Trump's supporters haven't unanimously endorsed his actions, nearly all Republicans agree that the president does not deserve to be impeached.

Democrats argue that Trump was caught in the act and say the Ukraine affair is the story about attempted "bribery" — Trump conditioned official actions on concessions he hoped would benefit him personally, in Democrats' telling.

Democrats control this phase of the process. After one more public hearing scheduled for Thursday with two more witnesses, action could move to the House Judiciary Committee, which would be responsible for handling potential articles of impeachment and sending them for a vote in the full House.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, and other leaders have suggested that isn't certain and that impeachment would depend on the outcome of the investigation.

One question raised by Sondland's testimony on Wednesday was whether it might satisfy her and rank-and-file members enough to commit.

Impeachment in the House would trigger a trial for Trump in the Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., answered questions about that on Tuesday.

There won't be enough votes, he said, to remove the president from office.

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