The Trump administration's Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, appeared before the House Intelligence Committee's impeachment panel yesterday, and his testimony was very significant. In my view, it confirmed myriad abuses of power and unethical conduct by the president and his team vis-a-vis Ukraine, including the establishment of an explicit quid pro quo. It also, however, handed President Trump and his defenders a number of potent talking points that cut against the impeachment and removal narrative. In his opening statement, Sondland confirmed that he and many others were "in the loop" on an arrangement in which the Ukrainian government was to announce the launch of investigations into Kiev's 2016 interference in the American election, as well as Burisma and the Bidens.
I've argued previously that the former subject, despite some of its adjacent conspiracies, is a legitimate bone of contention for Trump; the latter demand, by contrast, was a clear misuse of power. Especially telling was the insistence, as relayed by Sondland, that the desired probes merely be announced publicly, as opposed to actually undertaken. Here is the key quote, followed by the most plausible interpretation of what it demonstrates:
"He had to announce the investigations. He didn't actually have to do them, as I understood it." - Sondland.— Noah Rothman (@NoahCRothman) November 20, 2019
This is key. It was never about corruption. It was about tarring a domestic political opponent.
I can easily be convinced that President Trump held a grudge against Kiev over the previous government's assistance to the Democrats during the last campaign. I cannot be convinced that Trump is fundamentally offended by corruption in an Eastern European country. The most obvious reason Trump kept pushing for the Burisma probe announcement was that it would present a political problem back home for Joe Biden, his strongest on-paper 2020 opponent (who is, in fact, taking a hit on the Ukraine matter, as it happens). But whereas Sondland unequivocally testified to a quid pro quo in which a White House meeting for Zelensky was the reward for the investigations (bad, but not impeachable), he did not testify that he had hard or firsthand evidence of such an arrangement involving a military aid package approved by Congress and destined for Ukraine (far more serious). We know that the president put a hold on said aid, over the objections of his entire national security team, for reasons that remain unclear. It is entirely conceivable, if not likely, that this pause was tied into Trump's fixation on the "deliverable" of investigations being announced. But on the question of whether Trump himself ever linked those investigations with the military aid, Sondland said no:
Democrats love citing random conversations between random bureaucrats, but here's a direct quote from the actual President they absolutely refuse to acknowledge.— Andrew Clark (@AndrewHClark) November 20, 2019
Sondland quoting Trump: "I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo." pic.twitter.com/oZXS3OMQs4
Ambassador Gordon Sondland: “No one told me directly that the aid was tied to anything. I was presuming it was” pic.twitter.com/BjjKHqoReq— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) November 20, 2019
Not just 'no,' in fact; Sondland testified that nobody -- not Trump, not Rudy, nobody -- had explicitly linked the two issues, and that in his direct interactions with Trump, Sondland had exclusively been told that there was no linkage and no quid pro quo. Trump also said he wanted Zelensky to do the 'right thing,' and for Sondland to tell the truth before Congress. Interestingly, both clips above featured answers elicited by Democratic questioners. Taken in isolation, both of these responses might read as a pretty comprehensive exoneration of Trump, but that's not the case. The timing is important here: The military aid had been held up for weeks, for reasons that were mysterious to those in the know (some Ukrainian officials have said they eventually understood that it was tied into the investigation announcements Trump wanted). That freeze was finally released in September 11, which came after members of Congress on both sides of the aisle had started to apply pressure and demand answers about what was going on, and after whispers about a whistleblower were flying around Washington.
In other words, by early-to-mid September, the jig was up. The quid pro quo on military aid -- whether explicit of implicit -- had fallen apart, even though both sides had been moving forward on it. So it's totally conceivable that an exasperated and frustrated Trump, when asked point blank about what he 'wanted' from Ukraine, may have responded with "nothing" because by that point, the plot to achieve 'something' had been exposed and shut down. I think this is likely, and therefore Sondland's 'presumption' is also understandable-to-likely. But that belief does not constitute an easily-explained smoking gun, which is probably what's required to drastically shift the landscape of public opinion or the sentiments of undecided members of Congress. The following lines of questioning from GOP Congressmen Mike Turner and John Ratcliffe appeared to construct enough of a wall around Trump as to make conviction and removal awfully difficult to envision:
Rep. Mike Turner grills Ambassador Gordon Sondland on Capitol Hill: "You do not have any evidence that the president of the United States was tied to withholding aid from Ukraine in exchange for investigations." pic.twitter.com/fT2p82DauK— Townhall.com (@townhallcom) November 20, 2019
Is there a missing puzzle piece that clearly proves that Trump ordered the aid to be withheld until the Ukrainian investigations were announced? Perhaps. Such evidence could reside with White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, or former National Security Adviser John Bolton. We might end up seeing that puzzle piece at some point. We might not. Or it might not exist at all. But both men have declined to testify before Adam Schiff's committee, and the Democrats have indicated that they're not going to enter a legal struggle on this point, instead telegraphing that refusals to appear before impeachment proceedings will be considered evidence of obstruction and folded into articles of impeachment. This is a tactical and political choice by House Democrats, who seem to have little appetite to draw out this process by weeks or months in order to accommodate legal wrangling over subpoenas. That's because they're working on a political timeline, and they seem to be sticking to it.
In summary, Sondland was a consequential witness who laid waste to the Trump/Republican talking points that everything was 'perfect,' and there was 'no quid pro quo.' For that reason, his testimony was damaging to the credibility of the president and many of his defenders. Some foul-smelling machinations were very obviously afoot, with US foreign policy-making powers being hijacked for nakedly political reasons. This is wrong and unacceptable. But given Sondland's answers about the lack of direct orders or linkage involving the probe announcements and the military aid from anybody, the idea that 67 US Senators would move ahead to throw Trump out of office remains far-fetched. By the way, implications that Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo were seriously involved in all of this, based on the "in the loop" comments from Sondland, appear to have weakened over the course of the ambassador's testimony. I'll leave you with my column advocating a presidential censure, which I think holds up rather well in light of yesterday's events -- as well as this new polling out of an absolutely crucial swing state:
In new results, 40% of WI registered voters think Trump should be impeached and removed from office, 53% do not think so, 6% don’t know. #mulawpoll— MULawPoll (@MULawPoll) November 20, 2019
WISCONSIN— Political Polls (@Politics_Polls) November 20, 2019
Trump 47% (+3)
Trump 48% (+3)
Trump 48% (+5)
Trump 47% (+8)
Buttigieg 39%@MULawPoll 11/13-17
Sondland's big day might move the needle back toward the Democrats in a lasting way, but I have my doubts, for many of the reasons rehearsed above.