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Opinion Gordon Sondland just gave us this scandal’s smoking quid pro quo

(Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

The House Intelligence Committee just released transcripts of testimony by Ambassadors Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, two central players in the Ukraine scandal. While both accounts are full of fascinating and appalling details, the real blockbuster came in the form of an appended statement from Sondland in which he clarified his testimony on key points.

For context, recall that there were two things Ukraine wanted from the United States: nearly $400 million in military aid that President Trump had frozen, and a White House meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In his testimony, Sondland notes that this meeting was conditioned on Zelensky agreeing to make a public anti-corruption statement, a demand that had been communicated to him by Trump personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The Fix's Amber Phillips explains what a "quid pro quo" is and how it factors into the impeachment inquiry of President Trump. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I understood that satisfying Mr. Giuliani was a condition for scheduling the White House visit,” Sondland said.

First off, it is positively bonkers that all of these high-ranking officials are being ordered by the president to shape U.S. foreign policy with “satisfying Mr. Giuliani” as their primary goal. As Sondland testified, Trump “just kept saying: Talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy.”

As we know, the corrupt scheme that Giuliani was putting into place, at the direction of Trump, involved leveraging Ukraine to start sham “investigations” that would smear potential 2020 Trump opponent Joe Biden and validate a conspiracy theory that would absolve Russia of its role in sabotaging the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf, something Trump badly wanted to make disappear.

That this is what Trump and Giuliani wanted has repeatedly been confirmed by the two men themselves, in repeated public statements going back to at least May. Trump himself explicitly pressed for both those things on his July 25 call with Zelensky.

Initially, Sondland had used squirrelly language to sort of deny he was implementing a direct quid pro quo in which the frozen military aid was being used to extort Ukraine into doing those things, as Trump wanted.

But then Ambassador William Taylor, who texted contemporaneously about his alarm over exactly that quid pro quo, confirmed it in deeply damning testimony. And White House national security adviser Tim Morrison, who had been discussing these matters with Taylor, confirmed Taylor’s account.

Which apparently jogged Sondland’s memory. In a new statement appended to the transcript of his testimony, Sondland clears it up once and for all:

Also, I now do recall a conversation on September 1, 2019, in Warsaw with [Zelensky aide Andriy] Yermak. This brief pull-aside conversation followed the larger meeting involving Vice President Pence and President Zelensky, in which President Zelensky had raised the issue of the suspension of U.S. aid to Ukraine directly with Vice President Pence. After that large meeting, I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.

To sum up: American officials, acting at the instructions of Giuliani, who was in turn acting at the instructions of Trump, held up military aid desperately sought by a vulnerable ally under Russian military attack to coerce Zelensky into carrying this whole scheme to fruition.

This testimony is especially damaging coming from Sondland. Nearly all the others who have given damaging testimony about Ukraine are career foreign policy and national security officials. Trump has derided them as “Never Trumpers.” Even if that allegation is a scurrilous one, he couldn’t say it about Sondland.

After Sondland, a hotelier with no government or diplomatic experience, donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee. Trump made him ambassador to the European Union, a position that did not include oversight of policy toward Ukraine. The very fact that he was involved represented a circumvention of regular policy channels.

Trump obviously believed the career people couldn’t be relied on to do whatever he tells them to no matter the ethical or legal concerns. And in many cases he’s been proven right.

Whatever his loyalties until now, Sondland has effectively turned on Trump, simply by corroborating what others have said, and laying out a series of events in a manner that can no longer be falsified away with dumb spin about process and pathetic stunts designed to generate feisty Fox News chyrons and please the Audience of One.

They wanted a public statement above all

It’s important here to reiterate that what Trump and Giuliani wanted above all was a public statement by Ukraine that these investigations were being pursued.

Indeed, the new transcript of Sondland’s testimony is particularly revealing on this point. It shows Sondland working to make Giuliani happy with the public statement he and Trump wanted. Here is what Sondland says right after confirming the quid pro quo:

I also recall some question as to whether the public statement could come from the newly appointed Ukrainian Prosecutor General, rather than from President Zelensky directly.
Soon thereafter, I came to understand that, in fact, the public statement would need to come directly from President Zelensky himself. I do not specifically recall how I learned this, but I believe that the information may have come either from Mr. Giuliani or from Ambassador Volker, who may have discussed this with Mr. Giuliani.

They negotiated over what this public statement would look like, and who would issue it. Giuliani had to be happy with the public statement, and in the end, Giuliani needed it to come directly from Zelensky.

The public announcement was necessary to get news organizations to start treating the allegations about Biden and the conspiracy theory about 2016 seriously, thus creating a vague aura of corruption around Biden and casting further doubt on Russia’s 2016 role and the Trump campaign’s eagerness to benefit from it.

As former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon has candidly revealed, the whole key to creating this sort of aura is to get the mainstream media to start covering such allegations, no matter how spurious, in effect laundering them and introducing them into the mainstream conversation.

Sondland has now confirmed that Trump was using hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid appropriated by Congress to extort Ukraine into doing its part in this scheme, to falsify the corruption of the last presidential election and corrupt the next one, all to serve Trump’s nefarious ends.

Read more:

David Ignatius: In Ukraine, the quid pro quo may have started long before the phone call

Eugene Robinson: The facts are only going to get worse for Trump

The Post’s View: Impeachment is going public. Republicans will find it harder to hide.

Michael Gerson: The GOP’s defense of Trump has me sinking into cynicism

Jennifer Rubin: What would be impeachable in Republicans’ eyes?

The Post’s View: Ukraine and Zelensky need help. U.S. officials are nowhere to be found.