In just a few hours, Sondland unleashed a fusillade of revelations that suddenly bring us face to face with much bigger questions about the roles played by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Pence.
As a bonus, Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani is now far more deeply implicated as well.
Giuliani, of course, ran the shadow effort to pressure Ukraine to carry out Trump’s demands for sham “investigations” that would validate conspiracy theories letting Russia off the hook for sabotaging the 2016 election and help Trump rig the 2020 election by validating a series of lies smearing Joe Biden.
In his testimony, Sondland confirmed over and over that Giuliani ran this entire scheme — and that Giuliani unequivocally spoke for Trump all throughout.
What’s more, while this has long been seen as a policy run through irregular channels, Sondland confirmed that this effort was run through the highest levels of the government. As Sondland put it in response to hostile GOP questioning:
“I’m not sure how someone could characterize something as an irregular channel when you’re talking to the president of the United States, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, the chief of staff in the White House, the secretary of energy. I don’t know how that’s irregular.”
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said at another point.
“This got a whole lot bigger," former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner told us. “Sondland just testified that the official channel included everything that Giuliani was insisting on."
Sondland implicated multiple Cabinet officials
First, Sondland — who said unequivocally that the White House meeting the Ukrainian president sought was used as leverage — implicated Mulvaney by stating that Mulvaney could confirm whether Trump also froze the hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to extort Ukraine into doing Trump’s bidding.
Sondland, who conveyed that extortion demand about the military aid directly to Ukrainian officials, repeatedly testified that Trump never directly told him to do this. But Trump and Sondland communicated about it, and it’s likely Trump used mob-boss language to create this plausible deniability for himself. But we may never know for sure.
Mulvaney, though, personally froze the aid at Trump’s direction, a week before his July 25 call with the Ukrainian president. So now that Sondland has directly fingered Mulvaney as the person who can shed light on Trump’s motives, it’s a lot more urgent to hear from him.
Second, Sondland implicated Pence by saying he personally informed Pence of concerns over the frozen military aid, and communicated to Pence that he understood that the money (and the meeting) were conditional on Ukraine announcing the investigations Trump wanted.
“The vice president nodded, like, you know, he heard what I said,” Sondland recounted. Under Democratic questioning, Sondland clarified that Pence didn’t dissent from what Sondland told him. While Pence quickly issued a denial, this, too, underscores the need to learn more.
And Sondland implicated Pompeo by saying Pompeo had direct knowledge of his own view that the frozen military aid’s fate was linked to Ukraine doing Trump’s bidding. Sondland had this exchange with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee chair:
SCHIFF: He was aware of the connections that you were making between the investigations and the White House meeting and the security assistance?
SCHIFF: Did he ever take issue with you, and say, “No, that connection is not there,” or 'You’re wrong”?
SONDLAND: Not that I recall.
This underscores the urgency of holding Pompeo accountable as well.
Put all this together, and it’s going to be a whole lot harder to do a full reckoning without a much more extensive effort to nail down the new revelations involving those major figures.
At the same time, the scale of the new revelations — and the degree to which much of the government is directly implicated in this effort to corrupt the next election on Trump’s behalf — makes doing that full reckoning far more urgent.
“Based on the way this is expanding, I think it’s in our national interest to hold everyone accountable for their involvement," Kirschner told us. “The case for broadening this is an institutional and a national one.”
“When you have our top government officials involved in extorting a vulnerable nation that’s supposed to be an ally, and weaponizing our relationship with them for the president, if we don’t expand and hold them all accountable, then shame on us,” Kirschner continued.
This would, of course, entail trying to subpoena testimony from all those officials — or at least Mulvaney, Pompeo and Giuliani — and then going to court to force them to testify, since they will continue refusing. Which might take months.
We are sensitive to the fact that the Democratic House is made up of many members with differing political needs, including some who might not want this to drag on. We are also sensitive to the possibility that extending it could cause political support for impeachment to dissipate. It’s not clear to us there’s any evidence this would happen, but we wouldn’t dismiss it as a possibility.
But other things have now been forced upon us by what we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks. House Republicans have shown staggering bad faith and dishonesty in dismissing one stunning revelation after another.
Again and again, they’ve responded by retreating more deeply into the alternative universe they’re concocting, robotically reverting to absurd conspiracy theories that are designed to keep up the corrupt goals Trump has adhered to all along, of absolving Russia of its 2016 attack on our political system and using the levers of government to rig the next election on his behalf.
Given all this, turning the whole affair over to a Senate trial run by Republicans operating in equivalent bad faith should be more worrisome in light of the mind-boggling scale of what we’re now witnessing.
This is a profoundly difficult moment, and we aren’t sure what the answers are. But it does seem clear that the exponential growth of this scandal should call forth a serious rethinking of where this is all going.