The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sondland’s testimony will expose Trump’s use of crime-boss language

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland speaks with attorney Robert Luskin as he appears before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

As Gordon Sondland offers his much-anticipated testimony to the impeachment inquiry, Democrats will hopefully seize this occasion to expose and illuminate President Trump’s use of what you might call “crime-boss-speak,” or “mafia-boss vernacular.”

Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, is a crucial witness because in his amended closed-door testimony, he admitted he told a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid would not be forthcoming until Ukraine carried out Trump’s demand to do his political bidding.

The latest updates in the Trump impeachment hearings

But Sondland also said in that testimony that he merely “presumed” that the military aid was conditional on Ukraine announcing the “investigations” Trump wanted, “in the absence of any credible explanation” as to why Trump hadn’t released the appropriated funds.

You will hear Republicans lean heavily on this insulation of Trump when they question Sondland. As the New York Times reports, they will likely portray Sondland “as acting on his own to link the security aid to the investigations without explicit direction from the president.”

The word “explicit” is germane here. Because this line of inquiry should open a window on how Trump corruptly communicated directives to Sondland.

Trump’s corrupt use of crime-boss vernacular

Sondland repeatedly communicated directly with Trump throughout his implementation of Trump’s corrupt scheme. He talked directly with Trump in early September, when the extortion-bribery plot was hitting its climax.

What we already know about that communication strongly suggests Trump communicated direction to Sondland while preserving plausible deniability about having done so.

This is evident from a close reading of testimony. William B. Taylor Jr., the acting ambassador to Ukraine, testified that Tim Morrison, a White House national security adviser, recounted a Sept. 7 conversation with Sondland about Sondland’s conversation with Trump. Taylor said this:

According to Mr. Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a “quid pro quo.” But President Trump did insist that President Zelensy go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelensky should want to do this himself.

That’s a reference to Trump’s demand that Ukraine “investigate” conspiracy theories of Ukrainian-Democratic collusion in 2016 that would absolve Russia of electoral sabotage, and lies smearing Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Fox News watchers are more committed to President Trump than other Americans. Post media critic Erik Wemple went to Fox Nation's Patriot Awards to find out why. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Taylor then recounted that the next day he again spoke with Sondland about Sondland’s direct communications with Trump:

He said he had talked to President Trump … but that President Trump was adamant that President Zelensky, himself, had to “clear things up and do it in public.” President Trump said it was not a “quid pro quo.” Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelensky and [top aide Andrey] Yermak and told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelensky did not “clear things up” in public, we would be at a “stalemate.”

What we’re hearing is that Trump basically said: Lemme be clear, this isn’t a quid pro quo. But Zelensky’s gotta do what I need here. And he’s gotta do it all on his own. Otherwise, we’re kinda stuck, you hear what I’m saying? But lemme be clear: This isn’t a quid pro quo. Got it?

Indeed, Sondland himself has all but confirmed that this is how Trump communicated to him. In his own testimony, Sondland described it this way:

“He said: I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing," Sondland testified. "And I said: What does that mean? And he said: I want him to do what he ran on.”

In other words: I’m not telling Zelensky what to do. He needs to do what I want him to do all on his own. He ran on fighting corruption, right? So when will he do what he promised and investigate the corruption of the Bidens?

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this. Here’s how former Trump fixer Michael Cohen described Trump’s crime-boss vernacular when testifying about Trump’s negotiation of a real estate project in Moscow during the 2016 campaign:

Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie.

It is very likely that this is exactly how Trump communicated that Sondland should convey the demand — which is basically a solicitation of a bribe — to Ukraine. The witness testimony cited above underscores this possibility.

Skillful questioning of Sondland should draw this out. Why did Sondland “presume” that the military aid would be held up until Ukraine gave Trump what he wanted? What did Trump tell him that made him “presume” this? When Trump said there was no quid pro quo while also saying Zelensky must do his bidding, what did Sondland take from that?

Who is Gordon Sondland, and why does his public testimony matter?

Beyond all this, the GOP spin that Sondland wrongly presumed this of Trump is spectacularly ridiculous. State Department employee David Holmes testified that he overheard Trump demanding from Sondland to know whether Ukraine would carry out his corrupt designs, showing (along with other testimony) that Sondland was taking Trump’s direction all throughout. Sondland will be pressed to detail this.

The absurd fig leaf that Sondland freelanced the bribery-extortion piece of the plot will probably be enough for Senate Republicans to vote against removal, because as I’ve argued, the big story here is that most Republicans are absolutely fine with pretty much everything Trump did.

But let’s hope that at a minimum, our corrupt president’s use of crime-boss vernacular to direct his corrupt scheme can be exposed before the American people.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Even Republicans’ preferred witnesses are implicating Trump

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans made mistakes with their witness choices

David Von Drehle: Coach Jordan goes to war for Team Trump

Greg Sargent: How a mangled Nancy Pelosi quote illustrates the Ukraine scandal

Paul Waldman: At hearing, Republicans sink to new lows in trying to expose whistleblower

The latest commentary on the Trump impeachment

Looking for more Trump impeachment coverage following the president’s acquittal?

See Dana Milbank’s Impeachment Diary: Find all the entries in our columnist’s feature.

Get the latest: See complete Opinions coverage from columnists, editorial cartoonists and the Editorial Board.

Read the most recent take from the Editorial Board: It’s not over. Congress must continue to hold Trump accountable.

The House impeachment managers weigh in in an op-ed: Trump won’t be vindicated. The Senate won’t be, either.

Stay informed: Read the latest reporting and analysis on impeachment from the Post newsroom.

Want even more? Sign up for the Opinions A.M. and P.M. newsletters, delivered to your inbox six days a week.