Below are some key takeaways.
1. Sondland strongly confirms a quid pro quo — but doesn’t connect it to Trump
We knew that Sondland’s lawyer clarified his testimony to the Wall Street Journal, saying Sondland did in fact confirm a quid pro quo.
And now we see that clarification was apparently sent to the impeachment inquiry, too — on Monday. In it, Sondland says there was no other “credible” explanation than a quid pro quo and confirms the testimonies of acting Ukraine ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. and National Security Council aide Tim Morrison and the public comments of Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), all of whom said Sondland had described an explicit quid pro quo.
Sondland said that in “the beginning of September 2019, and in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of [hundreds of millions of dollars of military] aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement” that the Trump team asked Ukraine to make about the investigations. He added that “it would have been natural for me to have voiced what I had presumed to Ambassador Taylor, Senator Johnson, the Ukrainians and Mr. Morrison.”
Sondland also says, as Taylor and Morrison testified, that he told a top Ukrainian official that the “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.”
Importantly, though — and this is key — Sondland doesn’t say this directive came from Trump. He instead says he was acting on his presumption. That could provide Trump a layer of insulation.
At the same time, though, even as Sondland has said Trump insisted to him there was no quid pro quo, everything about the situation he describes indicates there was a quid pro quo in everything but name.
2. Sondland thought the Biden setup was illegal
Sondland, a Trump appointee and Trump donor, too, clearly wasn’t exactly looking to blow the lid off this scandal. But at certain points, he did suggest that the kind of quid pro quos that have been the subject of much debate — and have been confirmed by no fewer than six people, including him now — would indeed be bad and probably illegal.
Sondland’s main defense has been that, while he did push for an investigation into the company that employed Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, Burisma Holdings, he didn’t know the situation involved the Bidens.
When he was asked why he was drawing that line, he acknowledged it was because that setup was bad.
“Because I believe I testified that it would be improper to do that,” he said.
A member then asked him, “And illegal, right?”
“I’m not a lawyer, but I assume so,” Sondland said.
Sondland added: “Again, I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know the law exactly. It doesn’t sound good.”
Whether Sondland thinks this was illegal doesn’t mean it is — just as Morrison saying Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wasn’t illegal doesn’t mean it wasn’t. But the fact that even Sondland, a Trump ally, is acknowledging the gravity of this is telling. And it makes it much more difficult for the Trump team to argue there’s nothing to see here.
This is a central figure saying what we’ve learned actually happened was something he believed was illegal.
3. Sondland’s defense of himself still makes no sense
We already knew based on Sondland’s opening statement that his defense was ignorance on the Biden-Burisma stuff.
As I wrote though, that badly strains credulity. Giuliani’s effort to obtain such an investigation was reported publicly in early May, and he said at the time that this was explicitly about the Bidens. Trump himself also floated all of this publicly on May 19. Yet Sondland said in his opening statement that he was unaware of the connection May 23 and even as late as August.
The idea that someone intimately involved in Ukraine such as Sondland wouldn’t know why there was such interest in Burisma — and didn’t care to find out — seems impossible. And when pressed on this, Sondland didn’t really have good answers:
Q: Well, but Mr. Giuliani was talking about Burisma and the Bidens. And it’s your testimony today you had no idea of any Biden connection to Burisma, it came as a complete revelation when you read the call record in September?SONDLAND: I don’t recall when I finally—when the light finally went on that Burisma and the Bidens were connected, but certainly not early on at all. I can’t tell you the day that finally I said, oh, Burisma equals Biden. I have no idea when that was.Q: But I think you suggested in your opening statement that you didn’t know until you read the call record, and it was an epiphany that the president wasn’t simply interested in this energy company — which, by the way, he doesn’t mention in the call record — but he was really interested in an investigation involving the Bidens.SONDLAND: No, I think I said that I didn’t know what was in the call until I saw the call record. I had no idea that he had brought up the Bidens in the call until I saw the call report.Q: But I think you were also suggesting that until you read that call record — and correct me if I’m wrong — until you read that call record, you never put two and two together that actually Burisma involved the Bidens, correct?SONDLAND: I don’t recall when I finally put it together. I don’t recall what the date was or the place was or the time was. I don’t recall.
At another point, Sondland was pressed on whether he had specifically missed those Giuliani stories, despite the controversy they caused. He said he did. He also admitted he gets press clippings from staff but said he doesn’t read them all.
Sondland had to clarify on the quid pro quo, and he might need to clarify this, too. There’s just no way this is true unless he was burying his head in the sand.
4. Volker undercuts Sondland’s defense, says Giuliani pushed ‘debunked’ claims
While that may be Sondland’s defense, it’s clearly not Volker’s. Volker testified that it was clear as day what Giuliani was up to.
He also agreed that theories pushed by Trump and Giuliani had been “debunked” and weren’t credible:
Q: So is it your testimony that you understood that Rudy Giuliani’s desire for the Ukrainian government to investigate Burisma had to do with potential money laundering or other criminal conduct by the company itself, and not in connection to either Joe or Hunter Biden?VOLKER: No. I believe that Giuliani was interested in Biden, Vice President Biden’s son Biden [sic], and I had pushed back on that, and I was maintaining that distinction.Q: So you were maintaining that distinction, because you understood that that whole theory had been debunked and there was no evidence to support it, right?A: Yes.
At another point, Volker says he urged Giuliani not to investigate the theories pushed by former Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuri Lutsenko because they were specious.
“I reached out to him to brief him, a couple of key points: Lutsenko is not credible. Don’t listen to what he is saying,” Volker said.
Yet more Trump team arguments undercut by sworn testimony.
5. GOP has no good rebuttal, except arguing the quid pro quo wasn’t explicit
When Volker was the first witness to submit to a deposition, Republicans insisted that his actual testimony — rather than the select text messages Democrats released — was actually good for Trump.
There is, quite simply, little sign of that here. Volker does say that he didn’t have a quid pro quo communicated to him, but he doesn’t say there wasn’t one.
“Well, you asked what conversations did I have about that quid pro quo, et cetera,” Volker tells a member at one point. “None, because I didn’t know that there was a quid pro quo.”
He adds at several other points, under questioning from Republicans, that a quid pro quo had never been expressly communicated to him by either U.S. or Ukrainian officials.
Q: That message that I heard you very loud and clear today is that there was no quid pro quo at any time ever communicated to you. Is that correct?VOLKER: Not to me, that is correct.
That’s significant because it suggests this perhaps wasn’t so overt. But Volker has an incentive to argue he didn’t explicitly participate in a quid pro quo that Sondland suggested might be illegal. And as Sondland’s testimony makes clear, it was pretty evident what the arrangement was.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) tweeted after their testimony was released, “The Volker/Sondland transcripts lay it out: @realDonaldTrump wanted to clean up corruption in Ukraine, and ensure taxpayer funded aid wasn’t going to corrupt causes."
The transcripts, in fact, show both Sondland and Volker believed Trump was interested only in investigations that carried personal benefits. Sondland even concedes how problematic the specific investigations were.