Either way, he is one of the few witnesses in the impeachment inquiry who is in a position to confirm what Trump wanted out of Ukraine in exchange for holding up its military aid. He’s testifying publicly Wednesday.
Here are the five questions we have for Sondland.
1. Were you acting of your own volition, or at the direction of Trump?
This is the crux of the impeachment inquiry right now: Did Trump orchestrate all of this? We don’t know.
We know Sondland offered Ukrainians a quid pro quo. We know Trump told his acting chief of staff to hold up military aid days before he called Ukraine’s president and asked for investigations into the Biden family. But we don’t know for sure that Trump tied those things together himself — military aid in exchange for investigations into his political opponents.
Sondland is one of the few people we’re hearing from in this inquiry who appeared to have a direct line to Trump and the Ukrainians.
Former White House official Tim Morrison testified Tuesday that Sondland talked to Trump about half a dozen times this summer as the White House froze aid to Ukraine. In fact, Sondland told Morrison he briefed Trump right before Trump called Ukraine’s new president in July. In that call, Trump ignored national security talking points issued by Morrison’s team in favor of asking Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden. At one point, Morrison said Sondland became known as the “Gordon problem” in the National Security Council.
Sondland has not implicated Trump in this. He testified that he “presumed” the frozen aid was linked to investigations Trump wanted, and so he told the Ukrainians as much. Was he just acting of his own volition? Was someone else telling him what to do?
Sondland’s testimony to Congress doesn’t give us any hints he plans to implicate the president: “I always believed that suspending aid to Ukraine was ill-advised, although I did not know (and still do not know) when, why, or by whom the aid was suspended.”
2. What did you say to Trump — and Trump to you — on a July phone call from Kyiv?
Diplomat David Holmes testified Saturday that Sondland was in Ukraine the day after Trump talked to Ukraine’s president on the phone. Sondland called Trump from a restaurant. During that call, Holmes testified, he overheard Trump ask about “the investigations.”
So many questions here. Trump has said he didn’t remember that phone call. But does Sondland? The rest of that conversation could go a long way to helping uncover whether Trump was ordering Sondland directly.
That phone call and other moments gave the impression to other diplomats and White House officials working on Ukraine that Sondland had a direct line to the president in a way few, if any, others did.
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3. You told the Ukrainians their military aid would come when their president made an “anti-corruption statement.” Was that code for investigations into the Bidens/the 2016 election interference?
In his amended testimony, Sondland confirmed to Congress he effectively gave the Ukrainians a quid pro quo, though he doesn’t use those words. In fact, he seems to be glossing over what he wanted the Ukrainians to do: “I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement,” he said in his clarified statement to Congress.
But the “anti-corruption statement” they were working on mentioned the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Sondland’s colleague, former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, testified Tuesday that in hindsight he realized Burisma was code for the Biden family because former vice president Biden’s son served on the company’s board. And Volker said he thought that was inappropriate.
Sondland needs to explain why he thought that having Ukraine investigate Democrats was the right thing to do.
4. Why didn’t you remember the offer you gave to the Ukrainians in your original testimony?
Sondland first testified behind closed doors in October with a lot of “I don’t recall” statements. It wasn’t until Taylor testified that he understood Sondland gave Ukraine a quid pro quo, and then National Security Council official Tim Morrison confirming Taylor’s testimony, that Sondland suddenly remembered what he did.
Was Sondland trying to protect himself with his original testimony by effectively denying a quid pro quo? Or Trump? Or both?
The gaps in Sondland’s memory perplex Jack Sharman, a lawyer who worked on the impeachment of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and was a counsel for the House during the Whitewater investigations in the 1990s. Wouldn’t Sondland have tried to nail down every detail before going under oath to testify in the impeachment inquiry of a president? “It seems he was a little relaxed given the scrutiny each person was going to get,” Sharman said. “It seems unusually loose to me.”
5. Why did you agree to testify?
Others in Trump’s orbit have ignored subpoenas, like acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Even former national security adviser John Bolton, who seems to want to testify, isn’t going to Congress until a court tells him he has to. So I’m genuinely curious why Sondland agreed (after a subpoena, of course). He is someone who has tied his career to Trump even though he said he didn’t initially agree with him during the campaign.
Now he’s in a difficult position, seemingly wanting to protect himself and the president, but one of the few witnesses who can confirm what Trump knew and when.