And despite his background as a Trump ally — the president last month called him “a very good guy and a great American” — in his opening statement Wednesday, Sondland stepped on nearly all of Republicans’ primary defenses for the president.
GOP: There was no quid pro quo
Sondland: “I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
GOP: This is all based on a whistleblower complaint that is hearsay
Sondland: He heard, firsthand, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani state what Trump wanted.
Mr. Giuliani conveyed to [Energy] Secretary [Rick] Perry, Ambassador [Kurt] Volker, and others that President Trump wanted a public statement from [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelensky committing to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election. Mr. Giuliani expressed those requests directly to the Ukrainians. Mr. Giuliani also expressed those requests directly to us. We all understood that these prerequisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements.
Republicans’ counsel, Stephen R. Castor, later asked how Sondland knew Giuliani was acting at the direction of the president.
“Well, when the president says, ‘Talk to my personal attorney,’ and his personal attorney makes certain requests or demands, we assume it’s coming from the president,” Sondland said.
GOP: This is a deep-state attack by career government officials
Sondland: He reminded the committee that he was appointed by Trump: “As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the president.”
He also confirmed witness testimony by career U.S. diplomat David Holmes that Sondland said Trump was interested only in investigations of the Bidens after a July 26 call with the president from a restaurant in Ukraine: “Other witnesses have recently shared their recollection of overhearing this call. For the most part, I have no reason to doubt their accounts.”
GOP: Giuliani was an independent actor
Sondland: He talked at length in his opening statement about how Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo forced him to work with Giuliani.
In response to our persistent efforts to change his views, President Trump directed us to “talk with Rudy.” We understood that “talk with Rudy” meant talk with Mr. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. Let me say again: We weren’t happy with the president’s directive to talk with Rudy. We did not want to involve Mr. Giuliani. I believed then, as I do now, that the men and women of the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for Ukraine matters. Nonetheless, based on the president’s direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the efforts to schedule the White House phone call and White House visit between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, which was unquestionably in our foreign policy interest — or we could do as President Trump had directed and “talk with Rudy.” We chose the latter course, not because we liked it, but because it was the only constructive path open to us.
GOP: Trump was acting in the U.S. interest
Sondland: He testified that he and every other diplomat he worked with were enthusiastic about working with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who prioritized anti-corruption measures.
In our view, [a phone call and Oval Office meeting between Zelensky and Trump] were vital to cementing the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, demonstrating support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, and advancing broader U.S. foreign policy interests. Unfortunately, President Trump was skeptical. He expressed concerns that the Ukrainian government was not serious about reform. He even mentioned that Ukraine tried to take him down in the last election.
GOP: Trump was focused on broader corruption in Ukraine when he asked for these investigations
Sondland: He described an August phone call with Giuliani, the first time the two had spoken.
Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into corruption issues. Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two topics of importance to the president.
Also, in recapping the July phone call with Trump that he took from a restaurant in Kyiv, Sondland said he doesn’t remember talking about the Bidens with Trump nor with the diplomat who overheard it. But he does confirm Trump asked about political investigations: “I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the president’s concerns.”
GOP: It’s normal for aid to be held up
Sondland: “As my other State Department colleagues have testified, this security aid was critical to Ukraine’s defense and should not have been delayed.”
GOP: The Ukrainians didn’t know their aid was frozen or that there were conditions on getting it
Sondland: He testified he told the Ukrainians as much in a couple points in his testimony. Here are those statements:
“Nonetheless, before the September 1 Warsaw meeting, the Ukrainians had become aware that the security funds had yet to be disbursed. In the absence of any credible explanation for the hold, I came to the conclusion that the aid, like the White House visit, was jeopardized.”
“By the end of the August, my belief was that if Ukraine did something to demonstrate a serious intention to fight corruption, specifically addressing Burisma and the 2016 server, then the hold on military aid would be lifted.”
“In a very brief pull-aside conversation, that happened within a few seconds, I told [Zelensky’s top aide] Mr. [Andriy] Yermak that I believed that the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on the public statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
“I really regret that the Ukrainians were placed in that predicament.”
That leaves Republicans with these defenses
Sondland can’t say things were directly tied to investigating former vice president Joe Biden
Whereas many of the defenses up to this point have been trafficked over the course of the investigation, this one is happening in real time as Republican counsel questions Sondland.
“I had never heard Vice President Biden come up until very late in the game,” Sondland said under questioning. He said he thinks he made the connection after reading the transcript of the July Trump-Zelensky call.
But that defense risks implicating Trump himself as being the one person to outright say investigating the Ukrainian energy company Burisma was code for Biden.
Sondland didn’t hear about security assistance directly from Trump
Republicans aren’t saying this, but it is something they could use to defend Trump. “I don’t recall President Trump ever talking to me about any security assistance, ever,” Sondland testified. Rather, he got his marching orders from Giuliani, who said he was working with Trump. So maybe Republicans can argue that Sondland misheard and misunderstood Giuliani? After all, Sondland was texting diplomats in the summer that Trump specifically told him “there was no quid pro quo.”
Maybe what Trump did was inappropriate. But it wasn’t impeachable.
Republicans still have this after Sondland’s testimony, too. Sondland and others are testifying about what they knew and when, not whether Trump should be impeached. That’s up to Congress to decide. Fortunately for Republicans, impeachment is a subjective measure. This might be the only hook for them to hang their hat on after Sondland’s remarkable testimony implicating the president in quid pro quos to benefit his reelection.