Except the call might not have actually taken place — at least not like Sondland remembers it.
The Washington Post’s Elise Viebeck, Aaron C. Davis and Josh Dawsey are out with an intriguing piece that raises the possibility that Trump and Sondland did not actually speak on Sept. 9. Instead, Sondland may actually be remembering a phone call that other witnesses have pegged as taking place on Sept. 7.
And the evidence is compelling:
- Trump has said he doesn’t remember the call.
- Text messages that Sondland said surrounded the call (between him and top Ukraine diplomat William B. Taylor Jr.) indicate the call would have taken place between 12:31 a.m. Eastern time and 5:19 a.m. Eastern time on Sept. 9.
- A colleague of Sondland’s in Brussels said Sondland was comfortable calling Trump only after 7:30 a.m.
- The White House has found no record of a Sept. 9 call between Trump and Sondland.
- Sondland isn’t understood to have Trump’s personal cellphone number, meaning there should be a record of the call.
- Sondland himself testified he was “pretty sure” the call was on Sept. 9, but that he wasn’t completely sure because the White House didn’t provide him records. He also said he couldn’t “specifically recall if I had one or two phone calls” with Trump between Sept. 6 and Sept. 9.
- Sondland’s testimony has been dodgy — to say the least — before.
“I recall it vividly, because it was keyed by the frantic emails from Ambassador Taylor,” he said, apparently referring to the texts. (Sondland in his testimony repeatedly refers to texts as “emails.”)
Sondland characterized the call with Trump like this: “And it was a very short, abrupt conversation. He was not in a good mood. And he just said, ‘I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky to do the right thing.’ ”
The most obvious problem with that call actually having taken place Sept. 7 is that Sondland’s testimony would again be wrong. He said he “vividly” remembered the call being in response to Taylor’s “frantic” missives. That wouldn’t be true of a call that took place before Taylor’s texts.
But the bigger question is how it affects Trump’s defense. If Trump said these things to Sondland on Sept. 7 rather than Sept. 9, does that really change much of anything?
One thing it doesn’t change is the fact that Trump’s response probably would have been colored by the scandal leaking into public view. Republicans have claimed the call is exonerating, but Trump had plenty of reason to deny the quid pro quo even on Sept. 7. That’s because just two days earlier, The Post’s editorial board reported it was “reliably told” that Trump was “attempting to force Mr. Zelensky to intervene in the 2020 U.S. presidential election by launching an investigation of the leading Democratic candidate, Joe Biden.” Trump was also reportedly told about a whistleblower complaint about his Ukraine dealings in late August, we learned this week.
But even more significant than that is the content of the Sept. 7 call, as relayed by two other witnesses.
Former White House aide Tim Morrison said Sondland told him that Trump insisted on the call that Zelensky himself had to announce the investigations — not Ukraine’s top prosecutor. “He related the president told him there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelensky had to do it, and he should want to do it,” Morrison said.
Taylor testified that Morrison told him about the call in real time. “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 Zelensky 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.”
Taylor added that he spoke with Sondland directly on Sept. 8, and he said Sondland had told him “that President Trump was adamant that President Zelensky himself had to clear things up and do it in public.”
The common thread on all three versions — Sondland’s version of a Sept. 9 call and Morrison’s and Taylor’s version of a Sept. 7 call — is that Trump explicitly said there was no quid pro quo.
Where they diverge, though, is in what else Trump said. Sondland said Trump simply said he wanted Zelensky to “do the right thing,” but Morrison and Taylor said Trump explicitly talked about his demands. Both say Trump demanded that Zelensky himself would announce the investigations. Taylor said Trump was explicit about which investigations.
Republicans have already stretched Sondland’s version of a Sept. 9 call, ignoring Trump’s motivation to deny a quid pro quo on it and the fact that, even on the same call, he made clear he wanted more than “nothing.” But the Morrison and Taylor recollections of the Sept. 7 call indicate Trump was demanding far more than just Zelensky doing “the right thing”; he was demanding Ukraine do his specific investigations.
And if that’s really the call Sondland remembered, it’s even less exonerating than Republicans have argued it was.