When Gordon Sondland arrived at the House Intelligence Committee, everyone noticed the same thing. He looked strangely happy, something close to giddy, as if he knew something that no one else knew. Which, it turns out, he did.
He was going to, well, tell the truth. And so when he read his opening statement about who knew what in the Ukraine scandal, he made it all too clear.
“Everyone,” he said, “was in the loop.”
“Everyone knew,” he said.
That’s right. Everyone.
We always figured that, but now we have it in sworn testimony from Sondland, the million-dollar Trump donor/ambassador to the European Union, whose much-amended, memory-refreshed testimony Wednesday implicates (or worse) Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Mick Mulvaney, Mike Pompeo, the whole gang.
The White House, we’re told, was shocked by Sondland’s testimony. I mean, who was counting on him for candor? But there it was. Yes to quid pro quo. Yes to an obvious shakedown. Yes to 2 plus 2 equals 4.
Sondland is an imperfect witness, much as, you might guess, he’s an imperfect ambassador. But if he was Trump’s guy, that didn’t mean he was willing to be anyone’s fall guy.
So, Sondland was the latest witness to tell us of Trump’s favorite foreign policy dictate: Talk to Rudy. Giuliani is, of course, Trump’s personal lawyer, with no portfolio, no security clearance, no nothing. But talking to Rudy meant hearing that the Ukraine deal was a straight quid pro quo. As Sondland said, it was no secret. Everyone knew it. Everyone was in the loop. Hell, Rudy was on TV every other day saying that Ukraine had to investigate the Bidens. But Sondland added this: All the orders to him came “at the express direction of the President of the United States.”
Sondland said that no one on his team — the famed Three Amigos and every other diplomat in the region — wanted to deal with Giuliani, but there was no choice. He was Trump’s ambassador at large and everything went through him.
As I watched transfixed, it was like I was having Watergate flashbacks. I’m still trying to decide whether the experience was more like watching John Dean at the Watergate hearings or watching Robert Redford playing Bob Woodward in “All The President’s Men,” telling Jason Robards/Ben Bradlee that “everyone’s involved.”
Everyone? I kept waiting for Martha Mitchell to show up. (OK, you don’t get the reference unless you’re old like me. Anyone else, try the Google.)
The scheme has been clear since Trump released his imperfect transcript of the July 25 call confirming just about everything that the whistleblower had said. But Sondland was, at Trump’s behest, directly involved. He was there.
He was part of the team explaining to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky that if he would announce (just announce, didn’t matter if he followed through) that he was prepared to investigate the debunked 2016 Ukraine-Hillary conspiracy theory and Burisma, the Ukrainian oil and gas company on whose board Hunter Biden sat, Zelensky would get his much-sought Oval Office meeting with Trump. Later — although it’s still not clear exactly when — the withheld congressionally-approved $390 million in critical military aid was added to the pot.
When Trump or Guiliani would say Burisma, as Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker put it Wednesday, they meant Joe Biden. Digging up dirt on a political rival was the entire point. Trump doesn’t give a “shit” about corruption in Ukraine, as Sondland once apparently explained to Bill Taylor aide David Holmes, who testifies Thursday.
There’s still some question about which people actually knew why the aid was being stalled, but we know that Mulvaney ordered it and that, of course, Trump was behind it. And it would be difficult to believe that Pompeo didn’t know.
When Sondland was asked how he knew that Trump was demanding a quid pro quo, he said he used the accepted theory that 2 plus 2 equals 4. It’s the same theory that Trump supporters around the country are going to have to face. To this point, many refuse to do the math. Which explains why the polls haven’t moved much at all on impeachment since reluctant Democrats got on board. I doubt if they’ll move much now.
So, how big is this?
If the jury weren’t rigged — House Democrats were already going to vote to impeach and Senate Republicans (most of them, anyway) are still not going to vote to convict — Sondland’s testimony would be devastating. As it stands, it’s merely explosive — and already contradicted by Pence’s office and by Pompeo’s office and by Rick Perry, one of the Three Amigos, now likely down to two.
“I lost an amigo?” Sondland said when informed.
Of course, these denials don’t come directly from the principals and they don’t come under oath. Any or all of them could testify and help clear up a lot of things, which, I’m guessing, is why they’re not testifying.
The biggest question now may be whether National Security Adviser John Bolton decides to change his mind and come before the committee. We know Bolton was opposed to the Trump/Giuliani scheme. We’ve heard what Bolton allegedly said about the “drug deal” cooked up by Sondland and Mulvaney. (In one of the stranger moments of the day, Republican counsel Steve Castor pretended that “drug deal” meant “drug deal.”)
If Bolton testified, that might be the one thing that could actually move the needle. But he said he wouldn’t testify unless a judge decided he had to, and let’s just say that doesn’t read like a profile in courage.
As Republicans turn on Sondland — Trump has already said he barely knows him despite their cross-Atlantic cell phone calls — they have dozens of “I do not recalls” to fall back on. But as Sondland explained, State Department officials would not let him have his own documents or notes to refresh his memory. They also haven’t released anyone else’s documents. They haven’t complied with subpoenas.
Which will all probably lead to another Watergate flashback. Nixon’s third article of impeachment was, yes, contempt of Congress. Remind me: Who’s not a crook?