If there was one person who could directly tie president Donald Trump to the alleged quid pro-quo with the Ukrainians, it was Gordon Sondland. The multimillionaire hotel executive-turned-ambassador had a regular channel of communication with Trump and was a central driver of Washington’s Ukraine policy. As Rep. Mark Meadows, one of Trump’s most committed defenders, said, “The impeachment effort comes down to one guy, Ambassador Sondland.”
The White House was likely preparing for a rough day, and Sondland rose to the occasion. His opening statement was a damning indictment of Trump’s role in the entire scheme, where a meeting between the president and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy was conditioned on Kiev announcing an investigation into the energy company Burisma and supposed 2016 U.S. election interference. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, was the enforcer carrying out the president’s wishes. And everybody in the national security bureaucracy knew what was going on.
“Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma,” Sondland testified to the impeachment committee. “Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the President.”
Sondland, the novice ambassador, used his hours in front of the camera to absolve himself of any personal responsibility and cast himself as the victim caught in a bad situation. He sacrificed his bosses to the political gods. In Sondland’s telling, he cared deeply about Ukraine’s future and was simply trying to do what he could to change Trump’s negative frame of the country. If working with Giuliani was a requirement to get the job done, then he would bite his tongue and do it. He was merely a cog in a vast machine, constantly playing catch-up with Trump and his advisers while impressing upon the Ukrainian government what it needed to do if it hoped to win a trip to the White House.
The ambassador was at his most animated when he was portrayed as a freelancer going off the reservation. Far from it, Sondland told lawmakers; not only was he following orders, but vice president Mike Pence, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney all knew what was happening.
It didn’t take long for senior figures in the Trump administration to issue press releases to save their own skins. Pence’s office wrote that “Ambassador Gordon Sondland was never alone with vice president Pence on the September 1 trip to Poland. This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened.”
Giuliani blamed Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, for dragging him into the maelstrom.
Trump himself stepped onto the White House lawn as the hearings were continuing to claim ignorance, telling reporters he barely had any conversations with his EU ambassador.
From the outside looking in, everybody is now out for themselves. Individual self-preservation will now trump administration unity.
As the hearing went on, Republicans were short of a solid defence strategy. Ranking Member Devin Nunes complained about how Democrats were managing the impeachment inquiry and recycled the usual White House talking points about Democrats conspiring with Ukrainians in 2016 to beat Trump at the polls.
Steve Castor, the GOP counsellor, attempted to poke holes in Sondland’s testimony by questioning the ambassador’s recollections. Republicans argued that because Sondland wasn’t given an explicit order by Trump to tie a White House visit to Kiev’s launching of political investigations, the whole saga never really happened. If this is the best defence the GOP can offer, the party is on seriously shaky ground.
If impeachment was highly likely before Sondland entered the hearing room, it’s a guarantee after he left. The evidence is clear: Trump knew the Ukrainians wanted a meeting and £310m ($400m) in military aid, so he linked both with “a favour” Kiev would have to deliver before they received the goods.
No amount of obfuscation, loony conspiracies, and grievances about investigatory procedure from the president’s political allies on Capitol Hill will save Trump from becoming only the third president in U.S. history to be impeached and tried in the Senate.