The most damning testimony of the House impeachment hearings came on Wednesday, when a lifelong Republican chosen by President Donald Trump to be ambassador to the European Union eviscerated every talking point the GOP has put out about the Ukraine scandal.
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said of the campaign to pressure Ukraine into helping Trump politically.
“We followed the president’s orders,” he added, saying there indeed was a “quid pro quo.”
In his testimony Wednesday morning, Sondland made clear that it was widely known in the administration that Trump wanted Ukraine to do his bidding on political investigations, in exchange for favorable U.S. foreign policy treatment.
Sondland’s testimony was incredibly damaging for Republicans. The ways they’ve tried to discredit the other witnesses or downplay the scandal went out the window with Sondland, and they struggled to lodge critiques that will stick. Some of the excuses Republicans have used thus far:
Talking Point 1: Witnesses don’t have firsthand knowledge.
Republicans have gone after other officials who have testified ― such as Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, a State Department official responsible for Ukraine ― by saying that they didn’t witness key events. With other individuals who did have some firsthand knowledge, Republicans have dismissed them as being bit players who didn’t talk regularly to Trump.
That doesn’t work with Sondland, who spoke regularly to Trump. Other witnesses testified that they understood that Sondland had regular access to the president, and Sondland himself underscored that in his testimony.
When asked Wednesday whether he told Trump that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “loves your ass,” Sondland replied, “Sounds like something I would say. That’s how President Trump and I communicate. A lot of four-letter words. In this case a three-letter.”
Yet Trump spoke to reporters while Sondland was testifying, saying he didn’t know Sondland well: “I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though.”
Pam Bondi, the new White House communications director for impeachment, went on TV and said Sondland was just a “short-term ambassador” to Ukraine. (He was never ambassador to Ukraine; he is ambassador to the EU.)
Talking Point 2: Witnesses are ‘Never Trumpers.’
Prior to last week’s House Intelligence Committee hearing with Taylor and Kent, Trump tweeted, “NEVER TRUMPERS!” Trump also said Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence who testified on Tuesday, was part of the same group. All denied that characterization.
The “Never Trumper” moniker can’t be applied to Sondland. He’s a lifelong Republican who initially supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican presidential primary but then readily got on board with Trump. He became an ambassador through a well-trodden practice used by both parties ― donating lots of money. Sondland contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee.
Brent Bozell, a conservative commentator, tweeted that Sondland showed why the American people elected Trump to “get rid of people like Sondland.” Of course, Trump picked Sondland to be his ambassador to the EU. Bozell must have even realized how lame this attack was, and he deleted his tweet.
Talking Point 3: It was a rogue operation.
There’s no question that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer who has no government role, was operating in a highly unusual ― and inappropriate ― fashion in the Ukraine scandal. He was able to leverage U.S. foreign policy in ways meant to benefit only Trump politically and personally.
Sondland, other witnesses testified, was part of this rogue operation. And there was the possibility, therefore, that they were acting on their own, without the knowledge of those at the top ― including Trump himself.
Sondland shot down that theory Wednesday. He said it was “no secret” what they were doing. Among the officials Sondland named as knowing what was going on: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney; Mulvaney’s senior adviser Rob Blair; Pompeo’s counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl; Lisa Kenna, the State Department executive secretary; John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser at the time; Bolton’s deputy Fiona Hill; and Timothy Morrison, who replaced Hill.
One of the biggest recent revelations in the Ukraine investigation is that David Holmes, a U.S. embassy official in Ukraine, overheard Sondland talking on the phone to Trump, telling him Zelensky “loves your ass,” to which Trump replied, “So he’s going to do the investigation?”
When Holmes asked Sondland what Trump’s views on Ukraine were, Sondland reportedly said, “The president did not give a shit about Ukraine.” For him, it was all about the political investigations.
The existence of the call seemed to put Trump more directly at the heart of the scandal, obsessed with using foreign policy for his political benefit. But Sondland, in his testimony Wednesday, said he barely remembered the call ― because it was so unremarkable.
“I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations,” he said.
Yet on Wednesday, a key tactic seemed to be making it seem like Sondland didn’t know what was in Trump’s mind ― and also throwing Giuliani under the bus.
Sondland said that when Trump told him and other officials on May 23 to “talk to Rudy,” he took that as an order to talk to Giuliani and follow his instructions on what to do about Ukraine. In other words, Giuliani spoke for Trump.
But Republicans claim that what Trump wanted was still unknowable, because he never expressly told Sondland to hold up aid until Ukraine carried out the political investigations.
“Sondland never testified that it was the ‘express direction’ of the President to pressure Ukraine or push a quid pro quo,” the Trump campaign said in an email sent Wednesday.
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) accused Sondland of “made-up testimony.”
Talking Point 4: Witnesses have no clue what they’re talking about.
This tactic has been more tailored for Sondland, who has been an unreliable witness and has changed his testimony since the time he first spoke to lawmakers behind closed doors. (It was tougher to pull off with Taylor, for example, who took meticulous contemporaneous notes.)
Steve Castor, the GOP counsel questioning Sondland during the hearing, tried to make it seem like the ambassador simply doesn’t remember anything: “You don’t have records. You don’t have your notes because you didn’t take notes. You don’t have a lot of recollections. I mean, this is the trifecta of unreliability.”
But Sondland said the reason he can’t recall as much is, in part, the fault of the administration, which has refused to let him view all his phone records, State Department emails and other documents. He said he was also told that he couldn’t work with his staff to pull together the relevant files.
“My lawyers and I have made multiple requests to the State Department and the White House for these materials. Yet, these materials were not provided to me. They have also refused to share these materials with this committee. These documents are not classified and, in fairness, should have been made available. In the absence of these materials, my memory has not been perfect,” he said. “And I have no doubt that a more fair, open and orderly process of allowing me to read the State Department records would have made this process more transparent.”
How to vote
Vote-by-mail ballot request deadline: Varies by state
For the Nov 3 election: States are making it easier for citizens to vote absentee by mail this year due to the coronavirus. Each state has its own rules for mail-in absentee voting. Visit your state election office website to find out if you can vote by mail.Get more information
In-person early voting dates: Varies by state
Sometimes circumstances make it hard or impossible for you to vote on Election Day. But your state may let you vote during a designated early voting period. You don't need an excuse to vote early. Visit your state election office website to find out whether they offer early voting.My Election Office
General Election: Nov 3, 2020
Polling hours on Election Day: Varies by state/localityMy Polling Place