Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified on Wednesday that President Donald Trump cared most that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky publicly announce an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden and the company that employed his son, not that Ukraine actually conduct the probe.
“He had to announce the investigations,” Sondland said during the House impeachment inquiry, referring to Zelensky. “He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.”
The point is essential in that it reveals that Trump did not care about corruption in Ukraine, as his GOP allies in Congress have attempted to argue. Instead the president simply wanted a television clip that could be used to implicate a potential 2020 Democratic presidential opponent in a criminal investigation.
“I never heard ... anyone say the investigations had to start or had to be completed,” Sondland said.
He noted the only information he was provided was that Trump wanted Zelensky to make a public statement announcing investigations into Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company that employed Hunter Biden, and whether Ukraine, and not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election. The only reason that Sondland said he was given for this was that Ukrainian officials had previously made promises in private that they did not deliver.
Sondland’s statements fit with other testimony from witnesses and evidence from call records that Trump never raised broader issues of corruption in Ukraine or actual anti-corruption policy in his conversations with Zelensky. Instead, he focused on specific investigations; one that could help him win the 2020 election, and another that could cloud the stain of how he won the 2016 election.
A televised announcement by Ukraine could be extremely useful for the Trump campaign if Biden were to win the Democratic presidential primary to face the president in 2020. It could be referred to at rallies, used in television and internet advertisements, and Trump-friendly news organizations could use it in clips to make claims of corruption against Biden.
This could allow Trump to rerun his 2016 playbook, where he used the FBI investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server to make broad claims of criminal corruption against her. The New York Times claimed at the time that the then-FBI director James Comey’s first announcement in July 2016 about the Clinton investigation provided a “ready-made attack ad” for Trump.