The question coming into Wednesday was whether Gordon Sondland would try to save himself or save President Donald Trump.
He chose himself.
Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union, in his opening statement before the House Intelligence Committee, laid out in no uncertain terms how he was part of a broader effort to force the Ukrainians to open an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden in exchange for a White House meeting.
“I followed the directions of the President,” said Sondland.
Later, he added:
“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret. Everyone was informed via email on July 19, days before the Presidential call. As I communicated to the team, I told President Zelensky in advance that assurances to ‘run a fully transparent investigation’ and ‘turn over every stone’ were necessary in his call with President Trump.”
Which, well, wow.
That statement disrupts – actually, destroys – the defenses of both the White House and congressional Republicans who have insisted that the Ukrainians had no clue that there were any preconditions to getting what they wanted most – a meeting between Zelensky and Trump and then, later, the release of the nearly $400 million in military aid from the US to Ukraine.
And just in case there is any doubt as to what Sondland is saying, he made it plain:
“I know that members of this Committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that Sondland was appointed to his ambassadorial role by Trump. Sondland had financially supported Trump’s inauguration – to the tune of a $1 million donation. Sondland isn’t part of the so-called “Deep State.” He isn’t a “Never Trumper” (although he did originally support Jeb Bush in the 2016 primary.) Sondland was also testifying under oath, meaning that if he lies, he is committing a felony – a lesson that Roger Stone learned the hard way last week.
Now for the bigger question: Where do we go from here?
The quid pro quo – announce an investigation into the Bidens in exchange for a White House meeting – is now beyond doubt. The next step seems to be figuring out just how high it went.
To that end, two other excerpts from Sondland’s opening statement seem relevant.
“Mr. Giuliani conveyed to Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and others that President Trump wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election. Mr. Giuliani expressed those requests directly to the Ukrainians. Mr. Giuliani also expressed those requests directly to us. We all understood that these pre-requisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements.”
“Within my State Department emails, there is a July 19 email that I sent to Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Perry, Brian McCormack (Perry’s Chief of Staff), Ms. Kenna, Acting Chief of Staff and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney (White House), and Mr. Mulvaney’s Senior Advisor Robert Blair. A lot of senior officials. Here is my exact quote from that email:
“‘I Talked to Zelensky just now… He is prepared to receive Potus’ call. Will assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone’. He would greatly appreciate a call prior to Sunday so that he can put out some media about a ‘friendly and productive call’ (no details) prior to Ukraine election on Sunday.” Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney responded: ‘I asked NSC to set it up for tomorrow.’”
In just those two chunks, Sondland makes clear that the President’s personal lawyer, his energy secretary, his secretary of state and his acting chief of staff were all made aware of the need for the Ukrainians to announce an investigation into the Bidens in order to get the White House meeting they wanted.
And according to Sondland, Trump himself was well aware of all of this. “Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” said Sondland, adding: “Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew these investigations were important to the President.”
The timing of all of this is important, too. The email Sondland sent came six days before Trump and Zelensky got on the phone for that now-infamous phone call – in which Trump asks the Ukrainian President for a “favor” (to look into a debunked conspiracy theory that the Ukrainians had the hacked Democratic National Committee server) and where Trump makes clear that he wants the Ukrainians to look into Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
So it is beyond any doubt that the Ukrainians understood – before their president got on the phone with Trump on July 25 – that it in order to get what Zelensky wanted most (a White House meeting with Trump) he would need to announce the investigation into the Bidens.
Sondland’s testimony, put simply, changes the game. It is now impossible for Republicans to claim that there was no quid pro quo. Or to suggest that the likes of Sondland were acting solely of their own accord, with no coordination from the higher-ups back in Washington. Or to suggest that this was all just normal stuff that happens every day in the world of international diplomacy.
The question now is not whether there was a quid pro quo. There quite clearly was. The question is whether Congress (and Republicans in Congress, specifically) believes that is an impeachable offense.