This story was originally published in the November 20 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Sign up here to receive it every weekday morning.
Picture the scene. The terrace of a swank Kiev restaurant. The US ambassador to the EU, rich Republican donor Gordon Sondland, selects a bottle of wine and pours a glass each for several colleagues. And he announces he’s going to call the President.
Lifting his phone, this previously little-known big cheese winces in pain as the unmistakable bark of Donald Trump explodes into his ear, forcing him to yank the device away from his head. This cartoonish episode actually happened, according to David Holmes, a US diplomat in Ukraine who was at the table.
The call’s content is even more stunning than the circumstances in which it unfolded – within earshot of diners and staff in a city and on a phone system penetrated by Russian intelligence – because Trump was heard asking Sondland if Ukraine was ready to launch the political probes he demanded. Sondland responded yes, adding that President Volodymyr Zelensky “loves your ass.”
Four months later, this may be Democrat’s smoking phone call: evidence that the President personally directed a scheme to manipulate foreign policy to pressure Kiev to investigate his political opponents, including Joe Biden.
Sondland will be questioned on live television Wednesday morning. A political appointee new to high stakes diplomacy, he is the antithesis of the career foreign service officers who have described discomfort with the scheme. After Trump hung up, the indiscreet Sondland told his colleagues that the President was in a bad mood, as he often was in the mornings, and didn’t “give a s–t” about Ukraine. Now his testimony in the House of Representatives could be the defining moment of the entire impeachment drama.
Get ready for him to be savaged by both sides. Democrats see him as a cut out in Trump’s conspiracy. Republicans must crush his credibility to save their President. The hearing may lack the slapstick of his turn on a Kiev restaurant terrace, but it will be unmissable.