This story was originally published in the November 21 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.
That almighty crash you heard coming from the direction of the United States was the implosion of President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense.
Red letter days rarely live up to expectations in Washington, but Wednesday did. Gordon Sondland, the central figure in the plot to pressure Ukraine, confirmed on live television that a quid pro quo scheme existed – and that the US President directed it.
In a spectacular example of throwing your colleagues under the bus, he also said that several top governmental figures were in on the caper. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence and White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney are all now rubbing tire tracks off their suits.
Sondland left a few scraps for Trump’s protectors — namely his comment that the President never personally directly told him to hold back military aid to Ukraine. But the avuncular ambassador to the European Union, who swigged from a collection of paper cups and water bottles during hours of testimony, seemed to have made a choice: He was not going down with the ship to protect the President.
Despite his often sketchy memory, Sondland is particularly credible in Trump’s world because he is not a career civil servant. Far from the mythic “Never Trumper” deep state bureaucrat, Sondland is a multimillionaire hotel tycoon like Trump – and greased his path to ambassadorship with a $1 million donation to the President’s inauguration.
So what happens now?
First, just to clear up any lingering doubts, the House will impeach Trump. Second, Republicans who mostly claimed they were too busy to watch Sondland must now twist into even more painful contortions to deny Trump did wrong — as they surely will in a subsequent Senate trial.
Don’t look for Trump to do a Nixon by flashing a victory sign and climbing aboard his helicopter for a flight into political retirement. (In fact, he actually emerged from the White House as Sondland testified, with alternative talking points etched on an Air Force One pad in a thick felt-tip pen.) None of Wednesday’s drama is likely to shift the political polarization that means Trump will survive in office.
But no one can now say they didn’t know what was going on.