Impeachment: the facts pile up against Donald Trump
When Gordon Sondland appeared on Capitol Hill this week before the impeachment inquiry, Republicans were hoping that the US ambassador to the EU and Trump donor would spring to the defence of the US president.
But before the wealthy hotelier had taken his seat, he made clear he would not take the fall for Donald Trump.
The president denies pressuring Kyiv to open probes into his domestic political opponents, insisting there was “no quid pro quo” in his treatment of Ukraine. But the man who donated $1m to the Trump inauguration in return for “a VVIP ticket” said otherwise.
“Was there a quid pro? . . . The answer is yes,” Mr Sondland said in explosive opening testimony.
He then implicated other officials, including Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, Mick Mulvaney, White House chief of staff, and John Bolton, then national security adviser. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
Mr Sondland’s salvo sparked comparisons to John Dean, the White House aide to Richard Nixon whose devastating testimony to the Watergate inquiry in 1973 about a “cancer growing on the presidency” paved the way to the resignation of the 37th American president.
Commentating on the hearing from a CNN studio, Mr Dean said Mr Sondland had “caught the Republicans off guard” and that it was “a big day . . . because the truth has come out”.
However, there is one big difference to the Watergate era. The first two weeks of the impeachment hearings have been damaging for Republicans as a number of witnesses have meticulously laid out evidence that the Trump administration pressured Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, the former vice-president and one of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination.
Yet in an era where politics is polarised and party identities rigid, there has so far been no indication of Republican politicians turning against the president — as they eventually did with Nixon.
John Barrasso, the number three Senate Republican, told the Financial Times that Mr Sondland “did not move the needle” for his party’s peers, who will serve as jurors if the Senate holds an impeachment trial.
“You need 67 votes to remove a president . . . 47 Democrats and 20 Republicans,” he says. “I see no sign at all of Republicans abandoning the president. The case is very flimsy. The most I hear from some is that his behaviour was inappropriate but not impeachable.”
Indeed, no event has captured better the split-screen nature of American politics, with one group of voters watching the hearings through the prism of CNN, MSNBC and the main networks, while another section sees only the version told by Fox News, which often presents a completely different set of facts.
Mr Sondland managed to ignite panic inside the White House. In the middle of what ended up being roughly six hours of testimony, Mr Trump emerged from the White House with handwritten notes in big capital letters on an Air Force One notepad.
“I want no quid pro quo,” Mr Trump read from his notes, repeating comments that he reportedly made to Mr Sondland in September after learning that a whistleblower had questioned his dealings with Ukraine — the development that eventually sparked the impeachment process.
Mr Sondland was one of nine current or former Trump administration officials who this week painted a collective picture of a White House that piled the pressure on Kyiv.
One of the most devastating witnesses was Fiona Hill, a naturalised American citizen who grew up in an English coal-mining family and who was the senior National Security Council official for Russia and Europe.
Aided by crisp and direct responses, Ms Hill’s testimony was particularly powerful because she accused Republican members of Congress of helping to create an alternative reality about the Trump administration and the 2016 election that clashed with the facts.
She compared the attacks against the Jewish billionaire George Soros, which some Republican politicians have helped to publicise, to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, an infamous anti-Semitic text from the early 20th century. Ms Hill also rebuked Republicans for propagating a “fictional narrative” that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election — a conspiracy theory that she said had been pushed by Russian intelligence.
As if to illustrate her point, President Vladimir Putin said this week: “Thank God no one is accusing us any more of interfering in elections in the United States. Now they are blaming Ukraine.”
But it was Mr Sondland who was the key witness, as he was one of the few officials who had direct contact with Mr Trump about Ukraine. He had also been implicated by others who recounted him saying that Mr Trump wanted the Biden investigations as a condition for a call and meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky, who took over as president in May.
Aides at the NSC were frustrated at the large role Mr Sondland played in Ukraine policy, given that this was not part of his EU portfolio. Tim Morrison, who succeeded Ms Hill at the NSC, said he was known as the “Gordon problem”.
“That’s what my wife calls me,” Mr Sondland joked.
Ms Hill recounted having disputes with Mr Sondland, but said she now realised that he had been given a separate mission — one at odds with the administration’s foreign policy team, which was trying to ensure that Ukraine had political and military support to stand up to Moscow. “He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.”
That “domestic political errand” is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry examining claims — supported by Mr Trump’s comments on the July 25 call with Mr Zelensky — that the president wanted Ukraine to announce that it would open a probe into Mr Biden and his son Hunter who was on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.
Mr Sondland said Mr Trump had ordered him to work with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, who was at the heart of the dealings with Mr Zelensky. He said he did not realise that the calls to investigate Burisma were an effort to find dirt on Hunter Biden. That prompted scepticism from Democrats, who quipped that Mr Morrison had worked out the connection via Google in just 30 seconds.
“I’ll let the American people judge the credibility of that answer,” said Adam Schiff, the Democrat leading the inquiry.
David Holmes, a US diplomat based in Ukraine, described how Mr Sondland had called Mr Trump from a Kyiv restaurant the day after the president spoke to Mr Zelensky.
When Mr Trump asked about the investigations, Mr Sondland replied that “Zelensky loves your ass” and would do anything for the president.
After the call, Mr Sondland told Mr Holmes that the president “did not give a shit” about Ukraine and only cared about “big stuff” like the “Biden investigation”. Mr Sondland said he did not recall mentioning the Bidens, but did not dispute the overall description of the conversation.
“It sounds like something I would say. That’s how President Trump and I communicate, a lot of four-letter words, in this case three letters,” Mr Sondland quipped, adding that the phrase “loves your ass” was his way of conveying the situation in “Trump-speak”.
The impeachment inquiry is also investigating whether the White House decision to withhold $391m in congressionally approved military aid for Ukraine — which was blocked for two months on the orders of Mr Trump — was part of the pressure applied on Kyiv.
Mr Sondland said he learnt about the aid decision in July, but did not realise until later it was part of the pressure campaign. Asked by Democrats if this realisation was a case of “two plus two equals four”, he replied: “Pretty much.”
Republicans then scored points by forcing him to concede that no one — including Mr Trump — had explicitly made the connection between withholding aid and investigating Burisma.
“In mathematics . . . two plus two does equal four,” said Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican. “[But] two presumptions plus two presumptions does not equal even one fact.”
Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, says Mr Sondland had used a strategy of “mutually assured destruction”.
“He set out to implicate as wide a circle as possible, but he helped the Republicans in critical ways,” says Mr Turley. “He helped the Democrats in acknowledging his view of the quid pro quo, but he seriously undermined their narrative [by saying] he never heard the president state a quid pro quo”.
In wrapping up this week’s hearings, Mr Schiff said what the inquiry had learned was “far more serious than a third-rate burglary” — in a reference to Watergate. “This is beyond anything Nixon did,” he said, adding: “Where is Howard Baker?” He was referring to the Republican senator who asked during Watergate, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” While Mr Baker had defended Nixon, he changed his mind over time, helping to alter the party’s view of the president.
But for Republicans, Mr Sondland was just the latest in a string of witnesses called by Democrats to help oust Mr Trump, both to avenge 2016 and prevent him from winning re-election.
Indeed, Republicans appear to be doubling down on their version of events. Lindsey Graham, chair of the Senate judiciary committee, has asked for information about Joe Biden’s dealings with Ukraine — which could be the precursor for an investigation into the former vice-president.
Speaking to Fox & Friends on Friday, Mr Trump repeated the claim about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election — the very same theory that Ms Hill told the committee was “fictional”. “Don’t forget, Ukraine hated me, they were after me in the election, they wanted Hillary Clinton to win,” he said.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi