Ambassador Sondland’s Testimony
Up to this point, the individuals that have been subpoenaed to testify before the various committees, (House Oversight, Intelligence, and Foreign Affairs), conducting the House Impeachment Inquiry, with regard to the question of Donald Trump’s manipulation of foreign policy on Ukraine – have been career agency officials from the State Department and other cabinet posts.
They, including, former Ambassador and Special Envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, and National Security Council top Russian advisor, Fiona Hill, were all known to have maintained independence from Trump’s influence and had no history of supporting him politically.
That is not the case with the individual appearing before House investigators in closed session today. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, was a political appointee of Donald Trump’s to his post at the EU.
Ever since it was announced that Sondland would comply with subpoenas from the three Congressional committees investigating the Ukraine matter, warning buzzers have been going off at the White House.
Trump and Sondland
If Sondland was one of those cognitive analysis questions where his icon appeared with the three other persons mentioned, who have already appeared in those committee hearings and the challenge was, “which one of these four do not fit the pattern”, the correct answer would be – you guessed it, Gordon Sondland. It’s especially apparent given the fact that Sondland and Trump have a bit of history going with each other.
Gordon Sondland knows Trump personally , having become acquainted in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when Sondland contributed $1 million to Trump’s Inaugural Gala. In terms of ‘Quid Pro Quo’s’, it’s anything but difficult to connect the dots between that contribution and Trump’s subsequent appointment of Sondland as Ambassador to the EU.
Sondland is also a Republican and Trump assumed that he could rely on Sondland to run interference with ordinarily reluctant and in some cases, recalcitrant State Department officials.
Aside from the fact that Sondland originally did not find Trump to be much to his liking among the GOP field in the 2016 nomination race, Sondland played the hand of cards he was dealt, even if it included a Joker in the deck, which was Trump.
Add all this together and Trump’s crisis response team would not have expected that Sondland would become perhaps the most explosive Congressional witness to date, but he has. And what has surfaced in the form of his prepared testimony, is nothing short of powder keg material, when placed in the larger context of what we have already seen, particularly in terms of the email exchange between him and Acting Ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor.
Taylor, in messages between the two in August, asked Sondland, “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigation?” Sondland, at that point, aware of precisely that fact, demurred to put his answer in writing, responding to Taylor, “Call me”.
Notable was a further communication between the two on a separate occasion one week later when, Taylor commented to Sondland and Volker, that “it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” This presented another problem to Sondland.
Taylor’s comment clearly indicates that it was generally understood between the three men, that Trump and Trump’s roving operative, Rudy Giuliani, intended that the aid to Ukraine, in the form of military equipment, was to be held up until Trump received assurances that Ukraine President Vlodimyr Zelenskyy and his administration would provide material on former Vice President Joseph Biden and his son, Hunter.
The Rudy Factor
Previous testimony that has revealed how Giuliani, operating in concert with Trump, was conducting a shadow foreign policy on a track in opposition to the diplomatic track that was informed by a conventional set of institutional values , makes the testimony of Sondland even more perilous for Trump and his presidency.
Regarding the substance of the varying interpretation of Trump’s intentions between Taylor and Sondland, Sondland reports in his prepared statement that:
“Taking the issue seriously, and given the many versions of speculation that had been circulating about the security aid, I called President Trump directly. I asked the President: ‘What do you want from Ukraine?’ The President responded, ‘Nothing. There is no quid pro quo.’ The President repeated: ‘no quid pro quo’ multiple times. This was a very short call. And I recall the President was in a bad mood.”
With regard to the hub of Trump’s efforts to secure damaging material on the Bidens – Rudy Giuliani, Sondland reports, “In these short conversations, Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anticorruption issues. Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anticorruption investigatory topics of importance for the President.”
Burisma is the petro-chemical firm in the Ukraine, that Hunter Biden was associated with briefly, beginning in 2014 and which Giuliani was proposing to Trump, as being a fertile field for opposition research against Vice President Biden. Sondland claims that he was not specifically aware of Biden’s son’s involvement with Burisma.
“I understood that Burisma was one of many examples of Ukrainian companies run by oligarchs and lacking the type of corporate governance structures found in Western companies,” he said. “I did not know until more recent press reports that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma.”
Sondland went on to remark further that, “I did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President’s 2020 reelection campaign.”
This, given everything else that has surfaced, is cause for some raising of the eyebrows, but what Sondland has already told the investigators will be more potent fuel for the impeachment inquiry going forward.
Trump’s agenda and Giuliani, the bag man
What is not subject to debate, however, is that Trump directed Sondland to follow Giuliani’s lead in terms of diplomatic agenda on Ukraine. Sondland sought to convince the House inquiry that he was not comfortable with Trump injecting Giuliani into the bloodstream of the relationship building effort with Ukraine.
“Based on the President’s direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region; or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President’s concerns.”
Sondland indicated also that he was disturbed by the president’s removal of Ambassador Yovanovitch. Sondland described her as “an excellent diplomat with a deep command of Ukrainian internal dynamics, the U.S. / Ukrainian relationship and associated regional issues.”
That Sondland praises Yovanovitch in contrast to Trump’s assessment of her as “bad news”, serves to underline Ms. Yovanovitch’s credibility as compared to the president’s and gives strong credence to the substance of her previous testimony before this committee.
Here is the full read out of Sondland’s written preliminary statements to Congress: