Sondland's evidence was the stuff of history. Republicans can ignore it at their peril

For the effects of this blockbuster testimony watch the polls – because with Thanksgiving days away, there will be plenty for voters to talk about

Ahmed Baba
Washington DC
Wednesday 20 November 2019 22:47
Gordon Sondland: We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt

"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." - Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland

There are moments that you immediately recognize as historic. The moments that you know will be played on a loop in history documentaries and quoted in textbooks. Today's impeachment hearing and that above quote specifically, will be studied for decades to come. The picture is now crystal clear: the President and his allies abused the power of the United States government to extort a vulnerable foreign power in pursuit of investigations that would help his 2020 election campaign.

There is now little doubt that Donald Trump will be the third President in American history to be impeached in the House of Representatives. Although he's unlikely to be convicted and removed from office by the Senate, Republican Senators will have to make that decision amid scrutiny from voters and under the weight of overwhelming evidence that the President they support is a crook.

Ambassador Sondland entered the hearing room on the heels of longtime Trump Advisor Roger Stone's conviction for lying to Congress. Sondland is a wealthy man with everything on the line if he lied to Congress after having already revised his previous testimony. On the other hand, Sondland had nothing to lose, and a place on the right side of history to gain, if he told the truth. Sondland opted for the latter and brought receipts implicating multiple Cabinet officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Up until this point, we've only heard testimony from career officials who made allegations about Sondland's role in the alleged extortion plot. That just changed, as Sondland explicitly confirmed their allegations and said yes, there was in fact, a quid pro quo. Rest in peace to the Republican counter-narrative claiming it's all "hearsay."

Sondland's testimony significantly bolstered House impeachment investigators' Ukraine bribery case, widened the net of Trump officials who are implicated in the alleged extortion plot, and narrowed the amount of straws Republicans have to grasp in their defense of President Trump's corrupt conduct.

Sondland began his opening statement by running through various key points. Sondland said he was instructed to work with Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani "at the express direction of the President of the United States." Sondland also stated Giuliani's "requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky." Sondland stated that "Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the President."

Sondland also stated that he "later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded."

Sondland went on to take a different route than the career diplomats who testified before him. While they painted this plot as "shadow diplomacy," Sondland essentially stated that the pressure campaign against Ukraine was the official policy of the Trump Administration. Sondland stated that: "As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the President." Sondland proceeded to show emails proving he kept Trump Administration officials at the highest level updated on this campaign to get Ukraine to announce the investigations.

In a single email, Sondland implicated Pompeo, Secretary of Energy Perry, Brian McCormack (Perry's Chief of Staff), Executive Secretary at the State Department Lisa Kenna, Acting Chief of Staff and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, and Mr. Mulvaney's Senior Advisor Robert Blair. Sondland sent them a July 19th email that read: "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.'

Trump impeachment: Nunes doesn't appear to ask Sondland anything substantive about his testimony

Sondland sent subsequent updates to Pompeo. Sondland also testified that before the Warsaw meeting with Zelensky, Sondland told Pence he had concerns that the hold on Ukraine's military aid had become tied to the issue of investigations. Sondland said that Pence nodded his head. Pompeo and Pence previously denied all knowledge of the pursuit of these investigations.

It's also important to note that Sondland stated Trump primarily wanted a public statement and didn't care about the actual investigation. This undermines the GOP narrative that Trump wanted to root out corruption and makes clear this was all about digging up dirt on a 2020 rival.

Now pick apart the inevitable Republicans counter-narratives. Sondland said Trump never told him directly that the military aid was conditioned on the investigations. Republicans have already begun to paint the narrative that the "quid pro quo" was Giuliani somehow going rogue, but this is undermined by other witnesses and Mick Mulvaney.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) rightfully brings up Mulvaney's public admission that Ukraine's military aid was withheld to pressure Ukraine to launch the investigations Trump demanded. This is important, given the fact multiple witnesses testified to Mulvaney's alleged involvement in the decision to withhold aid, and that the directive came from Trump himself.

In the immediate aftermath of this hearing, we'll likely see Republicans continue to move goalposts and push deflections and disinformation. But if you want indications of Trump's potential removal from office, don't watch them, watch the shifts in public opinion. Impeach and remove continues to hover around 50% of Americans in favor. With Thanksgiving days away, there will be plenty to talk about.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Axios last month: "If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing." Well Senator, here's the evidence. It's up to the opinions of the American people to decide whether Republicans can continue to close their eyes and ears to the truth.

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