the national interest

Trump Blocks Sondland Testimony, and the Cover-up Begins

President Trump and European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Shutterstock

American ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is a key figure in the Ukraine scandal. The Republican megadonor helped push diplomats to orient American policy toward Ukraine around President Trump’s goal of extorting the country to investigate his domestic rivals. Sondland was scheduled to be deposed by House lawyers today, but the White House has ordered him not to testify, the New York Times reports.

Why doesn’t the White house want him to testify? Trump clearly doesn’t want anybody to testify, and is seeking to delegitimize the entire impeachment inquiry, in keeping with his absurd claim that Congress literally has no right to impeach him. (That right is in the Constitution.) But Sondland is a particularly dangerous witness for Trump, and his testimony could well prove especially damning.

Texts between diplomats showed they clearly grasped that American policy was a quid pro quo, trading a presidential visit and ultimately military aid in return for the Ukrainian government’s investigations into Joe Biden’s son’s Hunter’s dealings there. Sondland played the role of Trump loyalist, pushing back against the qualms of the professional diplomats who were disgusted by the policy they were being asked to implement,

The most incriminating text exchange came when Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, recorded his objections to the policy: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland waiting five hours to respond. The Wall Street Journal reports today that he’d spoken with Trump in the interim. After getting his talking points from the president, Sondland denied that there was a quid pro quo and very suspiciously asked to move the discussion from texts to over the phone.

Trump has been intermittently transparent about his aims — he thinks he has an absolute right to demand that any country investigate any American, and that he did nothing wrong with Ukraine. But while he has confessed to demanding the investigations — and, indeed, demanded even more of them — he has been cagey about the quid pro quo aspect.

Sondland’s testimony could show Trump’s directing a cover-up. The White House has been attacking the whistle-blower complaint as “secondhand” information, implying that a full accounting of the facts would exonerate Trump. Its refusal to allow testimony from a witness key to implementing the administration’s Ukraine policy shows that transparency is the last thing Trump wants. We’ve already seen proof of the crime. Now the White House is undertaking the cover-up.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff tells reporters that Sondland has more evidence stored on a personal device. The State Department is withholding that evidence from the committee.

Meanwhile, Trump is emphasizing that Sonland affirmed his no-quid-pro-quo talking point after they spoke, as if this indicates his innocence:

Right, nothing says “innocent” like an underling being so concerned about being conscripted into an unethical scheme he memorializes it in writing, only for his supervisor to check in with the boss offline, repeat the party line, and then instruct everybody to communicate in a way that can’t be used as evidence.

This post has been updated.

Trump Blocks Sondland Testimony, and the Cover-up Begins