impeachment hearings

Gordon Sondland’s Testimony Is Damning for Trump — and Himself

In Gord we trust? Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Gordon Sondland just earned himself a first-ballot induction to the snitching Hall of Fame.

In testimony to the House Intelligence Committee Wednesday morning, the European Union ambassador named names and showed receipts. A Never Trump Republican turned consummate Trump toadie, Sondland spearheaded Trump’s extortionary diplomacy in Ukraine. And a wide variety of administration officials and subpoenaed documents have established his involvement in coercing Ukraine into investigating Donald Trump’s political rivals. But in his initial, closed-door deposition, Sondland had downplayed the president’s role in the scheme. “When I said that the president gave me an assignment, it was really the secretary through the president,” the ambassador said. Republicans subsequently decided that Sondland was a willing patsy, and began formulating a narrative that would portray him as a rogue diplomat who took orders from no one but his own twisted conscience.

Over the ensuing weeks, however, Sondland gradually metamorphosed from toadie to stool pigeon. On Wednesday, the ambassador informed Congress that this thing goes all the way to the top: He and his fellow members of the so-called “irregular diplomatic channel” collaborated with Rudy Giuliani for exactly one reason — the president told them to. Sondland further confirmed that there had been a “quid pro quo,” in which the Trump administration had informed Ukraine that its new president would receive no White House meeting until it announced investigations into a conspiracy theory about Ukraine’s pro-Clinton interference in the 2016 election, as well as a probe of the energy company that had employed Joe Biden’s son. Sondland insisted that this policy was “no secret,” and every major White House official had been “in the loop.” Sondland corroborated the bulk of his narrative with emails and text messages. Taken together, his testimony amounted to an indictment of the president, secretary of State, White House chief of staff — and Gordon Sondland.

The E.U. ambassador threw the president under the bus in order to exonerate himself. In Sondland’s telling, he was a faithful public servant forced to make the best of a bad situation:

First, Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the President of the United States. We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the President’s orders

[A]t all times, I was acting in good faith. As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the President. We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the President directed us to do so. We had no desire to set any conditions on the Ukranians. Indeed, my personal view — which I shared repeatedly with others — was that the White House meeting and security assistance should have proceeded without pre-conditions of any kind. We were working to overcome the problems, given the facts as they existed. Our only interest was to advance long-standing U.S. policy and to support Ukraine’s fragile democracy

Given the discrepancies between his two rounds of testimony, there’s little reason to take Gordon Sondland’s word on the purity of his own motives. And yet, even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, his conduct would be contemptible.

The ambassador does insist that he never realized Trump’s requests had anything to do with Joe Biden. Ostensibly, Sondland wants us to believe that he had:

1) Assumed that Trump had simply developed an idiosyncratic interest in a random Ukrainian energy firm.

2) Never gotten wind of the front-page New York Times story documenting Rudy Giuliani’s explicit intention to gin up investigations into the Bidens in Ukraine, even as he worked with Giuliani to gin up investigations in Ukraine.

Which is absurd. Nevertheless, Sondland all but admits to understanding that Trump’s requests were politically motivated, telling lawmakers Wednesday that to satisfy the White House, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky “had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them.” The ambassador refused to affirm that this request was aimed at aiding Trump’s reelection prospects. But Sondland is not a stupid man. What other purpose could the mere announcement of such investigations possibly serve?

So: Sondland knew that the White House was defying congressional authority for illegitimate purposes, and abusing its official powers to engineer kabuki investigations. But he dutifully advanced this mission, anyway, out of a “good faith” conviction that doing so was the only way to “cement relations between the United States and Ukraine.”

What’s interesting about this alibi isn’t its blatant mendacity. It’s that it wouldn’t be exonerating even if it were true. A U.S. ambassador should not prioritize Ukraine’s military readiness over his own country’s democracy. Donald Trump had no legal authority to withhold the aid that Congress had ordered. And Sondland says that, in his understanding at the time, the president was withholding the aid for the specific purpose of extracting a political gesture from a foreign government. If incumbent officeholders are allowed to illicitly leverage their authority to discredit their domestic rivals, then maintaining genuinely free and fair elections becomes impossible. The idea that the American people have a greater interest in preserving Ukrainian control of the Donbass than they do in maintaining the rule of law in their own country is absurd. And yet, Sondland admits to prioritizing the former over the latter.

The fact that Sondland believed he could exonerate himself by insisting, “Everything I did, I did for Ukraine,” is telling. It reflects the impeachment inquiry’s misguided emphasis on Trump’s betrayal of an American ally, an offense that’s far less impeachable than his betrayal of the American constitutional order. When we remember that the president and his Cabinet swore an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution — not Ukrainian self-determination — Gordon Sondland’s alibi becomes an epic act of “telling on yourself.”

Sondland’s Testimony Is Damning for Trump — and Himself