Home NEWS Bernstein: Sondland’s testimony just made life difficult for Republicans

Bernstein: Sondland’s testimony just made life difficult for Republicans

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Ambassador Gordon Sondland just confirmed the obvious: President Donald Trump set up a quid pro quo for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

The key facts were on the record before Sondland, the Trump donor turned European Union ambassador, testified on Wednesday before the House Intelligence Committee in its inquiry into whether Trump should be impeached.

Those facts were that Trump wanted Zelenskiy to announce that Ukraine would investigate his political rival Joe Biden and his son, and would also look into supposed (but long-since debunked) Ukrainian interference with the 2016 U.S. election, in order to receive an Oval Office meeting with Trump and the release of congressionally approved military aid.

Sondland gave himself a little bit of wiggle room, saying that he lacked direct knowledge of some of the deal’s elements. But he made it clear that high administration officials including acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former National Security Adviser John Bolton, knew that Trump was putting his personal political self-interest first when it came to national policy on Ukraine.

Sondland said that the desired Ukrainian probe would target the energy company Burisma Holdings, where Biden’s son Hunter served on the board, but claimed he had no idea that Trump meant to take aim at the Bidens. He also said he could never confirm that the military aid was part of the deal.

But earlier testimony, including the call record from a July 25 telephone conversation between Trump and Zelenskiy, make all of that clear.

Sondland’s assertion that key senior officials were all “in the loop” could have used more detail on what exactly all of those people knew. But coming from a Trump loyalist with a direct line to the president, the testimony left no plausible ambiguity about what was going on.

Several important points from the morning testimony:

  • Sondland emphasized that Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani demanded that the Ukrainians make a public announcement about investigating Burisma, not that the inquiry must actually take place. That can be interpreted two ways. The innocent one, which Sondland mentioned, was that Ukraine had promised to move against corruption in the past, only to back off. The troubling one, which makes more sense given what’s publicly known, is that Trump didn’t care about actual investigations (which probably wouldn’t go Trump’s way, anyway) but just wanted to create a false public impression that Biden had done something wrong and that Ukraine, rather than Russia, interfered in the 2016 election
  • Sondland, who seemed to be enjoying himself, wasn’t the best witness. He said he never takes notes. He complained that the State Department had not made some records of conversations available to him. And he claimed significant memory gaps. Republican staff counsel Steve Castor made that point pretty well. But the flip side of that is that the best way to fill Sondland’s gaps would be to hear from Giuliani, Pompeo, Mulvaney, Bolton and others whom the White House have blocked from appearing, and to see documents that the administration has refused to make available even after Congressional subpoenas. So expect more pressure on Trump to allow them to testify.
  • Committee Chair Adam Schiff, the California Democrat, has already threatened that obstructing the investigation could be grounds for an article of impeachment. He threw out a reminder on Wednesday that obstruction was a count against President Richard Nixon in 1974 before Nixon resigned. Schiff has made that case before, but the case for it grows stronger as the evidence against Trump grows stronger.
  • At the very least, news coverage of Wednesday’s session was extensive and prominent, meaning there will be more coverage going forward and more pressure on the White House. The effect on public impeachment sentiment and (more important) Trump’s approval ratings can’t be predicted. But it’s hard to believe that having this story dominate the news is good for the president or Republicans.
  • The coverage of Sondland’s testimony as a big revelation has two other important effects. It reduces any pressure Democrats may have to wrap things up and move on. It also gives Republicans an off-ramp if they want one. There’s no sign yet that even a small number of high-profile Republicans are looking for a reason to move toward impeachment and removal. But politicians like to sound reasonable, and if they hold one position and then want to move toward a different one, they like to have changing facts — and not just changing politics — to cite as a reason.
  • One more point about the Trump presidency: One set of State Department officials believed there were two policy tracks on Ukraine, an official one and an irregular one featuring Giuliani. Sondland said there was only one, since all the top officials were involved. Confusion? Of course. This is exactly what we can expect from an administration in which informal policy fiefs proliferate, one with a weak chief-of-staff and a president who gets involved with policy based on whim and Fox News, rather than reading policy briefs, meeting with staff and executive department officials, and doing the things that normal presidents do.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

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