WASHINGTON — Perhaps the conviction last week of President Donald Trump’s pal Roger Stone for lying to Congress — specifically the House Intelligence Committee — influenced diplomat Gordon Sondland, who on Wednesday brought his much-improved memory to the same panel, now considering Trump’s impeachment.
What Sondland remembered was what he called a “quid pro quo” request from Trump to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, filtered through his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. It was the bombshell revelation House Democrats have been seeking.
Sondland is the Oregon hotel mogul who parlayed a $1 million donation to Trump’s inauguration committee to become the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. He is a central figure in the Ukraine controversy at the heart of the Democratic impeachment inquiry.
Sondland’s memories in an earlier deposition were hazy, skimpy even. Sondland even forgot to mention a cell phone call he made to Trump from an outdoor café in Kiev, talking so loud that a staffer from the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine overheard him.
On Wednesday, Sondland remembered so much more, now that his memory was jogged through the testimony of others about events he was part of. Perhaps to avoid perjury charges and to seek mercy, he was looking for credit for testifying, because he said, the White House and State Department told him not to appear.
The State Department also denied him — and the House Intelligence Committee — access to his phone records and other materials that could be helpful in establishing facts.
Sondland wasn’t quite John Dean, the Nixon White House counsel whose testimony was a game-changer when the House was considering the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. But he’s the closest thing so far in these Trump proceedings.
Sondland is the most important person yet to testify at the impeachment hearings, because he had direct communications with Trump and Giuliani. The advantage Republicans and Trump still have is Sondland’s testimony that he did not have a direct communication with Trump over shaking down Ukraine.
At the heart of the probe against Trump is the allegation that Zelensky would not get a White House visit or vital military assistance for the war Ukraine is fighting against Russia unless he made a public announcement of investigations into Joe Biden and now debunked conspiracy theories about a Democratic National Committee server and the 2016 election.
“Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” Sondland said in his opening statement, setting the stage for a tough day for the House Republicans on the panel. They did not bring to the hearing a solid strategy for dealing with a Trump turncoat.
Sondland continued, “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the 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 these investigations were important to the president.” At first Sondland did not connect that a reference to Burisma was code, because Biden son Hunter was on its board.
He said “everyone was in the loop,” sweeping under the bus Vice President Mike Pence; acting Trump Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among others. Sondland said he told Pence about the politically blocked Ukraine military assistance. Pence’s chief of staff said that discussion “never happened.”
Sondland said he did not want to work with Giuliani but had to “at the express direction” of the president. “Simply, we played the hand we were dealt. …We followed the president’s orders.”
Trump and the House Republicans during the day turned on Sondland as he turned on them.
GOP counsel Steve Castor tried to discredit Sondland because he didn’t take notes — and scolded him because he didn’t bring to the hearing the notes he did not take.
Said Castor, “You don’t have your notes because you didn’t take notes. You don’t have a lot of recollections. I mean, this is like the trifecta of unreliability.”
Trump’s team portrayed Sondland’s quid pro quo testimony as a tie.
Said Intelligence panel member Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., when I talked with him after Sondland’s hearing, “Today was a surprise. As much as they think today was a tie, when a team says it’s a tie, it means they got their ass kicked.”