The first day of the House impeachment hearings produced one bit of real news, and it was a bombshell. William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, revealed that one of his staffers overheard Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, tell President Donald Trump in a phone call “that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward” with “the investigations.” After the call, Sondland told the staffer that Trump “cares more about the investigations of Biden” than about Ukraine.
NBC News reported soon after the hearing that the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting the impeachment hearings, would issue a subpoena to the staff member. If he or she testifies, it would be one of the few firsthand accounts, at least in sworn testimony, of Trump himself pressuring the Ukrainians to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden—the president’s potential rival in the 2020 election—and his son.
More telling, Sondland’s call, which Taylor said was made in a restaurant, occurred on July 26, just one day after Trump’s famous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which—according to a summary released by the White House—Trump first asked for what he called “a favor.”
Taylor told the committee that he hadn’t mentioned the Sondland-Trump phone call in his deposition last month because he learned about it from the staff member who overheard it just a few days ago.
In October, Sondland—a hotel tycoon who was given an ambassadorship after donating heavily to Trump’s inauguration fund—testified that he had no recollection of any “quid pro quo” between an investigation into the Bidens and a resumption of U.S. military aid to Ukraine, which Trump had suspended. Then, on Nov. 5, Sondland submitted a sworn “revision,” stating that he now remembered discussing military aid with Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Zelensky, during a meeting in Warsaw on Sept. 1.
But Sondland said nothing, in either his deposition or his revision, about a July 26 phone conversation with Trump directly. In his revision, he stated that his memory had been refreshed after reading the depositions of other witnesses, including Taylor, who’d testified that Sondland was involved in presenting the quid pro quo. It could be that, in coming clean, he was trying to avoid a perjury indictment. But Taylor’s testimony on Wednesday—and his staffer’s forthcoming appearance, if it happens—suggests Sondland didn’t come clean enough.
The Republicans’ main line of defense at Wednesday’s hearing and in other forums has been that Trump’s accusers are relying on hearsay. It is an awkward enough defense, given that Trump has blocked many of those who would have firsthand knowledge of either the incriminating phone call or the president’s other communications about Ukraine from appearing before the House committee. With Taylor’s new disclosure, the defense has become still wobblier.
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