Prior to Wednesday, the testimony in the impeachment inquiry had added up to a collective finger pointed in the direction of Gordon Sondland, a Republican donor whom President Donald Trump rewarded with an ambassadorship to the European Union.
In the first impeachment hearing, last Wednesday, acting Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor revealed that Sondland had been overheard in July babbling to the president from a Kyiv restaurant about how Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would do “the investigations.” The specific embassy employee who overheard the conversation, David Holmes, was deposed later in the week, adding more color to the episode. Both Kurt Volker, the special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, and Alex Vindman, the National Security Council’s director of European affairs, called out Sondland for inappropriately raising the subject of investigations during a July meeting with Ukrainian officials at the White House. Tim Morrison, the NSC’s former Russia expert, said that his predecessor, Fiona Hill, had warned him specifically about “the Gordon problem,” suggesting that he was the one promoting certain “investigations” as the solution to a foreign policy problem.
Sondland was being set up, in other words, to be the fall guy—the rogue nincompoop so desperately eager to win Trump’s affections that he was freelancing a back channel American policy toward Eurasia. While the time to prove he was not a nincompoop may have expired in a Kiev restaurant on July 26, Sondland still did have the opportunity to argue that he wasn’t rogue: that the back channel on which he was working was the only channel, and that securing a deal for an announcement of “investigations” was the understood policy up and down the administration.
That meant implicating the policy chain (or interagency tangle) and proving, to use Sondland’s most memorable quote, that “everyone was in the loop.” The request for “investigations”—pushed by Rudy Giuliani, and “expressing the desires of the president of the United States”—was, Sondland said, a “quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” and no one up the official command chain objected to these efforts. Sondland dug up some old emails to, as he said, “show that the leadership of State, NSC, and the White House were all informed about the Ukraine efforts from May 23, 2019, until the security aid was released on September 11, 2019.” Among those he apprised were Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who did nothing to stop him and even commended his efforts, and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
“They knew what we were doing and why,” Sondland said.
In place of the image of a reckless freelancer, that is, Sondland described himself as a dutiful cog in the administration’s Ukraine policy machine. He was merely doing his part to advance the overall quid pro quo program—even if he may have been, regrettably and implausibly, unaware of the worst of that program’s implications.
Between the testimonies of Taylor, Sondland, Volker, Morrison, and Vindman, the scheme as it took place on what we’ll call the “mid-senior” tier is effectively laid out. Trump didn’t like Ukraine because of conspiracy theories. These policymakers wanted Trump to like Ukraine, though, and tried to negotiate a statement that the Ukrainian president could read that would be bad P.R. for the Joe Biden campaign—er, we mean, the Burisma company!—which would make Trump like Ukraine. It was difficult. Security aid got tossed into the pot.
With that timeline well-established, Democrats leading the investigation have a difficult choice to make about how they want to deal with Sondland’s particular contribution of implicating genuinely senior aides.
Republicans have remained in total unity behind the president, citing the witnesses’ inability, so far, to say that Trump personally told them that security assistance needed to be linked to investigations. They tortured Sondland, specifically, on Wednesday over his repeated mentions that that was merely his “presumption.” If Democrats want to crack that talking point, it would mean getting testimony from Giuliani, Mulvaney, and/or John Bolton. And getting that testimony would mean lengthy court battles, which doesn’t fit into Democrats’ preferred schedule of having the Intelligence Committee’s investigation wrapped up in the next couple of weeks.
Sondland’s “presumption,” and a thicker article of impeachment covering obstruction, may have to do.