President Donald Trump’s defenders had little to work with on Wednesday, as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland delivered explosive testimony to the House Intelligence Committee. The ambassador told the impeachment inquiry that he had told Ukrainians that if they wanted $391 million in military aid released to them, they would have to announce investigations that Trump was demanding they announce. Top officials in the White House were all aware of what was unfolding in the scheme, Sondland said, and the orders for at least one of the quid pro quo deals came directly from Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
Republicans on the committee homed in on the notion that Sondland said he didn’t receive a direct order from Trump to condition aid on investigations. Sondland, however, recounted that was his impression after speaking with Giuliani, whom Trump had directly instructed Sondland and others working on Ukraine issues to work with.
Ranking Member Devin Nunes during his questioning of Sondland attempted to offer an innocent explanation for this, saying that it was reasonable for Trump to want to “get to the bottom” of Hunter Biden’s role on the board of the energy company Burisma, and of a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election instead of Russia. Nunes also returned to the minority members’ recurring demand that Democrats should issue a subpoena to former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, so the committee itself could investigate this important issue.
Earlier in his testimony, though, Sondland had rebutted this line of argument with one key new detail. Sondland testified that in his interactions with Trump and Giuliani, he was never told to demand that the Ukrainians actually open, let alone complete, any investigations—just that they announce there would be investigations.
“I never heard,” Sondland said, “anyone say that the investigations had to start, or had to be completed. The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise, was that they had to be announced [publicly] in some form and that form kept changing.”
The various iterations of that form included a public announcement from the Ukrainians that specifically mentioned the words “2016 election” and “Burisma” and a possible CNN interview Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky could give, in which he would promise to investigate. The demand, though, was always for the public announcement, rather than a thorough investigation to root out corruption in Ukraine.
Committee Chairman Adam Schiff followed up on this specific point:
Schiff: He had to get those two investigations if that official act was going to take place
Sondland: He had to announce the investigations, he didn’t have to actually do it as I understand it.
This testimony is incredibly damning. As the substantive facts of the quid pro quo deal that Trump has denied for weeks have become harder and harder to deny, the president’s defenders have leaned into a version of Nunes’s argument that Trump was just very interested in rooting out Ukrainian corruption. According to this line of argument, Trump’s interest only coincidentally happened to dovetail with an investigation of his possible chief political rival in the 2020 election and in a conspiracy theory that might damage the results of the Mueller investigation.
Sondland’s testimony, though, demonstrates that even if you wanted to accept this absurd premise, the evidence and testimony don’t show Trump seeking any sort of genuine investigation. Instead, according to Sondland, he strictly wanted the announcement of one.
From Trump’s point of view, then, as described by the ambassador, it would be pointless for the impeachment inquiry to subpoena Hunter Biden. The president was never trying to unearth any facts about the substance of Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine; he was only to get the Ukrainians to announce that they were suspicious about it all.
That public announcement—that Ukraine was investigating the company that for months Giuliani had been linking to the Bidens and claiming pointed to potential corruption on the part of the former vice president—would clearly have benefited Trump politically, even if no investigation were conducted afterward.
It may seem strange that Trump would risk his entire presidency for something that seems so small. But there is an entire conservative eco-system ready to amplify the message that Ukrainians were investigating “stone-cold crooked Joe Biden” the same way they had amplified Trump’s message about “crooked Hillary Clinton” and her emails during the 2016 election. As was demonstrated in 2016, more mainstream outlets would take this investigation credibly and offer legitimate signal boosts that Biden may be a shady character. We know this because it already happened. In May, the New York Times published an article that presented Biden as potentially having acted improperly in the Burisma affair and noted that a Ukrainian investigation had been announced once:
But new details about Hunter Biden’s involvement, and a decision this year by the current Ukrainian prosecutor general to reverse himself and reopen an investigation into Burisma, have pushed the issue back into the spotlight just as the senior Mr. Biden is beginning his 2020 presidential campaign.
That investigation apparently never happened—or if it did, was subsequently stalled—but a new announcement would allow Trump and his allies to restart the narrative.
As others in the impeachment inquiry have previously testified, if Trump actually wanted an investigation of corruption by American citizens, then the Department of Justice was the appropriate place for that to start. If the DOJ needed help from the Ukrainians to conduct such a legitimate investigation, they could request that help through what’s called a mutual legal assistance treaty. None of that ever happened. Instead, there were secret back-channels and deals and demands.
As we continue to learn, a legitimate investigation was never what Trump wanted. What he wanted was help in his reelection campaign, and he was willing to leverage America’s national security to get it.