Jurisprudence

Why Does Gordon Sondland Still Have a Job?

The ambassador should resign or be removed.

Gordon Sondland in a House hearing room.
Gordon Sondland testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 20.
Samuel Corum - Pool/Getty Images

Fiona Hill warned Gordon Sondland back in June that the corrupt activities that he was helping spearhead would eventually combust.

“I did say to him, Ambassador Sondland, ‘Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up.’ And here we are,” Hill stated in the dramatic final day of public hearings before the House Intelligence Committee.

She was right of course. It did all explode, and the careers of two of the “Three Amigos”—Ambassador Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry—were among the casualties. They both did the right thing in resigning from office. But not Sondland.

Why should we focus on him now?

Sondland’s removal from office would make plain to more Americans the egregious corruption uncovered over the course of the impeachment inquiry. Just as a cascade of resignations during Watergate made Americans more aware that something profoundly wrong had happened inside the U.S. government.

What’s remarkable about Sondland’s activities is that by all accounts—the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment report, the minority report, and Sondland’s own testimony—he engaged in conduct that deserves removal from office.

The committee’s findings show that Sondland played a leading role in the scheme involving the most severe charges against the president—conditioning U.S. military aid on the Ukraine president’s making a public announcement of an investigation into Joe Biden, regardless of whether Ukraine carried through with an actual investigation.

“Ambassador Sondland understood that President Trump did not require that Ukraine conduct investigations as a prerequisite for the White House meeting so much as publicly announce the investigations,” the committee report states. Prosecutors (let alone presidents) generally don’t go around announcing the existence of a criminal investigation. As Pamela Karlan explained in her testimony, “Generally you don’t announce the investigation in a criminal case before you conduct it, because it puts the person on notice that they are under investigation.”

The greatest difference between the committee’s accounting of these events and the ones provided by the Republican staff’s minority report and Sondland himself is the connection to President Donald Trump. On the most charitable account presented by the minority and Sondland, he carried out a monthslong quid pro quo scheme without an explicit instruction from the president. In other words, Sondland engaged in one of the most corrupt—and criminal—acts in American political history.

That account is not based on hearsay evidence or speculation. It is Sondland’s own admission—or more precisely, confession—about his own actions, which he provided in his final testimony before Congress. His best defense is “everyone was in the loop.”

Add to the mix the standards for impeachment articulated by all four witnesses in Wednesday’s hearings. Even the Republican witness, Jonathan Turley acknowledged, “a quid pro quo to force the investigation of a political rival in exchange for military aid can be impeachable, if proven.”

An ambassador can be impeached and removed if both chambers of Congress agree. An ambassador can be censured by either chamber, and an ambassador can be called upon to resign by any member of Congress or the public at large.

On Wednesday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse answered a question at the National Press Club in which he noted the possibility that other officials might be included in the articles of impeachment. “It’s also at least a remote possibility that there may be more than one individual addressed in the articles of impeachment,” Whitehouse said. There’s no telling who might be on that list and how exactly they would be addressed in draft articles, but Sondland would be a good candidate for being impeached alongside the president. Indeed, there’s also no reason to wait, as Sondland should be encouraged to step down before it reaches that point.

The case for Sondland’s removal is an easy one. It is compounded by the fact that he clearly and systematically lied to Congress in his first written statement and then again in his revised statement after the truth started pouring out from other witnesses. Plus, other questionable and deeply unprofessional behavior has also been exposed over the past few weeks, including communications so lax that they pose a security risk, as Hill testified. The credible allegations of sexual harassment and predation by three woman who have spoken on the record is, as one of those victims said, also relevant to the question of Sondland’s “moral character.”

But, Sondland is back at work, representing the United States to the European Union.

In the midst of Sondland’s public hearing before the Intelligence Committee, his lawyer asked Chairman Adam Schiff whether the schedule could be truncated so that the ambassador could get other work done.

“Ambassador Sondland had intended to fly back to Brussels to resume his duties at the end of the day, and so it would be a great convenience to us if we could have a shorter break now and resume with the members’ questions and try and wrap up in time that he might be able to make his flight,” his lawyer said.

Sondland made his flight, but it’s unconscionable that he was even on it, returning to Europe to resume his position representing the United States, including on matters involving Ukraine. Instead, he should be booked on a one-way trip back to Oregon.

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