“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
Those are the damning words of President Trump’s handpicked ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, who on Wednesday morning directly implicated not only Mr. Trump, but also several top members of his administration, in the Ukraine shakedown scheme at the heart of the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry.
The Democrats are steadily building a case that Mr. Trump sought a bribe from Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, by agreeing to two things Mr. Zelensky desperately wanted — an official White House visit and nearly $400 million in military aid — if he agreed to announce two investigations that would personally benefit Mr. Trump. One was an investigation into purported Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and the other was an investigation of alleged corruption by Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
For months, Mr. Trump and his allies have been road-testing a remarkable variety of defenses of this behavior. In the first minutes of his opening statement, Mr. Sondland blew them all apart.
Mr. Trump has insisted that there was “no quid pro quo.” Mr. Sondland testified: “Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
Mr. Trump’s defenders in Congress have claimed that Rudy Giuliani, who has been bragging publicly since last spring that he was trying to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, was off on his own escapade that had nothing to do with the president. Mr. Sondland testified that he, Rick Perry and other top officials responsible for American relations with Ukraine were forced to deal with Mr. Giuliani, even though they did not want to. “We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the president directed us to do so,” he said.
In case the dots weren’t completely connected, Mr. Sondland testified that “Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky” and that “Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president.”
Mr. Trump’s defenders have insisted that he cares deeply about combating systemic official corruption in Ukraine. Mr. Sondland testified that he understood Mr. Trump’s primary interest to be in investigating Burisma, the natural-gas company on whose board Hunter Biden sat.
Mr. Trump’s reaction to Mr. Sondland’s testimony was a familiar one: “I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. Seems like a nice guy, though.”
That’s a curious thing to say about a man Mr. Trump appointed himself, and about whom he tweeted just last month, “I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify.” In the next tweet, Mr. Trump highlighted an earlier assertion by Mr. Sondland, also in a tweet, that “the President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” Mr. Trump added, “That says it ALL!”
Mr. Sondland had not said it all, as the nation learned Wednesday. In his initial congressional testimony in October, he claimed he had no conversations with Ukrainian officials about tying the investigations to the military aid. In fact, as multiple witnesses later testified, Mr. Sondland did speak with Ukrainians about the need for investigations, and had a very public phone call with the president in a restaurant about this subject. He then provided a written update to his testimony, and on Wednesday, he testified that he had spoken to Mr. Trump by phone on July 26 and assured him that Mr. Zelensky was prepared to announce the investigations.
After everything else he remembered, it sounds like Mr. Trump’s allies are going to need some new defenses.
They started testing some out in real time, as lawmakers began to challenge Mr. Sondland’s recollection of certain events, even though the State Department has refused to release records that would help confirm or deny his recollection.
They hammered away at Mr. Sondland’s remark that Mr. Trump told him he “wanted nothing” from Ukraine, repeated “no quid pro quo” and never mentioned the Bidens. (Incidentally, on Wednesday morning Mr. Trump was carrying around these same talking points scrawled out in thick black marker, and later tweeted them out in all caps.)
Perhaps the president is unaware that simply saying he didn’t do something is not proof that he didn’t — especially when he has already provided the proof that he did do it. On the July 25 phone call that led to the whistle-blower’s complaint, Mr. Zelensky brought up the matter of the military aid, and Mr. Trump responded by saying he wanted Mr. Zelensky to “do us a favor, though” and announce both investigations, referring explicitly to Burisma and the Bidens.
You know what would help clarify some of these issues? Sworn testimony from the many key players in this scheme who have yet to appear before Congress, despite the fact that nearly all of them have been subpoenaed: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Mick Mulvaney, acting chief of staff; Mr. Perry, the energy secretary; former National Security Adviser John Bolton; Attorney General William Barr; John Eisenberg, the National Security Council lawyer; officials from the Office of Management and Budget; and, of course, Mr. Giuliani and his bagmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. While they are at it, Congress could invite Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to testify.
Mr. Trump claims that he did nothing wrong, yet the White House refuses to let most of these people appear under oath. (Mr. Sondland himself defied orders not to testify from the White House and the State Department.)
It’s worth emphasizing this point: All the witnesses whose testimony has been damaging to Mr. Trump have given that testimony under oath. All of those who we are led to believe would exonerate the president have so far refused to testify.
Remember, all of these people were fully aware of what was going on, according to Mr. Sondland. As he said, “Everyone was in the loop,” and he took exception to the effort being characterized as an “irregular channel” of diplomacy.
“I’m not sure how someone could characterize something as an irregular channel when you’re talking to the president of the United States, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, the chief of staff of the White House, the secretary of energy,” Mr. Sondland said.
Dan Goldman, the staff lawyer for the Democrats, asked if these witnesses would be able to provide key information about the events in question. “I think they would,” Mr. Sondland replied.
If Mr. Trump truly believes he insisted on no conditions for the White House meeting and the aid for Ukraine, he has a clear choice: Let people testify. At this point it’s hard to see what reason they have for continuing to refuse. Nor is there any justification for the administration to refuse to turn over the underlying documents and notes made by those witnesses who have already testified.
Americans shouldn’t be distracted by Republican smoke bombs, but they should also not be satisfied with a truncated inquiry into a question as consequential as whether the president of the United States should be removed from office. There is already abundant evidence that Mr. Trump has abused his power, holding out hundreds of millions of dollars to secure a bribe from a foreign government he wanted to investigate his political rival. In the process, he undermined American national security, and he is continuing to obstruct efforts by a coequal branch of government to get to the bottom of what happened.
These are classic examples of impeachable offenses; some are federal crimes. It is essential for the House to conduct a thorough inquiry, including hearing testimony from critical players who have yet to appear. Right now, the House Intelligence Committee has not scheduled testimony from any witnesses after Thursday. That is a mistake. No matter is more urgent, but it should not be rushed — for the protection of the nation’s security, and for the integrity of the presidency, and for the future of the Republic.
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