It’s been a refreshing time for Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, hotel magnate and, not least, $1 million donor to the Trump inaugural committee. It’s a long way from Brussels, where Sondland was stationed, to Kiev, but Sondland, who testified before the House Intelligence Committee a few weeks ago that he didn’t really know anything about a quid pro quo, has apparently provided several pages of new testimony that was released today in which he suddenly ‘refreshed my recollection’. Sondland, in other words, has recollected that nefarious things were happening or, to put it more precisely, wants to save his own hide. He’s flipped.
Donald Trump holds strong views about this kind of behavior. It makes him flip out. As he once put it in a Fox and Friends interview, ‘I know all about flipping. It should almost be illegal.’ Well, it isn’t. And more is probably to come. The greatest danger that Trump faces is that his lieutenants crack and betray him in deepest consequence.
For Sondland’s latest testimony puts the kibosh on the notion that Trump wasn’t avidly seeking a quid pro quo (QPQ) with Ukraine. It was Trump himself who tweeted back in October: ‘The Ambassador to the European Union has already testified, he said there was no quid pro quo. He said the president had told him that.’ Oops.
The fons et origo of QPQ rested in Trump’s conviction that Ukraine had sought to derail his election in 2016. It was time to fight with fire. In what the New York Times genteelly refers to as his ‘updated testimony’, Sondland explains that he made the link between the $391 million in military aid that Congress had approved and the investigations Trump desired of Burisma and the Democratic National Committee server explicit at a meeting between vice president Mike Pence and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on September 1 in Warsaw. ‘I said that resumption of the US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,’ Sondland divulged. The next question will be what role Pence, who has assiduously sought to extricate himself from the Ukraine imbroglio, played during the Warsaw meeting with Zelensky. Did Pence also bring down the hammer on the Ukrainians? September 1 also happens to be the day that Trump’s top Ukraine emissary Bill Taylor, who replaced the defrocked ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, texted Sondland that ‘As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.’ Sondland retorted that Trump had been ‘crystal clear’ that there were no quid pro quos ‘of any kind… I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.’ He suggested he called ‘S’. S, as it happens, is also getting dragged deeper into the mire as new revelations about Secretary Pompeo emerge, including the fact that he dissembled on CNN about never being asked about a statement of support for Yovanovitch.
For Senate Republicans, who have been arguing, or ginning themselves up to argue, that Trump may have engaged in a bit of geopolitical hanky-panky that does not amount to an impeachable offense, the political playing field just became somewhat more treacherous. Sondland himself said to the committee that he may not be a lawyer, but that he assumed that Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s Ukraine caper was ‘illegal’.
As the House Intelligence Committee prepares to go public, Republicans are planning to implant Trump defenders such as Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows on it. Trump, who refers to Jordan as a ‘warrior’, is pushing for a robust defense. If today’s transcripts are any indication, Trump will need all the defenders he can enlist even as his own administration officials twist in the wind.