In turning on Donald Trump, American EU ambassador Gordon M. Sondland, who was sporting a nifty $55,000 Breguet watch today, performed what amounted to a timely jailbreak from the administration. ‘Was there a “quid pro quo”?’ he said before Congress. ‘The answer is yes.’ Sondland, in other words, was done being a yes-man for Trump.
He had to endure a pillorying from Rep. Sean Maloney, who sarcastically observed that it took three times for Sondland to get it right in his testimony, but he ended up delivering the goods. In fact, a bushelful, far more than the Democratic lawmakers might reasonably have expected. Adam Schiff made the Cheshire Cat look dour as he unraveled the Gordian knot, reciting Sondland’s key statements at the close of the hearing.
He implicated not only Donald Trump as the ringleader of the Ukraine scheme, but also secretary of state Mike Pompeo, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Vice President Mike Pence. Pence, who seems to have devoted much of his time in office to staring worshipfully at Trump, was apparently up to speed on all developments when it came to Ukraine, though his office dispatched a brusque statement denying it this afternoon.
Trump himself tried to blow it all off, veering between dismissing Sondland — ‘I don’t know him very well’ — and claiming exoneration. Armed with handwritten notes that he penned with his favorite black Sharpie, Trump declared this morning that he had been right all along. This afternoon, he tweeted, ‘Impeachment Witch Hunt is now OVER! Ambassador Sondland asks U.S. President (me): “What do you want from Ukraine? I keep hearing all these different ideas & theories. What do you want? It was a very abrupt conversation. He was not in a good mood. He (the President) just said,”…’ He added, ‘…”I WANT NOTHING! I WANT NOTHING! I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO! TELL PRESIDENT ZELENSKY TO DO THE RIGHT THING!” Later, Ambassador Sondland said that I told him, “Good, go tell the truth!” This Witch Hunt must end NOW. So bad for our Country!’
The right thing, of course, from Trump’s perspective, was to announce publicly an investigation into Hunter and Joe Biden that would have permitted him to bash them both as venal crooks during the 2020 election campaign. Instead, Trump has been hoist by his own petard.
Meanwhile, his own officials continue to pursue their own course. Consider Stephen Biegun, who has been nominated to be deputy secretary of state. Even as Sondland was undermining Trump, Biegun testified to Congress today that he admired Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch: ‘I found her to be a very capable foreign service officer…it is clear to me that an outside party based in Ukraine slandered her.’ No doubt. But what would Trump make of that statement?
It’s hard to avoid the impression that for Trump everything about American foreign policy and, by extension, the presidency itself is ancillary to his own personal interests — the ‘big stuff’, as Sondland apparently put it. He doesn’t really give a fig about who serves in the State Department, Defense Department or even his own White House. Instead, he became president, not to push new policies, but to bask in the celebrity of the office and seek to capitalize on it monetarily. But the moral bankruptcy of his presidency is becoming more glaring by the day.