The Ukraine impeachment saga has become surprisingly simple and straightforward, with only two matters of any real suspense. One: Can Democrats get 51 votes in the Senate to remove Trump? They won’t get anywhere near the 67 they need to actually remove him, but if they can get 51 they can boast that majorities in both chambers agree that the president did something sufficiently bad that he should no longer be president because of it.
Two: What does Gordon Sondland know? Unless and until one of the other major players in the Ukraine matter testifies — Rudy Giuliani, Mick Mulvaney, or John Bolton — then Sondland is the only game in town. He’s the only witness who was directly engaged with both Trump and the Ukrainians. Thus he’s the only person who could conceivably attest that he heard Trump with his own ears say that his purpose in all this really was corrupt. That is, that he was interested in the Burisma probe because he feared Joe Biden would defeat him next year in the election and needed some foreign dirt to prevent that from happening.
What did Sondland know, and what is he willing to say? That’s the whole ballgame. Unless John Bolton decides that he’s prepared to testify.
Sondland will be back before the House soon. For now, Democrats need to make do with secondhand witnesses to what Sondland has said. On Wednesday that meant Bill Taylor and George Kent; this afternoon it meant a closed-door deposition with Taylor aide David Holmes. Holmes is the staffer whom Taylor mentioned on Wednesday as having overheard a call between Trump and Sondland in July while Sondland and Holmes were in Kiev. Holmes has been testifying for the past few hours. One obvious matter he had to clear up was how he came to hear a call involving the president in the first place. Did Sondland have Trump on speakerphone — in a restaurant?
Not exactly, said Holmes. “The President’s voice was very loud and recognizable, and Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume,” he told investigators today according to CNN. Bear in mind that a second aide, Suriya Jayanti, was also there and allegedly heard the call. She’ll obviously be called in to corroborate Holmes’s account.
What exactly did Trump say to Sondland? Holmes:
“Sondland told Trump that (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky ‘loves your ass,'” Holmes said, according to a copy of his opening statement obtained by CNN. “I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’ Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to.'”…
Holmes also confirmed Taylor’s testimony about the President’s thoughts on Ukraine, saying he asked Sondland “if it was true that the Presisdent did not ‘give a s—t about Ukraine.”
Holmes said Sondland responded Trump only cares about “big stuff.” When Holmes said that the Ukraine war was big, Sondland responded “‘big stuff’ that benefits the President, like the Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing,” Holmes said.
It’s not news that Trump was interested in the investigations. This call with Sondland took place on July 26, the day after he spoke directly to Zelensky in the famous call whose transcript everyone has read by now. It’s interesting to see just how interested Trump was in the investigations, though, enough so that he was following up with Sondland about them the next day. And it’s at least worth noting in the context of an alleged quid pro quo that Sondland felt moved to reassure Trump that Ukraine would comply with any request Trump made of him.
The real news is the last bit, though. We’ll need to see what Jayanti remembers about the call and the exact language Sondland used, but it’s significant for obvious reasons that Sondland was allegedly of the opinion that Trump cared about Ukraine only to the extent it could benefit him. Trump’s defense rests heavily at this point on the idea that he was after Biden and Burisma not because it benefited him but because the American public has a legitimate interest in knowing whether former VP Joe Biden abused his own power over Ukraine while in office. If Holmes’s memory of what Sondland said is accurate, Sondland appears to have believed that Trump’s motive was selfish. Exactly the sort of evidence of corrupt intent that Democrats would be looking for to advance a bribery charge.
And don’t overlook the fact that Holmes claims Sondland specifically mentioned the “Biden investigation” in July. That contradicts Sondland’s previous testimony that he didn’t realize Burisma had something to do with the Bidens until later in this story:
Sondland is caught in about as clear a lie as you will find. He told the committee he never discussed investigating Biden with anyone at the WH or State Dept. According to this testimony, he did both. https://t.co/wwc5tk0P9v
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) November 15, 2019
As I’m writing this, a copy of Holmes’s opening statement is circulating online. The stuff about the July 26 call is on pages 6-7. But here’s something … noteworthy later on:
He’s describing a visit by Bolton to Ukraine in late August, after Zelensky’s team had already become aware that the military aid was being held up. What did Bolton mean, exactly, when he said whether the aid would be released was contingent upon Zelensky making a “favorable” impression on Trump? Was that code for Burisma — and if so, how much did Bolton know about Trump’s motives here? Also of note: Holmes goes on to say that around the same time he developed a “clear impression” that the hold on military aid was “likely intended by the President either to express dissatisfaction that the Ukrainians had not yet agreed to the Burisma/Biden investigations or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so.” That’s exactly the terms of the quid pro quo that’s been alleged.
Needless to say, Holmes’s “impression” about Trump’s goals and his memory of what Sondland said won’t cut it. It won’t cut it even if Jayanti backs him up. The million-dollar questions are for Sondland himself: Did you believe that Trump had a corrupt self-interested motive in leaning on Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, and what did you see or hear from the president to make you believe that?
Here’s CNN reporter Manu Raju reading a bit more from Holmes’s opening statement. The Kardashians are mentioned because we’re all dead and in hell right now and that’s the sort of thing that happens here.
I obtained a copy of David Holmes' opening statement, saying that he heard Trump telling Gordon Sondland: "So, he's gonna do the investigation?" Sondland tells Trump: "He's gonna do it" and that Zelensky will do "anything you ask for." pic.twitter.com/24RgVCvzoy
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) November 15, 2019