Sondland: My understanding was that Zelensky had to announce the investigations -- not actually do them

Bro, it’s over.

…well, not over over. The Senate’s still not going to cough up even 50 votes for Trump’s removal.

But you can imagine ol’ Mitt Romney watching this exchange today and moving from a firm maybe on removal to a very soft yes.

This clip is important because it speaks to Trump’s motive. Was the president sincerely interested in possible corruption by a former VP in influencing Ukraine on Burisma, or was he only interested in creating suspicion around Biden in hopes of damaging his chances at the Democratic nomination? The first is a legitimate public interest, the second is a corrupt personal interest. Sondland:

If Trump didn’t care whether the investigations actually happened, only about smearing candidate Biden with the accusation, then that would be a corrupt personal interest. Exactly what Democrats are looking for.

The Democratic lawyer followed up on this with Sondland and got a more complicated answer:

“I never heard, Mr. Goldman, anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed,” Sondland said. “The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise was that they had to be announced in some form and that form kept changing.”

Goldman noted how there would be “political benefits” from such a public announcement. Sondland responded, “The way it was expressed to me was that the Ukrainians had a long history of committing to things privately and then never following through, so President Trump, presumably, again communicated through Mr. Giuliani, wanted the Ukrainians on record publicly that they were going to do these investigations.”

That’s a little better for Republicans. Maybe Trump wanted the announcement so badly because he feared Ukraine would renege on a private promise. He did want the investigation; he just wanted to force the Ukrainians to commit to it by getting them on the record. It could be that securing the announcement was just the first step towards a full Burisma probe.

But it’s significant that Sondland seems undecided at best and skeptical at worst of that notion. In his exchange with Schiff, he volunteers that he wasn’t sure if Ukraine was actually expected to follow through on its announcement by opening an investigation of Burisma. That’s a weird degree of uncertainty about the ostensible goal of this months-long clusterfark negotiation.

Perhaps he’ll elaborate when he’s called to testify at Trump’s Senate trial.

As for why Schiff spends so much time in the clip prodding Sondland to confirm that Trump was offering some sort of “official act” in return for the Burisma announcement, that’s an easy one:

I posted the text of the federal bribery statute last week, the day Pelosi’s focus-grouped messaging about Trump’s offense shifted from “quid pro quo” to “bribery,” but here it is again for ease of reference:

(2) [Whoever] being a public official or person selected to be a public official, directly or indirectly, corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally or for any other person or entity, in return for:

(A) being influenced in the performance of any official act;

Schiff’s trying to establish that even if the only quid pro quo offered to the Ukrainians involved a White House meeting with Trump, not the military aid, that in itself would be an “official act” for purposes of the bribery statute and therefore a full-blown statutory crime. Starr recognizes what he’s up to. And Starr seemed pretty impressed by Sondland’s testimony, even wondering whether a group of Republican senators might visit Trump for a “Goldwater moment” a la Watergate:

To repeat: There likely won’t be even 50 votes in the Senate to remove Trump once Joe Manchin crosses the aisle to vote with Republicans. At best, Schumer’s probably looking at 48 if Romney and Murkowski switch sides. Why would anyone lean on Trump to resign with numbers like that? Lord knows, the opinion of Republican voters isn’t going to move based on anything Sondland said today.

He did have at least one good soundbite for Trump today, though — sort of:

Both the RNC and Trump’s campaign clipped this exchange and are circulating it online, for understandable reasons. This will probably be the first question Trump’s lawyers ask Sondland at the trial: “Isn’t it true, ambassador, that the president told you directly that he wanted no quid pro quo with Ukraine, that he wanted President Zelensky to do the right thing?” “It is.” That in itself might be enough cover for Senate Republicans to vote not guilty.

But to assess the sincerity of what Trump said to him, focus on the date. September 9 was after Congress had already started asking questions about the missing military aid, after the Washington Post had published an editorial accusing Trump of seeking a quid pro quo, and, maybe most importantly, right around the time that news of the whistleblower complaint was circulating in the West Wing. Ukraine-gate was on the cusp of going public as a scandal. Sondland himself alludes in the clip to the mounting suspicion about Ukraine at the time, describing “so many scenarios floating around” about what was happening the two countries with respect to the delayed money. He also notes Trump was in a bad mood when he finally asked him whether there was a quid pro quo. It may be that Trump had come to realize the Ukraine saga was about to become a major political problem for him and didn’t want anything more to do with it. He may have been in CYA mode at that point: “No quid pro quo, release the funding, tell Zelensky to do whatever he wants, I don’t want to discuss it further, I’m done with this.” He may even have suspected that Sondland would turn on him and reveal the truth publicly if Trump admitted a quid pro quo to him. He would have been right to be suspicious!

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