Sondland is Trump’s ambassador to the EU, a key figure in the Ukraine business since he had direct contact with both Trump and Ukrainian officials. He was one of the first witnesses who testified before the House after Democrats began sniffing around and he admitted that there was a quid pro quo — but only involving a meeting between Trump and Zelensky. Military aid wasn’t part of it. Trump wanted investigations of Burisma and CrowdStrike and, if Ukraine played ball, the president would grant them the privilege of visiting Washington to meet with him and lobby him directly on supporting the country’s effort to resist Russia.
Which was … concerning, shall we say, but not as concerning as Bill Taylor and Alex Vindman and Tim Morrison testifying that they believed military aid was part of the deal too. It’s one thing for Trump to use a diplomatic perk like a presidential visit to entice Zelensky to reopen investigations: Diplomacy is unquestionably a prerogative of the executive branch and a presidential visit doesn’t involve life-and-death matters like military aid does. There’s still the small matter of Trump leaning on a foreign power to investigate the Democratic frontrunner, which many Dems would tell you is enough to support impeachment, but certainly the type of quid pro quo Sondland originally described is less alarming than one in which Trump was holding back military aid appropriated by Congress for Ukraine’s assistance to gain leverage.
Sondland’s also the guy who had this now famous text exchange with Bill Taylor on September 9:
[9/9/19, 12:47:11 AM] Bill Taylor: As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.
[9/9/19, 5:19:35 AM] Gordon Sondland: Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.
Per the Times, Sondland has now changed his story. “Security assistance,” i.e. military aid, does appear to have been part of the deal. He “refreshed his recollections” after reading the opening statements given under oath from other witnesses like Taylor and Tim Morrison. In particular, Taylor had testified that Morrison told him that Sondland confronted the Ukrainians at a meeting in Warsaw on September 1 and told them that the military aid wasn’t happening unless the Burisma investigation did. That’s correct, Sondland now admits:
In his updated testimony, Mr. Sondland recounted how he had discussed the linkage with Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, on the sidelines of a Sept. 1 meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Mr. Zelensky in Warsaw. Mr. Zelensky had discussed the suspension of aid with Mr. Pence, Mr. Sondland said.
“I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Mr. Sondland said in the document, which was released by the House committees leading the inquiry, along with the transcript of his original testimony from last month…
In his new testimony, Mr. Sondland said he believed that withholding the aid — a package of $391 million in security assistance that had been approved by Congress — was “ill-advised,” although he did not know “when, why or by whom the aid was suspended.” But he said he came to believe that the aid was tied to the investigations.
“I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anticorruption statement,” Mr. Sondland said.
We’re only getting bits and pieces of Sondland’s new statement here but it sounds like he’s still being coy about how much he knew. He “presumed” the military aid was contingent upon Ukraine issuing an “anticorruption” statement, and he can’t be sure who exactly ordered the aid held up. Lotta uncertainty and suppositions in there! According to Alex Vindman, though, Sondland was quite clear in a meeting with the Ukrainians all the way back on July 10 that the White House was specifically interested in Burisma, not just “anticorruption.” And according to reporting in the Times and WaPo from September, it was Trump himself who ordered the military aid held. It’s absurd to think Sondland, as point man on this deal, remained uncertain about what the precise terms were and who was orchestrating it all the way into September when the White House had been chattering to the Ukrainians about it for months.
In fact, don’t forget what Republican Sen. Ron Johnson told the WSJ last month:
Mr. Johnson said he learned of the potential arrangement involving military aid through a phone call with Mr. Sondland that occurred the day before Mr. Johnson spoke to Mr. Trump. Under the arrangement, Mr. Johnson said Mr. Sondland told him, Ukraine would appoint a strong prosecutor general and move to “get to the bottom of what happened in 2016—if President Trump has that confidence, then he’ll release the military spending,” recounted Mr. Johnson.
“At that suggestion, I winced,” Mr. Johnson said. “My reaction was: Oh, God. I don’t want to see those two things combined.”
Johnson asked Trump about it directly and Trump reassured him that there was no quid pro quo on offer, but given Johnson’s obvious opposition to the idea you can understand why he might say that. Johnson, as a Trump-friendly Republican, had no reason to lie to the WSJ about what Sondland told him and Sondland had no reason to lie to Johnson during their call by claiming that military aid was part of the quid pro quo if it wasn’t.
With Sondland now joining the chorus claiming there was a quid pro quo and that it did indeed involve military aid, I don’t know of any major witnesses who are still denying it. Maybe those witnesses are out there and simply being held back under executive privilege, like John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney has admitted publicly that there was a quid pro quo (before, er, un-admitting it later) but he claimed that it had nothing to do with Burisma or the Bidens. It was about getting Ukraine to investigate CrowdStrike and possible interference in the 2016 election. Whether Mulvaney would repeat that claim under oath is unclear.
Either way, it’s quite the coincidence that Sondland has had his memory refreshed at almost the exact moment that Senate Republicans have begun to steer their own messaging towards admitting that there was a quid pro quo … but denying that there was anything improper about it. I wrote about that this weekend if you missed it. Taylor and Vindman and Morrison and other witnesses like Fiona Hill have made Trump’s insistence that there was no quid pro quo appear increasingly absurd to Republicans, leaving them looking for a Plan B on defense that doesn’t involve the president’s assurances that everything was on the up-and-up. The solution is to concede that a quid pro quo existed, just as Sondland has done today, and then to pivot to arguing that Trump had a perfectly legitimate reason for it — exposing corruption by a former vice president of the United States. There are reasons to doubt that and to suspect that his true motive was damaging a formidable Democratic candidate for president, but if the GOP’s now swinging around to arguing that the quid pro quo wasn’t bad (or that it was bad but not so bad as to warrant impeachment) then Sondland can safely change his tune without causing problems.
I mean, Trump will be pissed off by it since he’ll view it as disloyal and embarrassing insofar as it contradicts his own spin. But the rest of the party will do whatever in order to get this impeachment nightmare behind it. If that means acknowledging that Trump shot someone on Fifth Avenue in this case but that it was justifiable homicide, then so be it.
Update: In case there’s any shred of doubt that Sondland knew that the Ukrainian “anticorruption” investigations Trump was interested in involved Burisma, here he is in a text exchange with Kurt Volker on August 17 specifically mentioning it. “Ze” is Zelensky, of course:
One of the key questions at Trump’s Senate trial will be why he and aides like Sondland were so hot to have Zelensky issue a statement about reopening certain corruption investigations, with Burisma apparently to be mentioned by name. That speaks to Trump’s motive: There’s no obvious reason to do that if all the White House cared about was uncovering corruption by the Bidens (better that they don’t know that they’re being investigated, in fact) but there’s an obvious reason to do it if what Trump cared about was damaging a political opponent.