The chatterati on political Twitter have determined that this is the news of the day thus far from the impeachment hearings (at least as of noon ET) although I’m not clear on what the bombshell is supposed to be. It feels like a bombshell since Taylor notes that he found out about this only recently, which is why he didn’t mention it during his closed-door testimony a few weeks ago. But is it? Take a minute:
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) November 13, 2019
That’s from his opening statement. You’ll find a transcript of the passage here. Here’s what it would establish, assuming it’s true:
1. Trump was personally interested in Ukraine conducting certain “investigations.”
2. He was in direct contact with Sondland about that.
3. Trump and Sondland wanted something from Ukraine which the Ukrainians were allegedly ready to “move forward” on.
4. Sondland believed that Trump didn’t care about Ukraine policy, only about “the investigations of Biden.”
If you want to add a fifth fact, apparently Sondland was so unconcerned about keeping his communications with Trump secure that he was on the phone with Trump at a restaurant in Ukraine, with the people around him able to listen in.
All of this new information is secondhand, as is true for virtually all of Taylor’s testimony, although a Taylor aide was scheduled just this morning to be deposed by the House on Friday. Presumably that’s the same aide who heard the Trump/Sondland call. I wonder if Gordon Sondland will have his memory “refreshed” yet again about this mysterious call he had with the president once news circulates on Friday about the aide’s testimony. Anyway, let’s assess the four key facts:
1. Is it news that Trump was personally interested in Ukraine’s “investigations”? He mentioned both CrowdStrike and Burisma directly to Zelensky during their phone call on July 25. (His call with Sondland supposedly came one day later.) Trump has admitted repeatedly that he wanted to know what the Bidens were up to there — not because he was looking to damage the Democratic frontrunner but because he was interested in exposing alleged official corruption by a former VP. I’m not sure how it advances the ball to know that he was chattering about this to his own diplomats if we already knew he was chattering about it to Zelensky.
2. The fact that he and Sondland were chatting directly about “investigations” is potentially significant, though. For one thing, says former Obama ambassador Michael McFaul, ambassadors rarely speak directly to the president:
Sondland calling Trump on a cellphone from Kyiv is extraordinary for all sorts of reasons. Normally EU Ambos don’t call presidents. They never do so to discuss Ukraine policy. Doing so on a cellphone from Kyiv means whole world was listening in.
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) November 13, 2019
More importantly, there have been rumblings in the media lately that a desperate GOP might try to make Sondland and Rudy Giuliani (and Mick Mulvaney) fall guys for the quid pro quo if it comes to that. If Sondland had been interacting exclusively with Giuliani for guidance on what the president wanted from Ukraine then the “fall guy” narrative is relatively easy: Just blame Rudy. Say that Trump never authorized a quid pro quo, that Rudy went rogue, and that Sondland had no reason to know what Trump’s wishes were since they didn’t speak directly. Now along comes Taylor this morning to say that not only were Trump and Sondland in direct communication, it was evidently casual enough that Sondland was willing to do it in a public place, within earshot of others. That wasn’t his first phone call with the president on this subject, I’m guessing.
3. It’s interesting that Sondland supposedly told Trump that the Ukrainians were willing to “move forward,” but what does it prove? Trump insists there was no quid pro quo, that he simply asked Ukraine to reopen the Burisma and 2016 probes and, coincidentally and unrelatedly, Ukraine’s military aid was mysteriously delayed at around the same time for reasons no one can quite say. Sondland could and probably would claim that he meant Ukraine was ready to move forward on Trump’s “request,” not that there was a deal (at that point at least) in which they were required to do so as a condition of receiving their aid or a meeting with the president.
4. The fact that Sondland allegedly mentioned Biden to Taylor’s aide is probably the most significant detail here, if only because it catches Sondland in a lie:
In light of Taylor's testimony that Sondland discussed an investigation into Biden in July, worth remember this from Sondland's testimony under oath. pic.twitter.com/mTxlL1I4Gn
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) November 13, 2019
If the aide is right that Sondland specifically named Biden after he got finished talking to Trump about “investigations” on July 26 then it sure looks like Sondland lied to the House during his deposition when he claimed that he didn’t realize the Burisma probe was related to the Bidens until August. Then again, it’s been pretty clear from the start that Sondland was lying about that. Rudy Giuliani was on record in the Times back in May as saying he and Trump were interested in what the Bidens were doing in Ukraine. And Sondland reportedly pressed two visiting Ukrainian officials for an investigation of Burisma at a meeting in the White House in mid-July. He’d have to have been an abject imbecile not to have connected Trump’s interest in Biden to Trump’s interest in Burisma until months into this process.
Sondland admitting that it was Biden that Trump was interested in would also contradict Mulvaney’s statement last month that Trump never brought up the Bidens (to him, at least) in conversations about Ukraine and the military aid. He was interested in CrowdStrike and Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election, Mulvaney said, but never mentioned Joe or Hunter Biden. Now here’s Taylor claiming that Sondland told his own aide that, no, it was Biden whom Trump wanted information on. Did Mulvaney lie?
The worst-case scenario for Trump in the impeachment process would be evidence emerging that he not only wanted to see Biden investigated, he wanted it done because he was worried about Biden’s chances of beating him in the election, not about “corruption.” That’ll obviously be a key question for Sondland when he testifies again before the House: Now that we know that he and the president were chat buddies about Ukraine and the “investigations,” did POTUS ever happen to mention the 2020 election to him in connection with any of this? If a newly “refreshed” Sondland says yes, that’s when Trump would be in legit trouble and Senate Republicans would start getting nervous.
Still a ways away from that, though. We’ll need to hear what Taylor’s aide has to say under oath on Friday. What specifically did Trump say on the call, and what did Sondland say to him?