Did Gordon Sondland throw Donald Trump “under the bus” in his opening statement to House investigators this morning, or just point out the obvious? The ambassador didn’t spare Rudy Giuliani, at any rate, in expressing his “disappointment” over Trump’s decision to delegate Ukrainian diplomacy to his personal attorney. That’s not quite connecting any dots, however, and Sondland also soundly rejects the “quid pro quo” hypothesis being advanced by House Democrats:
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, will tell Congress that he was told by President Trump that he had to help his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani with his plan on Ukraine.
In his opening statement, which was obtained by The Daily Beast, Sondland will say: “I did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President’s 2020 reelection campaign.” …
“Please know that I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters. However, given the President’s explicit direction, as well as the importance we attached to arranging a White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, we agreed to do as President Trump directed,” Sondland wrote.
“Based on the President’s direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region; or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President’s concerns.”
That claim might be a little difficult to credit. The briefing to which Sondland refers in which he and Perry were directed to work with Giuliani took place on May 23, 2019. By that time, Giuliani had already publicly declared his intent to personally investigate the Bidens’ role in Ukraine and Burisma, following a May 2 report in the New York Times that called Joe Biden’s intervention in corruption probes into question. By May 10, the blowback on Giuliani’s threats to personally travel to Ukraine to dig up dirt on the Bidens had gotten bad enough for Giuliani to retreat in an interview broadcast on Fox News. Sondland’s claims to be blindsided by Giuliani’s agenda less than two weeks later is curious, to say the least, although it’s fair to assume that Sondland had better things to do than follow Giuliani’s antics before that late-May briefing.
However, Sondland also says that Giuliani wasn’t the only one pushing back on arranging a call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky. Sondland, Rick Perry, and Kurt Volker saw a call as a critical step in solidifying a national-security relationship with Kyiv, but the National Security Council also opposed the idea by mid-July, Sondland says. However, no one on the NSC shared “any misgivings about the propriety of what we were doing” in Ukraine at the time.
Moreover, Sondland insists, the actual deliverable for Ukrainian relations is the same as it has been for “decades” — a greater commitment to fight corruption in general, not focusing on one particular aspect:
After meeting with Trump in late May, Sondland told Congress that he did have some contact with Giuliani as the president had directed. Giuliani brought up Burisma, Sondland notes, but as one example of the corruption that the Trump administration wanted to pursue — and Giuliani never mentioned the Bidens at all:
In fact, Sondland tells the investigators in this statement, he went directly to Trump once Bill Taylor began raising questions about the perception of a quid pro quo with the Ukrainians in early September. Sondland testifies that Trump, in a bad mood at the time, emphatically and repeated insisted that no quid pro quo was asked or desired:
We now have two of the “Three Amigos” on Ukraine insisting that they never got directed to support a quid pro quo. Assuming they’re testifying truthfully, they would have been passing that message along to their contacts in Ukraine as well, which means that they would have been eliminating the pressure to dig up dirt on the Bidens. They would have related Trump’s words about wanting “nothing” in exchange for the aid, and specifically, “There is no quid pro quo.”
That does not mean that Giuliani would have refrained from saying something different, of course. However, it would be strange indeed to pass along diametrically opposed statements when the point would have been to pressure Ukraine into a particular — and uncomfortable — action. The Ukrainians might well have concluded that the State Department represented the official US position and that Giuliani (assuming he communicated a quid pro quo, which he has denied) was a cowboy wandering off the ranch, so to speak.
Sondland’s criticism of using Giuliani in Ukrainian diplomacy makes sense for that reason. Using a personal attorney to run official diplomatic policy without an official portfolio is confusing at best for allies, who can’t be sure who actually matters in the equation. However — and this is critical — that delegation still falls within the purview of the president. It might be ill-advised (and certainly looks that way in this instance), but it’s not at all illegal. Presidents have used private citizens and friends as back-channel diplomats for many years, sometimes openly, usually not, with mixed results. It’s never been thought to be an impeachable offense, nor should it alone be in this case.
From Sondland’s statement, it doesn’t appear that Democrats can advance their hypothesis on impeachment. Bad practices? Sure, but if Trump had demanded an inappropriate personal quid pro quo for a probe into the Bidens, Sondland and Volker would have to have known about it at some point, if not from Trump then from their Ukrainian contacts. There’s no evidence it exists, at least so far, which makes all of this oppo-research fodder and not much else.