The moment of truth has arrived for the House Democrats’ impeachment project … so to speak. Gordon Sondland will testify today in public after telling the House Intelligence Committee that Donald Trump never ordered a quid pro quo for US military aid. If he sticks to that story, Adam Schiff et al will have hit a dead end, left without a connection to Trump — but with a considerable amount of egg on their faces.
The Washington Post sees the shoe mainly on the other foot for Sondland’s testimony, which begins at 9 am:
The evidence gathered to date points to Sondland as the witness who, more than any other, could tie President Trump directly to the effort to persuade Ukraine to launch investigations that might benefit him politically.
On Wednesday, with cameras rolling, the millionaire Republican donor-turned-ambassador could solidify the case against Trump, though doing so would require that he revise his previous testimony or acknowledge significant omissions. Or he could stand by his statements and face withering questioning from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee over inconsistencies between his testimony and that of a growing number of witnesses.
A growing number of witnesses to what, exactly? They are only witnesses in the technical sense, in that they showed up to answer questions. None of them claimed to have heard Trump demand a quid pro quo, or even claim that they had been told that this was official policy. All most of them did, save William Taylor, is discuss how badly they thought Trump had handled foreign policy.
The Post’s description of the peril of Sondland reflects more the peril of House Democrats and Schiff. Thus far, it has become clear that they launched these public hearings without having a case at all. None of the witnesses thus far has provided a firsthand account of a crime by Trump, or even an abuse of power. One can certainly think Trump’s not very good at his job based on some of their testimony, but that’s not a case for impeachment even so.
In other words, Schiff and his team need Sondland to change his testimony far more than Sondland needs to do so. There hasn’t been any testimony so far that contradicts Sondland’s bottom line that Trump never ordered a quid pro quo. The only risk to Sondland would be if he changes his story, a risk that Republicans reminded him still exists:
“I expect Ambassador Sondland to tell us the same thing he said in his deposition,” said House Intelligence Committee member K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.). Asked what would happen if he does not, he said: “Well, there are legal ramifications for that, for changing your [testimony]. He’s got to have good reasons.”
Sondland’s potential legal exposure is rooted in seven hours of closed-door testimony he provided to congressional investigators Oct. 17. Sondland said then that he had little contact with Trump and knew of no link between a freeze on U.S. aid to Ukraine and investigations sought by Trump into the energy company Burisma, where former vice president Joe Biden’s son held a board position, or into a widely discredited theory that Ukraine had circulated misinformation to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Sondland told Congress that he would not have assisted in any effort by the president to press Ukraine to investigate a potential 2020 challenger and that he would have viewed such an effort as inappropriate.
It’s important to note that this is Sondland’s only legal exposure. Unlike in other such scandals (addressed through impeachment or not), this has no crime at its core. Even the fabled quid pro quo wouldn’t violate any statutes, although it would certainly look swampy enough to matter to some voters next year. In other words, Sondland doesn’t have to worry about being made a patsy or a fall guy because there’s no fall to take. None of the other inquiry witnesses have factually contradicted his earlier testimony because none of the other witnesses had any contact with Trump on this subject.
The only way Sondland risks a criminal prosecution is to lie under oath. And if he’s already done that in the deposition, he’s not going to make it obvious by flipping his story now. Or so one presumes, anyway, assuming House Democrats don’t offer him immunity ahead of his testimony. That’s a risk for them, though, because it would also allow Sondland to simply repeat his deposition testimony without any risk at all over it.
So the result today is likely to be an anti-climax of one degree or another for Schiff & Co. They will spend all day hammering at Sondland, while House Republicans spend all day reminding him of his earlier testimony and all the joys of a perjury prosecution. Sondland will carefully parse his answers to remain consistent with his deposition, which should have warned House Democrats not to tread this path in the first place.
Update: Maybe Sondland’s found a third way. According to the Daily Beast, Sondland will use his opening statement to lay everything on Rudy Giuliani, including the quid pro quo:
“Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the President of the United States,” Sondland said. “We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the President’s orders.” …
“Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” Sondland’s statement says. “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the President.”
Sondland’s statement also says he “shared concerns of the potential quid pro quo regarding the security aid” with Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin who had visibility into the administration’s thinking on Ukraine.
Johnson has already written to the committee that he didn’t think Trump was pushing a quid pro quo. However, this will likely be enough meat for House Democrats to chew for a while, although to get to Trump directly they would have to call Giuliani. And that probably won’t happen, as Giuliani would invoke attorney-client privilege.