Democrats are hoping that U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland will be their breakthrough witness, with polls showing that most Americans are not paying close attention to the impeachment hearings.
Democrats accused Sondland of being part of the “irregular channel” of U.S. policymaking on Ukraine that, they allege, President Donald Trump used to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political rivals.
Sondland has testified that he worked with other officials — mostly former Ambassador Kurt Volker and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry — to convince the Ukrainian president to issue a statement committing to investigations of allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, and an investigation into Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company whose CEO was under investigation for corruption.
Sondland has testified that the president’s personal lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had pushed for the statement, presumably on Trump’s behalf.
But Sondland has also testified that he has never known of any “quid pro quo” — and that President Trump told him directly that he wanted “nothing” from Ukraine.
He later amended his testimony to say that he remembered he had a conversation with a Ukrainian official linking withheld military aid to the statement on the investigations, but he also testified that by that late stage in the process, he just “presumed” that was the case but did not know personally.
Key Democratic Talking Points:
1. Democrats are hoping to use Sondland — who claimed to have direct access to Trump — to link the president directly to a “quid pro quo,” trading a White House meeting or military aid for politically helpful investigations.
- What Democrats aren’t telling you: Sondland testified during his closed-door deposition that in early September, after Charge d’affaires Bill Taylor texted him asking if the military aid was conditioned on the investigations, that he called Trump directly on September 9 and asked what he wanted from Ukraine. According to Sondland, Trump told him that he wanted “nothing” from Ukraine and there was “no quid pro quo.” Sondland has also testified that nothing about the proposed Ukrainian statement on investigations raised any alarm bells for him and that asking for a statement before a face-to-face meeting would be normal.
2. Democrats plan to grill Sondland about the closed-door testimony of David Holmes, who has alleged that he overheard Sondland speaking directly to the president on July 26, a day after Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Holmes allegedly could hear Trump say “the investigations,” and also said Sondland told him afterwards that Trump cared “more about the investigations” than he did about Ukraine.
- What Democrats aren’t telling you: The alleged phone conversation between Trump and Sondland — if the accounts are accurate — would have simply reiterated what Trump himself said to Zelensky the day before on the July 25 call, and what Zelensky promised he would do. That phone call transcript has been released.
3. Democrats will argue that Sondland had no business working on Ukraine policy since he was the U.S. ambassador to the EU. They will argue that the “irregular channel” was meant to bypass the “regular channel” that involved U.S. diplomats at the embassy in Kiev, and the National Security Council. Democrats will also try to attack Sondland’s past experience as a businessman and a donor to the Trump campaign.
- What Democrats aren’t telling you: Sondland has testified that as the U.S. Ambassador to the EU, he would have handled countries aspiring to join the EU, which would include Ukraine. Also, after the removal of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from Ukraine in May, Sondland said that he was helping to bridge the gap in her absence and before the appointment of Taylor as her replacement in June 2019. Sondland does differ from the other witnesses in that he is not a career public servant, but a former businessman and hotel developer. Democrats have portrayed him as a campaign donor who is unqualified for the job — ignoring decades of practice by both political parties of rewarding donors with ambassadorships. The practice was reportedly egregious during the Obama administration, when it demanded that all ambassadors resign their post upon taking office, and more than 40 percent were political appointees instead of career diplomats.
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