Sondland declares quid pro quo, pundits call testimony damaging to Trump

The Donald Trump mega-donor who was awarded with an ambassadorship stepped into the impeachment spotlight Wednesday and said the president basically did what Democrats are accusing him of doing.

Gordon Sondland, who had already changed his testimony once, delivered a torrent of words, but none more important than these: “Was there a quid pro quo?...The answer is yes.”

What’s more, the ambassador who was once cast as a pro-Trump witness provided a road map to the Ukraine mess, made clear many top officials were involved, and said it was done at the “express direction” of the president. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”

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It was undoubtedly the most important day of the House impeachment hearings, as no one could say that Sondland had no firsthand knowledge. He was in the thick of it.

Sondland was no John Dean, warning of a cancer on the presidency, as he described himself as a reluctant participant in a scheme whose gravity only gradually dawned on him. He was doing the best he could in a difficult situation to shake loose the military aid to Ukraine.

He was the missing puzzle piece, a Seattle hotel owner who found himself at the center of a national melodrama. He didn’t quite flip as a witness, but he certainly did a pirouette.

Sondland confirmed that the president told him Ukraine “tried to take him down” in 2016. He said he and his colleagues “weren’t happy” when Trump said they had to work with Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine.

He said Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney and Rick Perry were kept briefed, citing an email that they were copied on six days before Trump had the famous call with Ukrainian president Zelensky. In that message, Sondland explained that he “just talked to Zelensky” and got him to commit to the “fully transparent investigation” that Trump wanted.

In case there was any ambiguity, Sondland said they all understood what Trump wanted in exchange for the call and a possible meeting with Ukraine’s president. “Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky. Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma.” The latter is the Ukrainian company that gave Hunter Biden a lucrative job.

Sondland did say Trump never directly told him a Zelensky meeting was conditioned on a Ukrainian announcement of investigations, but that Rudy did—and for the ambassador, it was “two plus two equals four.”

Trump, for his part, seized on one part of Sondland’s testimony to say “it is all over.”

The president challenged the “fake news” to report that he told the ambassador late in the game that “I want nothing, want no quid pro quo, tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”

The pundits, on CNN, Fox and MSNBC, said Sondland’s account was damaging to Trump and his top aides. Even Ken Starr on Fox said “it doesn’t look good for the president, substantively,” although Trump “may have covered himself” by not giving explicit instructions. But it may not be true, as MSNBC co-anchor and Trump-basher Nicolle Wallace put it, that “Gordon Sondland’s testimony today changed everything.”

In a normal political environment, Sondland’s testimony would be considered a bombshell. But the country is utterly polarized between those who believe Trump is the victim of a partisan witch hunt and those who believe he extorted a foreign country to go after a political rival. Once again, I think few minds will be changed by these hearings, which dragged on for nearly 12 hours Tuesday. And as with other witnesses, Sondland’s turnaround was blunted by the fact that much of what he had to say had already been leaked or released to the press.

Whether the president’s dealings with Ukraine rise to the level of an impeachable offense, or removal from office, is a whole different question. But Sondland’s emerging account clearly made it harder for Republicans to argue that there’s nothing to see here.

Ranking Republican Devin Nunes ignored the testimony and changed the subject, bringing up allegations that Democrats obtained dirt on the 2016 Trump campaign. But Sondland, who wasn’t in government then, said he knew nothing about it.

GOP counsel Steve Castor grabbed the one lifeline Sondland had left him: “Did the president ever tell you personally about any preconditions for anything?”

The witness said no, but when “the president says talk to my personal attorney,” and Giuliani made demands, he and others assumed it was on Trump’s behalf.

Sondland, who says he never takes notes, got peppered with questions about not having records to back up his recollection.

Jim Jordan later yelled at Sondland because in the end the quid pro quo didn’t come off and demanded to know why he didn’t put the “no quid pro quo” Trump assertion in his opening statement. (Sondland said he’d already included it in previous testimony.)

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Another Republican, Mike Turner, bellowed that Sondland had delivered “made-up testimony” because Trump never explicitly told him there was a scheme involving a quid pro quo.

Adam Schiff countered that Republicans seem to be saying there’s no evidence unless the president explicitly confessed to Sondland. Keep in mind that Mulvaney had also told reporters (part of the presser was played at the hearing) there was a quid pro quo and "get over it"--before trying to walk it back.

The high-decibel rebuttals from the GOP could not drown out the fact that Gordon Sondland’s appearance was, to put it mildly, not helpful to the president.