“Ambassador Sondland,” warned Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., from the dais on day four of the open impeachment hearings. “You are here to be smeared.”
Nunes is the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee. But it wasn’t clear at that moment to U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, that Republicans may be doing the smearing.
Sondland told lawmakers that there was indeed a quid pro quo. He testified that Rudolph Giuliani said requests for a quid pro quo were linked to possible White House meetings for Ukrainian leaders and to prompt investigations of the Bidens. Sondland announced that U.S. aid would not flow to Kiev unless there were probes. Sondland even testified he told Vice President Mike Pence in early September of harboring concerns about connecting the aid to investigations.
But then Mark Short, Chief of Staff to the Vice President, unloaded on Sondland.
“The Vice President never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations,” said Short. “Ambassador Gordon Sondland was never alone with Vice President Pence on the September 1 trip to Poland. This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened.”
Sondland testified that he pieced together what was going on: a linkage between aid to Ukraine and an investigation of the Bidens.
“It was a presumption,” said Sondland. “Two plus two equals four in my mind.”
Nunes seized on Sondland, divining President Trump’s approach toward Ukraine – without really grasping the policy.
Nunes said it would be “great” if Sondland actually knew the status of the foreign aid “rather than doing funny little math problems here. Two plus two equals four.”
The Republican attorney for the impeachment inquest, counsel Steve Castor, called into question the veracity of Sondland’s interpretations – since the ambassador conceded he rarely took notes.
“You don’t have records. You don’t have your notes because you didn’t take notes. You don’t have a lot of recollections. I mean, this is like the trifecta of unreliability. Isn’t that true?” hectored Castor. “It’s a lot of speculation. A lot of it is your guessing. And we’re talking about impeachment of the President of the United States. So the evidence should be pretty darn good.”
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, challenged precisely what Sondland thought he may have known about the status of military assistance to Ukraine – and what factors were in play about its release.
“No one on this planet told you that President Trump was tying aid to investigations. Yes or no?” asked Turner.
“Yes,” replied Sondland.
“So you really have no testimony today that ties President Trump to a scheme to withhold aid from Ukraine in exchange for these investigations?” continued Turner.
“Other than my own presumptions,” answered Sondland.
It wasn’t long after Sondland concluded that more Republicans off Capitol Hill began to muddy the ambassador’s testimony.
“Gordon Sondland never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the President was linking aid to investigations of political opponents. Any suggestion to the contrary is flat out false,” said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
Outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry emerged in the Ukraine affair as one of the “three amigos” who were crafting U.S. policy with Ukraine – potentially beyond the bounds of regular diplomatic channels. The other two “amigos” were Sondland and former envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. But Perry’s team pushed back on Sondland as well.
“Ambassador Sondland’s testimony today misrepresented both Secretary Perry’s interaction with Rudy Giuliani and direction the Secretary received from President Trump,” said Perry spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes. “As previously stated, Secretary Perry spoke to Rudy Giuliani only once at the President’s request. No one else was on that call. At no point before, during or after that phone call did the words ‘Biden’ or ‘Burisma’ ever come up in the presence of Secretary Perry.”
There are problems with Sondland’s testimony. Much of it is predicated on interpretations and perceptions. And, to be fair, Republicans may not really be “smearing” Sondland here. Both sides are fighting to frame their arguments. Like in a court case, GOPers are naturally trying to undercut the credibility of witnesses. Any good counsel would poke holes in testimony, question credibility of the witness and cast doubt.
Before Messrs. Sondland, Perry and Volker rode as the “three amigos,” children of the ‘80s recall a critically-panned, but now cult classic comedy movie titled the “Three Amigos.” The film starred comedy legends Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase. Martin, balladeer Randy Newman and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels wrote the script. But the passing reference to the ‘80s comedy was far from the only pop cultural reference in the impeachment hearings.
Sondland may have lacked concrete information about U.S. Ukraine policy. But what Sondland seemed to remember most from his phone call with President Trump on July 26 from a Kiev restaurant, was discussion of rapper A$AP Rocky. Sondland testified he didn’t initially mention the phone call when House investigators first deposed him in October. But discussion by others about A$AP Rocky jogged his memory.
“That’s the way memory works,” observed Intelligence Committee Democratic Counsel Daniel Goldman.
In fact, Sondland testified that much of his conversation with President Trump centered on the legal status of A$AP Rocky, held by Swedish authorities after an alleged assault.
A$AP Rocky emerged as a fringe figure in the impeachment inquiry after U.S. diplomat to Ukraine David Holmes, lunching that day with Sondland in Kiev, testified that A$AP Rocky’s detention appeared prominently in President Trump’s phone call with the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union.
Holmes told the Intelligence Committee that Sondland said to Mr. Trump “the President of Sweden ‘should have released (A$AP Rocky) on your word,’ but that ‘you can tell the Kardashians you tried.’”
And you thought all President Trump cared about was an investigation of the Bidens.
But, these discussions may have created a special moment in American history. Neither the Kardashians nor A$AP Rocky came up during the impeachment investigations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. However, the historical record is a little unclear as to whether the Kardashians played a side role in the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868.
Congress is out until early December for the Thanksgiving recess. Perhaps the biggest thing to watch now is where public opinion goes over the Thanksgiving recess. Expect lots of debate - and maybe actual arguments about impeachment - at dinner tables over turkey, gravy, stuffing, cornbread and pumpkin pie.
Those Thanksgiving conversations could dictate where impeachment is headed.
And there may even be chatter about A$AP Rocky, too.