Ignore the theatrics and stunts — key witness testimony keeps confirming the damning truth about Trump
Ambassador William Taylor has more than 50 years of public service, ranging from being a West Point graduate and Vietnam vet to decades of State Department experience that includes a stint as ambassador to Ukraine under George W. Bush. Gordon Sondland is a wealthy hotel magnate who got his plum role as ambassador to the European Union the old-fashioned way: He gave a $1 million contribution to Donald Trump’s inaugural slush fund. Both men were involved in the relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine over the last year. Both men have now testified before the House impeachment inquiry. And the difference between the stories these two men tell is a growing chasm between Trump surviving his impeachment and even Republicans signing on to bring in the moving vans.
What’s interesting isn’t just that one of them reported that Donald Trump was pressuring the Ukrainians to announce investigations into Joe Biden and conspiracy theories around the 2016 election. In fact, they both told that story. Denying it would have been difficult for Sondland, since in published texts he had gone as far as offering to write a script for the Ukrainian president to be sure the announcement touched on all the points Trump wanted.
Frankly, that’s all that’s required for impeachment. Trump was pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations for the purpose of generating a political gain for Trump. That’s directly soliciting a foreign power to interfere in a U.S. election. And with Trump sweeping in a whole team to direct the effort, there’s no problem adding the word “conspiracy” to that effort. On those charges, it doesn’t even seem that Trump has an argument. It doesn’t matter what other deal was in the works.
At the same time, there is absolutely no doubt that Trump was withholding funds from Ukraine. Because … he was withholding those funds. Trump has admitted as much himself, and provided a series of excuses for it, including saying that he was doing so because of concern about “corruption” in Ukraine.
The tiny, tiny piece of ground where Republicans are now fighting—and where Taylor and Sondland disagree—is whether the Ukrainian leadership had direct knowledge that Trump was withholding military aid until it provided the announcement he wanted. And on this point the Republicans are dead wrong. What Ukraine knew does not matter at all.
In his testimony, Sondland admitted that he knew Trump was refusing to speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky until Zelensky agreed to announce investigations. The only thing that Sondland did not give up in his testimony was that he knew that Trump was also withholding military aid. But that’s where his statements are absolutely undermined by Taylor. Taylor makes it clear that not only was he aware of Trump’s actions in withholding the aid, but he knew Trump was withholding the aid until he got the announcements he wanted. And, Taylor testified, he learned this information from Sondland, and had at least two discussions with him on the subject.
That’s all that’s needed to establish an attempt to extort Ukraine. Whether President Zelensky or other Ukrainian officials understood what Trump and his team were trying to do does not matter at all. And even if it did … they knew. Zelensky reportedly complained about the pressure from Trump even before he took office, and he was certainly aware that the military aid was delayed, and for the most obvious reason: He did not have the military aid.
Soliciting foreign interference in a U.S. election is a sure thing. A conspiracy to solicit that interference is a sure thing. Abuse of power in delaying the military aid is a sure thing. Extortion related to that delay is a sure thing.
None of that requires that Ukraine knew. Even though it did.
What’s interesting is that, in his testimony, even Sondland clearly sought to draw a line that put him in with the diplomatic professionals, leaving Trump and Giuliani on the other side. He didn’t own up to talking Ukrainian officials into the White House basement to threaten them in Trump’s name—which he did—but he seemed almost desperate to paint himself as someone done in by interference from the real outsiders, namely Giuliani and his now-indicted “associates.”
The Washington Post is reporting that in the wake of Taylor’s testimony and the release of his opening statement, Sondland has developed the most reliable feature of a guilty party—an unreliable memory. He simply can’t recall if he told the Ukrainians about the military aid being withheld. After all, that was all the way back in … this summer. However, even in making that statement, Sondland is launching boat anchors (plural) at the White House
“Sondland does not recall any conversation in Warsaw concerning the aid cutoff,” said the ambassador’s attorney. “Although he understood that the Ukrainians were, by then, certainly aware of the cutoff and raised the issue directly with Pence.”
He can’t remember if he told them. But they knew. And he told them to talk to … Pence. That’s a nice move. Sondland’s testimony is all about saving Sondland, because it’s clear to him and everyone else involved that there’s no saving Trump.