Sondland’s testimony could be trouble for Trump

The Boston Globe 2 weeks ago

WASHINGTON — Two plus two equals trouble for President Trump.

The House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry produced its most-anticipated witness, an amiable hotelier-turned-diplomat, and he provided, in the vernacular of the Ukraine controversy, the “deliverable.”

Gordon Sondland, the Trump-appointed ambassador to the European Union, testified Wednesday that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine.

“Everyone was in the loop,” he said of top administration officials. “It was no secret.”

In a day that saw Sondland alternatively eccentric and riveting, Democrats zeroed in on his account of what they see as a damning quid pro quo. They wanted to learn what he knew about the hold the Trump administration put on nearly $400 million in military aid for Ukraine in exchange for a request the country's leader launch investigations that would help Trump politically.

Sondland admitted his memory was faulty at times. But he said there was a clear quid pro quo.

“Is this kind of a two-plus-two-equals-four conclusion you reached?” the Democrats’ counsel, Daniel Goldman, asked Sondland.

“Pretty much,” Sondland responded with a bemused look.

A lanky Oregonian, Sondland is the fulcrum of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry, the pivot point between the public witnesses who had no direct contact with Trump and the top administration officials who did but aren’t being allowed to testify by the White House.

But during a nearly seven -hour hearing, Sondland frequently described having trouble deciphering the administration’s Ukraine policy, forcing him to make his own conclusions. His testimony sent an impeachment controversy that has centered around a Latin phrase back to basic first-grade arithmetic.

“In mathematic fact, two plus two does equal four,” said Representative Brad Wenstrup, a Republican from Ohio. “But in reality, two presumptions plus two presumptions does not equal even one fact.”

Sondland, 62, was an unlikely star witness for Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry. A lifelong Republican megadonor, Sondland did not have any diplomatic experience before landing the ambassador’s job in Brussels.

In a lengthy opening statement, he told committee members that his parents had come to the United States after fleeing Germany during the Holocaust. He said the White House and State Department told him not to appear before the committee. But after giving the committee 10 hours of closed-door testimony, he took a seat in front of the TV cameras in a large hearing room across from the Capitol.

“I agreed to testify because I respect the gravity of the moment and believe I have an obligation to account fully for my role in these events,” he said.

But the historic nature of the moment didn’t weigh him down. Sondland appeared relaxed, confident and occasionally a bit goofy. His testimony included several mentions of rapper A$AP Rocky, the disclosure that he and Trump communicated with “a lot of four-letter words,” and even the nostalgic acknowledgment that “I remember the first girl I kissed.”

Sondland admitted his memory on more recent facts was not quite as good. But he recalled his efforts to figure out who was calling the shots on Ukraine, an important US ally in a conflict with Russia.

He testified that about the only clear directive from Trump to him and other officials last spring looking to secure a White House meeting between Trump and newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was that they would have to “talk with Rudy.”

Over the next several months, the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, would tell Sondland that such a meeting would not happen unless Zelensky agreed to publicly announce that he would investigate the Ukrainian gas company that employed Hunter Biden and a now debunked theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

By early September, with no meeting in sight and Trump now withholding $400 million in foreign aid to Ukraine, Sondland said he grew so exasperated that he picked up the phone and called Trump with an open-ended question: “What do you want?”

“I want nothing, I want no quid pro quo,” an irritable Trump told him in a brief conversation, Sondland testified. But Trump added another command: “Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”

Career diplomats so far have painted an urgent scramble of efforts to rebuild a relationship between Zelensky and Trump. Some said that an “irregular channel” on Ukraine policy opened shortly after Sondland, then-special envoy Kurt Volker, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney briefed Trump in May after their return from Zelensky’s inauguration. Sondland said Trump did not share their enthusiasm for the new president and urged them to talk to Giuliani.

“If we wanted to get anything done with Ukraine, it was apparent to us we needed to talk to Rudy,” Sondland said.

Sondland said it became “abundantly clear” to him and others that the White House meeting — and the release of the military aid — might be contingent on Zelensky agreeing to make the public announcement.

“I don’t recall President Trump ever talking to me about any security assistance ever,” Sondland told Goldman. “The aid was my own personal, you know, guess based on your analogy — two plus two equals four.”

Sondland was not an early Trump backer, putting his money behind Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican primary. But after Trump’s election, Sondland contributed $1 million to his inauguration. That helped Sondland secure a coveted ambassador position in Western Europe.

But on Wednesday, Trump sought to distance himself from Sondland even while praising his testimony as an exoneration. “I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much,” Trump told reporters. “This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though.”

Told during the hearing that Trump had said he hardly knew him, Sondland responded, “Easy come, easy go.”

Throughout his testimony, the most consequential witness to publicly testify in the impeachment inquiry seemed unfazed, and in a bit of a rush. Sondland frequently glanced at the clock on the wall, worried about catching a flight back to Brussels.

Pressed on his difficulty recalling some details, Sondland said he was not and had never been “a note taker or a memo writer.”

“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,” said Steve Castor, the counsel for committee Republicans. “I mean this is the like the trifecta of unreliability, isn’t that true?”

“What I’m trying to do today is use the limited information I have to be as forthcoming as possible with you and the rest of the committee,” Sondland said. “And as these recollections have been refreshed by subsequent testimony by some texts and e-mails that I’ve now had access to, I think I’ve filled in a lot of blanks.”

Globe correspondent Ryan Wangman contributed to this report. Reach Jazmine Ulloa at or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa

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