When Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, became embroiled in the Trump-Ukraine scandal last month, the President of the United States had his back. Sondland, a wealthy hotelier who earned his post with a $1 million donation to the president's inauguration fund, is a "good man and a great American," Trump opined, praising Sondland's confident text-message assertions that Trump never made any impeachable quid pro quo demands of the Ukrainian government.
On Wednesday, Sondland flipped, telling House impeachment investigators that there was, in fact, a "quid pro quo," and that presidential attorney Rudy Giuliani made clear to him that Trump wanted Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, and conditioned a White House invitation on Zelensky's compliance. After he learned that the administration froze U.S. military aid to Ukraine, Sondland added, he reasoned that the money was also at stake. This testimony directly implicates the president in an international extortion scheme, and obliterated a pillar of the Republican Party's various zealous defenses of its embattled leader. In response, Trump flipped, too, walking out on the White House lawn and professing ignorance as to Sondland's very existence.
Dramatic reversal aside, the most striking aspect of Sondland's appearance was how many big-name administration officials he implicated in the conspiracy scheme. On July 19, he e-mailed an encouraging report of his behind-the-scenes talks with Zelensky about a phone call between the two presidents, stating that Zelensky was prepared to "assure [Trump] that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will 'turn over every stone.'" The recipients of this e-mail included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, among others. Mulvaney even responded that he'd set up the call. "Everyone was in the loop," Sondland said. "It was no secret."
Sondland told lawmakers that he didn't want to include Giuliani in shaping U.S.-Ukraine policy, but given Trump's explicit instructions to do so, he felt as if he had no other choice. "I believed then, as I do now, that the men and women of the State Department, not the President’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for Ukraine matters," he said. However, Sondland emphasized that Giuliani's efforts to extract Ukraine's cooperation were not a secret within the White House, and that Sondland kept Pompeo and then-National Security Advisor John Bolton, among others, informed on their progress throughout the negotiating process. "They knew what we were doing and why," he said.
After Sondland began suspecting that the Trump administration had tied the foreign aid to the Biden investigation announcement, he asked Pompeo if Zelensky's provision of assurances to Trump that he'd "move forward...on those issues of importance to [Trump]" might "break the logjam." Pompeo, who listened in on the July 25 call and thus already aware of Trump's demands, simply replied, "Yes."
Even Vice President Mike Pence made an appearance in Sondland's account, when the diplomat said he voiced his concerns about the frozen aid in a private conversation between the two men.
Later, Sondland again characterized the State Department as "fully supportive" of his work. Among the receipts he brought were e-mails from senior State Department officials and their staffers, seemingly encouraging him every step of the way.
Under questioning from lawmakers, Sondland suggested that as Cabinet members, Mulvaney and Pompeo were perhaps better informed about the president's wishes than was Sondland himself. "A lot of people were aware of it," he told House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff. "I didn't know that the aid was conclusively tied [up]. I was presuming. [Mulvaney] was in a position to say yes it was or no it wasn't." And as Schiff noted, Mulvaney already admitted that the administration decided to hold the aid hostage—in public, actually, during a press conference last month. (He later walked it back.)
Pompeo declined to answer questions about Sondland's testimony on Wednesday, telling reporters that he was "working" and "in meetings" therefore "didn't see a single thing today." A State Department spokesperson, however, denied that Sondland told the Secretary of State that Trump was "linking aid to investigations of political opponents," according to the Washington Post. Meanwhile, a Pence spokesperson asserted that the alleged Pence-Sondland conversation in Poland "never happened." Of course, this is not the same as Pence saying so under oath.
The allegation that multiple Cabinet members knew of or were complicit in this diplomatic shakedown is a serious one, and the simplest way to test it would be to hear from the implicated individuals themselves. The Trump White House, however, has prevented that from taking place: As Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman noted, Perry and Mulvaney have refused to testify, as has Perry's former chief of staff, Brian McCormack, and a top Mulvaney aide, Robert Blair. Bolton has expressed a willingness to participate, but only if a court orders him to do so. "Would you include them, as well as Secretary Pompeo, as key witnesses that would be able to provide some additional information?" Goldman asked. "I think they would," Sondland answered.
Similarly, Sondland blamed his occasionally-spotty recollections on the State Department barring him from accessing many of his official files. As a self-described non-notetaker, he said, such access "would have been very helpful to me in trying to reconstruct with whom I spoke and met, when, and what was said." When confirming the details of a certain phone call, he pointedly stated that he could do so only because the White House "finally shared certain call dates and times with my attorneys." Sondland added there are still documents he hasn't been able to obtain from the State Department, functionally stopping him from providing as much information as he otherwise could.
Of the witnesses who have testified during the impeachment inquiry's public phase thus far, Sondland is the one who was closest to Trump himself. During and after the hearing, North Carolina congressman Mark Meadows was one of many Republicans who seized on the fact that Trump never personally told Sondland about any military aid quid pro quo, treating this fact as if it exonerated the president all by itself.
As a threshold matter, Meadows's conclusion is more than a little silly, since people don't need to admit to every detail of a crime to every person in their orbit in order for a crime to take place. Or, as Sondland put it, "When the president says, 'Talk to my personal attorney,' and then Mr. Giuliani as his personal attorney makes certain requests or demands, we assume it's coming from the president."
But setting aside the question of who told Sondland what, exactly, his testimony makes clear that the plot to extort Zelensky was not some sort of rogue Sondland-Giuliani operation. Instead, it took place with the knowledge and endorsement of Cabinet-level officials and members of their staffs—relevant witnesses whom the White House is now trying to prevent from testifying under oath. Going forward, their reluctance to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry will look a lot like obstruction of justice.
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Originally Appeared on GQ