House Democrats ponder expanding impeachment probe after Sondland 'game changer' testimony

WASHINGTON — Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s explosive testimony Wednesday that “everyone was in the loop” on President Trump’s efforts to secure an investigation of a political rival prompted rank-and-file Democrats to discuss whether it was time to expand their probe.

Sondland testified in minute detail — down to the names of staffers and code words used internally to identify officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — how Vice President Mike Pence, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, former national security advisor John Bolton and others knew the intimate details of Trump’s plans.

“Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Georgia Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson described the testimony as a “smoking gun,” and Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee called it a “game changer.”

Kildee said it was time for Democrats to think about expanding their probe: “We should at least call the witnesses he indicated were in the loop. That would include Mr. Mulvaney, Mr. Pompeo, for sure.”

Sondland’s testimony added a flash of drama to impeachment hearings that, until Wednesday, had been fairly dry — filled with incredible detail of Trump’s efforts to coax an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but lacking the high drama that Sondland provided.

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is sworn in to testify before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 20, 2019. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a Massachusetts Democrat and scion of the Kennedy family, said Sondland’s testimony made clear that Democrats can’t let officials like Pompeo, Mulvaney and Pence off the hook.

“There’s very few of my Republican colleagues who are disputing the facts of this case. Like, none. And if there were any, I think they’re going to have an awfully hard time doing so after what we just heard from Ambassador Sondland,” Kennedy told Yahoo News on Wednesday.

“In my view, what happened here is a textbook case of extortion, and I think that anybody who conspired with the president to engage in this criminal act should be looked at as well,” said Rep. Filemon Vela, a Texas Democrat.

But Republicans quickly ripped Sondland, questioning the veracity of his testimony. Trump’s EU ambassador had testified in his private deposition that he had no recollection of a quid pro quo by Trump, seeking an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter in return for military assistance. But Sondland later amended his closed-door deposition to change course and say there was a quid pro quo.

“I think he’s concerned about his own perjury, honestly. I think his attorney is concerned about his own hide,” Rep. Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, told Yahoo News.

Rep. Ron Estes, a Kansas Republican, laughed and said, “There’s maybe some fuzziness in his recollection of what he did say.”

House Republican leaders have strived to keep their members on message, attacking the impeachment process but not the witnesses themselves, particularly following Trump’s own tweets berating witnesses.

Senior House Republicans limited their criticism of Sondland on Wednesday, and instead focused their fire on Democrats.

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland gives his opening statement as he testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
Sondland gives his opening statement to the committee. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, the president on these phone calls could have handled some of it a little bit better.’ It’s another thing to jump all the way to accuse the president of treasonous behavior or high crimes,” said Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, a former chair of the House Republican Study Committee and vice chair of the House Republican Conference.

Over the course of more than six hours of testimony Wednesday, Sondland explained in sharp detail how he had talked about Trump, Ukraine and the military aid with senior White House officials.

Sondland testified that he had alerted Pence ahead of a Sept. 1 meeting with Zelensky about his “concerns” that the military aid was being tied to investigations. Sondland said Pence only nodded when Sondland alerted him.

But Pence’s office quickly denied Sondland’s account, in a rare statement regarding his own involvement in the Ukraine scandal. “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 investigations,” Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, said in a statement. “This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat and one of the lawmakers who will draw up the articles of impeachment after the public hearings, stood awestruck in his office Wednesday as he started watching Sondland’s testimony.

“I think this testimony will be explosive,” Raskin told Yahoo News just as Wednesday’s hearing opened. “I think we have all the evidence we need.”

Raskin suggested that calling in additional witnesses as part of an expanded probe might be unnecessary.

“It would obviously be great to hear from the people who are the direct perpetrators of the scheme. But we’ve heard from Sondland, and we’ve heard from [former U.S. diplomat to Ukraine Kurt] Volker, and we’ve heard from direct participants and eyewitnesses to everything that happened,” he said. “There’s no alternative account of everything that happened out there. That’s pretty clear evidence, and we’re not going to allow the president to drag this out for months and months.”

But even with Sondland’s stunning appearance, Democrats face the same time crunch for their impeachment probe. A Democratic source close to House leadership said they still expected to keep the probe tightly focused on Trump.

“It makes it very clear, the quid pro quo is there, the use of taxpayer money, and the use of the power of the United States to get the investigation of a political rival is there,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, a longtime California Democrat and ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “I think we all knew it. Now it’s signed, sealed and delivered.”


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