What did President Donald Trump know, and when did he know it? According to Gordon Sondland, he knew everything about the Ukraine scheme, and he knew it all along. The U.S. ambassador to the European Union confirmed the core allegations that ignited the impeachment inquiry: that Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani tried to coerce the Ukrainian government into smearing Joe Biden earlier this year when it looked likely that Biden would be Trump’s 2020 opponent.
Sondland’s testimony came during a House Intelligence Committee hearing where Republicans had sought his appearance. That quickly turned out to be a strategic error. “Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelenskiy,” Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election, DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president.”
Sondland also made it clear that he knew Giuliani wasn’t freelancing. “Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the president of the United States,” Sondland said in his opening statement. “We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the president’s orders.”
From testimony offered by Sondland and others, the idea of a “regular channel” and an “irregular channel” for American diplomacy no longer seems like the best way to understand the Ukraine scheme. Instead, think of the key players as planets orbiting a star. Only some light could reach the whistleblower, who sat in the outermost orbit. Further inward were Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams, who listened in to the infamous July 25 phone call where Trump asked Zelenskiy for investigations into Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Then came career diplomats like George Kent and Bill Taylor. Even nearer to the light was Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison, while Gordon Sondland was closer still.
And at the center of this solar system was Trump himself—in Sondland’s telling, radiating his unmistakable desire for the Ukrainian government to meddle in American politics, with Giuliani conveying his message to others as a malign Mercury of sorts. It’s well established that Trump knows to not make his wishes explicit. He fired FBI Director James Comey in 2017 after cryptically asking him to pledge his loyalty and urging him to drop the Michael Flynn investigation. “That’s how he speaks,” Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime legal fixer, told Congress in February. “He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders. He speaks in code. And I understand the code because I’ve been around him for decades.”
The ambassador imploded talking point after talking point from Trump’s supporters. Perhaps the greatest casualty was the already-threadbare claim among conservatives that Trump had a good-faith interest in squelching corruption in Ukraine. This claim is belied by Trump’s singular focus on investigations that happened to benefit him politically. But Sondland also conclusively shut it down. “I never heard anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed,” he told lawmakers. “The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani is that they had to be announced publicly.” Such an announcement would have likely been covered uncritically by American news outlets, giving Trump a valuable political boost against his likeliest 2020 opponent at the time.
Some of Sondland’s testimony ran counter to his closed-door deposition and testimony given by other witnesses. Sondland artfully blamed his “refreshed recollections” on the White House’s stonewalling. “My lawyers and I have made multiple requests to the State Department and the White House for these materials,” he said. “Yet, these materials were not provided to me. They have also refused to share these materials with this committee. These documents are not classified and, in fairness, should have been made available. In the absence of these materials, my memory admittedly has not been perfect.” His well-lawyered assertion made it tricky for House Republicans to challenge the various inconsistencies between his accounts without highlighting that Trump has withheld possible evidence, or making the implicit case that it should be handed over.
There was a vein of fool’s gold in the ambassador’s testimony that gave Trump’s defenders a glimmer of hope. Sondland told lawmakers on Wednesday that while there was clearly a quid pro quo when it came to a White House visit, Trump never personally told him that there was a link between the frozen military aid and the investigations. His assertion hinges on the idea that he didn’t realize Trump and Giuliani’s interest in Burisma Holdings was really about the Bidens, which is dubious at best. (Hunter Biden served on Burisma’s board from 2014 until earlier this year.) But House Republicans jumped on those remarks as vindication for the president. “Case closed,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy wrote on Twitter. “Democrats’ smear campaign is falling apart.” Trump retweeted McCarthy’s message shortly thereafter.
What Sondland did conclude, however, was that such a link existed. “By the end of August, my belief was that if Ukraine did something to demonstrate a serious intention to fight corruption, specifically addressing Burisma and 2016 server, then the hold on military aid would be lifted,” he said in his opening statement. Under questioning, he described it as a “two plus two equals four” conclusion. “If you can’t get a White House meeting without the investigations, what makes you think you’re going to get a $400 million check?” Sondland told Steve Castor, the House GOP counsel, imagining the Ukrainian government’s likely reaction after learning about the military aid freeze on August 28.
Reaching that conclusion requires a level of critical thinking that Trump’s defenders hope Americans don’t possess. House Republicans emphasized Trump’s personal assertion that he didn’t want a quid pro quo, even though the evidence suggests he still sought one. They noted that Trump released the military aid without a Zelenskiy announcement, even though the sequence of events suggests Zelenskiy was about to make one and Trump only relented after someone blew the whistle. Sondland compared the scheme to simple arithmetic. That won’t stop the president and his allies from insisting that two plus two actually equals five.