It was one of those days when the Democrats just couldn’t catch a break. They did have another presidential debate, and a few of them got off cool lines or laid into one of the others quite effectively, but those who watch these debates – political junkies and policy wonks and those who somehow still hope for change – probably didn’t watch this one. Those sorts of people were exhausted, because the Trump impeachment inquiry hearings earlier in the day – ten hours of those – seem to have changed everything once again. And there had been too much drama. Enough is enough.
And the Democratic debate was a bit short on drama. Chris Cillizza, a CNN Editor-at-Large, did post his analysis of the debate winners and losers – with Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang and Kamala Harris and especially Pete Buttigieg the winners, and Joe Biden and Tom Steyer the losers. But he conceded that really doesn’t matter:
Debates are, um, about debating. As in, the candidates talking about where they differ on key issues so that voters are fully informed about the choices before them. That was not what happened in Atlanta on Wednesday night. Instead, the candidates were asked about issues on which they agree totally and completely. What Democratic presidential candidate isn’t going to support impeaching Trump? –Or they were given wide berths to offer essentially practiced stump speeches on issues.
There was nothing new there, and there was little drama. They’ll work this out, and Republicans were smiling. These people nominated a black man for president, and then a woman, and this time they may nominate a gay man – a Rhodes Scholar and combat veteran and a thoughtful good man, but a gay man. Republicans were smiling, but they had just had a bad day too. Their world had kind of exploded.
The unexpected happened. One of Trump’s most loyal operatives turned on him. He had had enough of being used:
A U.S. ambassador on Wednesday explicitly linked President Trump, Vice President Pence and other senior officials to what he came to believe was a campaign to pressure a foreign government to investigate Trump’s political rival in exchange for a coveted White House meeting and hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid.
The potentially historic, if hotly disputed, testimony from U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is the most damaging yet for Trump in Congress’s intensifying inquiry into whether the president should be impeached.
More forcefully than he has before, Sondland declared that the Trump administration would not give Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a chance to visit the White House – unless Zelensky agreed to announce investigations that could help the president politically.
“I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo’?” Sondland said. “With regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
Simply put, he wasn’t going to peddle bullshit any longer. And he was going to burn down the house:
He said after the hearing that he intended to stay in his post. But nearly from the moment his testimony began, it was clear he was ready to cast aspersions not just on the president, but also on the highest-ranking officials in his government.
Sondland acknowledged that he and others were the ones pushing Ukrainians to announce investigations, but asserted they had merely “followed the president’s orders,” communicated through Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani. Sondland testified that top-level officials – including Vice President Pence, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — were made aware at various points of what was happening, and he provided emails to back up his assertions.
“Everyone,” Sondland testified, “was in the loop.”
This was high drama. This was big trouble. This was the response:
In his defense, Trump zeroed in on one favorable, but misleading, part of how Sondland described a September phone call between the two.
Sondland at the time had just received a text message from the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, worried that the White House was conditioning nearly $400 million in aid on the country committing to the investigations targeting Democrats. Sondland later replied in a text message – which became an early piece of evidence submitted in the impeachment inquiry, and a rallying cry for Trump’s defenders – that the president wanted “no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”
Sondland testified last month, and again on Wednesday, that the phrase came directly from Trump in a phone call before he sent the text. Sondland said he had no knowledge of whether the president was telling him the truth at the time, at least with regard to the funding portion of the quid pro quo. Sondland said he had already been involved for weeks in bartering a White House visit for Ukraine as a condition of announcing the investigations.
Trump, nonetheless, focused on the part of the testimony where Sondland said he got the phrase from Trump.
“I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing,” Sondland recalled Trump saying in the phone call.
Trump carried with him handwritten notes of Sondland’s words as he spoke to reporters outside the White House.
So that’s what he chanted. I want nothing. I want nothing. And then he tweeted that out for hours, but there was this:
Sondland testified Wednesday that he wished he’d typed the text differently back in September, using quotation marks to make clear the no quid pro quo phrase had come from Trump. It was “not artfully written,” he said.
In short, he didn’t say that. Trump said that. And none this helped at all:
“We now can see the veneer has been torn away,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters during a break in the testimony, arguing that the situation as described by Sondland “goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery, as well as other potential high crimes or misdemeanors.”
And then things got worse:
In an attempt to bolster that allegation later in the evening, Democrats sought testimony from Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Ukraine, and David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs – who focused particularly on the withheld military aid.
Cooper notably testified that a member of her staff fielded a question on July 25 from a Ukrainian embassy contact about what was happening with the security assistance — a new timeline that raises significant questions for the administration.
This too was big trouble, and this was the response:
Conservatives have asserted that Trump could not have been using a hold on assistance to extort an investigation from Ukraine, because the Ukrainians were not aware of it until much later. Cooper’s account could cast doubt on that – though members of Zelensky’s inner circle have said they didn’t know the aid was withheld until much later.
The White House pushed back, saying: “Simply discussing the aid in no way means they knew it was being withheld!”
But what else could they have been talking about? These guys had been ambushed. Gordon Sondland has ambushed them, and Josh Dawsey and his Washington Post team note how Team Trump fought back:
The bombshell testimony from Sondland alleging that the president attempted to leverage an invite for Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky in exchange for an investigation into his political opponents forced the White House, which was not aware of his testimony in advance, to quickly recalibrate its defense of the president’s actions.
Administration officials immediately sought to emphasize that Sondland was relying in part on his own presumptions based on conversations with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani – an argument echoed by GOP lawmakers later Wednesday – and that Trump himself never personally told Sondland about preconditioning $400 million in military aid to Ukraine or a coveted White House visit on the probes.
Ah, that was Rudy! That wasn’t him! And it was all good. And he really didn’t know this Sondland person:
As he traveled on Air Force One to Texas, Trump called members of the House to argue that the testimony was good for him, according to an aide familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks. Trump also professed to reporters that he had little familiarity with Sondland, a major donor to his inauguration who testified that he had spoken with the president about twenty times.
That was a bit absurd, but no more absurd than this:
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) also downplayed Sondland’s allegation of conditioning a White House visit for Zelensky on an investigation into the Bidens.
“The president can meet with whomever he wants to meet with, and there wasn’t any investigation, was there, of Hunter Biden?” Cornyn said. “It seems to me like they’re stringing together unrelated facts and trying to spin them into a narrative that is a whole lot more sinister than what I think the facts show.”
Added Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), another Trump loyalist in the Senate: “There continue to be this lack of Ukrainians saying they were pressured and lack of evidence that they didn’t get the money, because they did. To me, again, there’s no crime scene.”
Follow the logic. Attempt a crime and fail, and there’s no actual crime to consider. That’s clever, but perhaps not clever enough:
There was some trepidation inside the White House about Sondland’s testimony, which dramatically undercut previous GOP claims while also implicating Vice President Pence and others as aware of Trump’s pressure campaign.
White House aides said Sondland was the most damaging witness so far because he actually had interactions with Trump and described key issues in nefarious terms. Sondland is also wealthy, does not need the job and has no particular loyalty to the president, the officials said.
That may be the most dangerous thing of all, but Dana Milbank sees this:
Given the gravity of what he was about to do, Gordon Sondland seemed oddly relaxed. The ambassador’s lawyer sat at his right elbow, picking at his cuticles and staring straight ahead. But Sondland smiled at the cameras, looked curiously around the room, gave a friendly nod to the chairman and sipped his coffee.
Why so at ease? It was the look of a man about to unburden himself.
And that is what he did:
He knew that President Trump, through personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, required Ukraine’s president to announce investigations into Trump’s political opponent to secure a White House visit, and Sondland believed the same condition applied to nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid.
What’s more: Others knew what was going on, too, he said. Mick Mulvaney. Mike Pompeo. John Bolton. Vice President Pence. And Trump himself. “Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland testified.
And that did change things:
Unloading on his boss and colleagues seemed to energize the ambassador. Under the table, his feet tapped out a steady drum roll as he talked. Others in the administration had testified about the “Gordon Problem” that was interfering with Ukraine policy. Now, the one with a Gordon Problem is Trump.
At the first break in Sondland’s testimony, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the committee’s ranking Republican, turned to the minority counsel, Steve Castor, with a look as though his favorite uncle had died. In the audience, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), one of Trump’s biggest defenders, stroked his forehead as though trying to ease a migraine. Republicans in the audience filtered out. Several Republican members of the panel decamped to a staff room – presumably to revise strategy.
Apparently, the resulting consensus was that Sondland would have to be discredited. “You don’t have records, you don’t have notes, you don’t have a lot of recollections,” Castor later told Sondland. “This is the trifecta of unreliability.”
Alas for Castor, Sondland’s testimony came with incriminating emails and text messages.
And that’s that:
In Sondland, Trump may have met his match. The two hoteliers are both emotional and coarse, and unpredictable and sometimes untruthful, and ultimately disloyal.
And it was like old times again:
Informed that Trump went from calling Sondland “a great American” to somebody “I hardly know,” Sondland laughed. “Easy come, easy go,” he said.
He is a truly Trumpian John Dean.
Max Boot picks that up and runs with it:
Republicans took great comfort in Sondland’s admission that “Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on meetings,” even though he also said “it was abundantly clear there was a link” and no other credible explanation for the aid holdup has ever emerged. Republicans also continued to pretend that Trump did nothing wrong because, after the whistleblower came forward, Trump said, “I want nothing” and the aid to Ukraine — though not a White House meeting — was finally delivered.
Republicans are convinced that 2+2=22.
It was as though Republicans had demanded of Dean: Did you hear Nixon order the Watergate break-in? Did Nixon ever explicitly say that he wanted you to commit “obstruction of justice”? Did Nixon succeed in stopping the investigation? And then they used Dean’s negative answers to exonerate Nixon.
What we are learning is that it’s much easier to document a president’s crimes than to get his party to give a damn.
But that’s nothing new:
In fact, it wasn’t easy even during Watergate. Dean’s revelations were met with blanket denials from the White House (which claimed that Dean was the “mastermind” of the cover-up without Nixon’s knowledge) and skepticism from Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress. “What makes you think that your credibility is greater than that of the president, who denies what you have said?” Sen. Herman E. Talmadge, a segregationist Democrat from Georgia, asked Dean.
Nixon did not resign for more than a year after Dean’s testimony because it took that long to prove the president was lying.
But things move much faster now, and Gail Collins suggests this:
Everything’s going wrong for the White House right now. We just had a Trump-appointed ambassador telling the impeachment hearing that there was indeed a quid pro quo in Ukraine, and everybody knew it.
Most of the Democrats’ witnesses seem both sympathetic and believable. The Republicans produced a diplomat who instantly started telling the room what a terrific, honorable guy Joe Biden is.
So there’s only one thing to do:
Trump’s aides have presumably figured out that making fun of embattled public servants or Purple Heart recipients is not going to pay off.
Why not just blame everything on Rudy? It wouldn’t change the trajectory of the story, but it would cheer up everybody’s Thanksgiving dinner.
And it’s fair. When it comes to bad news in Ukraine, Rudy Giuliani is everywhere. Some of our diplomats seem to see much more of the president’s personal lawyer than they do of the secretary of state.
“Talk to Rudy,” Trump told a delegation that had just returned from Ukraine.
“I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call,” he said in that famous July 25 conversation with Zelensky. And it goes on and on.
And everyone hates the guy:
Sondland said he, former envoy Kurt Volker and Rick Perry “worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the president of the United States. We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. … We followed the president’s orders.”
Sondland said the Trump amigos hated working with Giuliani, but he was the only person who could get President Zelensky a meeting at the White House. The diplomats who testified really did seem concerned about helping Ukraine out.
And that should seal the deal:
If Trump wants to change the conversation for a minute, he should definitely turn on Giuliani. Almost everybody has come to realize how horrible Rudy is, although some innocent souls remember him from his glory days running New York City after 9/11.
“I only know him as New York’s finest mayor,” said Alexander Vindman, a rather sweet, nerdy military officer who served as one of the stars of the week in Washington. Irritated Republicans looking for a way to undermine his testimony had to stoop to criticizing the lieutenant colonel for wearing his uniform.
Vindman had clearly not heard about Giuliani’s decision, before the attack, to put the city’s emergency command center into the already-bombed-once World Trade Center because he wanted it to be within walking distance of City Hall. Or his nine million sexual escapades, which have dwindled from sort-of-shocking to really-really-depressing as he’s aged and gone more untethered.
So, dump the guy already:
This story is never going to start looking better for Donald Trump. Ukraine will follow him everywhere – through impeachment, into the Senate hearings, and if nothing saves us from the fate, on to the 2020 campaign.
And we all know our president will never blame himself for anything. So why not Rudy? At least we’d get rid of one awful self-obsessed New Yorker in the White House.
But that won’t fix anything. Dan Drezner, that professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts explains why:
Former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker testified at the House impeachment inquiry Tuesday, and it was an interesting high-wire act. In his opening statement, Volker had to acknowledge his naiveté on certain matters directly related to his Ukraine portfolio, like why President Trump was so fixated on investigating Burisma. As he put it: “I now understand that others saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company, Burisma, as equivalent to investigating former vice president Biden. In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections.”
Despite his proclaimed lack of knowledge at the time, Volker knew something was rotten in U.S. policy toward Ukraine. In his testimony, he explained that he thought he could reconcile official U.S. policy on Ukraine with whatever Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani was doing: “What I was trying to do in working with the Ukrainians was to thread a needle.”
The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer characterized it as an “incredible metaphor for the entire conservative establishment’s relationship to the rise of Donald Trump – we know what this horrible thing is, but maybe we can make it another thing that isn’t so horrible – and of course they can’t.”
Volker slowly and then suddenly realized what was really going on and tried to make something good come out of the bad, but there was no way to do that.
The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser explains that this way:
The myth of the “adults in the room” has persisted since the beginning of the Administration, but it has never been accurate. There is no managing Donald Trump, no way to preserve one’s integrity while doing what is necessary to remain powerful in his orbit. Look at what happened to Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis and John Kelly. Trump is a government of one. He himself has said so repeatedly. Early in his Administration, under criticism for leaving key posts open at the State Department, Trump said that, when it comes to foreign policy, “I am the only one that matters.” At the time, less than a year into his presidency, perhaps that could have been dismissed as hyperbole. Certainly, it would have been surprising to hear members of Congress publicly agreeing that the entire rest of the government – themselves and their own branch included – was irrelevant. Yet that is more or less where the impeachment process has ended up.
Several of the witnesses in the impeachment inquiry found that out, to their dismay. Volker is perhaps the clearest example of this. Volker thought that he could handle the problem of Trump’s attitude toward Ukraine by engaging with the source of the “negative information flow” – Giuliani. Others in the Administration considered this folly and warned him that it was not feasible to “thread the needle,” as Volker termed it in his testimony. Yet he tried, awkwardly insisting that he had no idea that Trump actually wanted Zelensky to investigate Biden, as opposed to more generic “corruption” in Ukraine. Volker said that he had been out of the loop on the key conversations that would have revealed that motive. When he met Giuliani at the Trump International Hotel in Washington for breakfast, in July, Volker acknowledged that Giuliani did bring up Biden and that Volker tried to talk him out of it.
It did not work.
Still, Drezner argues, there may be reasons to stick around and keep trying:
Trump’s foreign policy has metastasized from bad to worse in recent months. Fighting the good fight, even while losing, might be the useful Dunkirk option in response to the Toddler in Chief – saving what can be saved in the face of overwhelming force. A wholesale exodus of policymakers would make the situation worse, not better.
But there’s a problem with that too:
The key difference now is that anyone still serving, or considering serving, needs to be completely prepared to resign or be fired. Rear Adm. Collin Green, the commander of the Navy’s SEAL force, for example, might be setting the template for what is to come. According to the New York Times’s Dave Philipps, despite Trump’s pardon of SEAL members in war crimes cases, Green will strip the convicted chief petty officer of his membership in the commando unit, which demonstrates the depth of the military’s opposition to Trump’s interference in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
This is exactly the kind of public defiance that will enrage Trump and lead to a reversal of these orders and punitive action against Green. He seems prepared to shoulder that burden.
That is the wager that any honorable person serving in this administration needs to be prepared to make.
And that would make Gordon Sondland an honorable person. He seems like a big goofball, but he did do the honorable thing. He told the truth. That’ll do for now.