Impeachment Briefing: What Happened in Sondland’s Hearing

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It was a pivotal day in the impeachment investigation, as an ambassador detailed what he said was a clear quid pro quo directed by President Trump. Here’s a recap of the big moments.

Who testified?

In the morning session, we heard from Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who delivered extraordinary testimony implicating Mr. Trump and a group of top officials. Mr. Sondland, a wealthy hotelier who donated $1 million to Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee, was a leading figure in what witnesses have called the “second channel” of foreign policy that was carrying out the objectives of Mr. Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

In the evening session, we heard from Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, and David Hale, the State Department’s No. 3 official.

What were the highlights?

“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?” Mr. Sondland said in his opening statement. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Mr. Sondland rejected the idea that he was involved in “rogue diplomacy,” and said that some major figures who have largely kept clear of the Ukraine matter were fully aware of the president’s demands, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Everyone was in the loop,” he said. “It was no secret.”

Mr. Sondland said he did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani, but had to listen to him as a proxy. “I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the president of the United States,” he said, later adding, “We all understood that these prerequisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements.”

Mr. Sondland was careful to say that he did not know whether the nearly $400 million in frozen military aid was explicitly part of Mr. Trump’s quid pro quo demands. “President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on the investigations,” Mr. Sondland said under questioning. “The aid was my own personal guess based, again, on your analogy: two plus two equals four.”

Mr. Sondland said that for Mr. Trump, it seemed more important that Ukrainian officials announce that they were investigating Democrats than for them to actually follow through, undercutting Republican arguments that the president wanted to fight corruption. He said he never heard “anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed.”

In testimony that stretched late into the evening, Ms. Cooper also made some news: She testified that the Ukrainian Embassy was in touch with her staff about “what was going on” with military aid on July 25, the day of Mr. Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president. That’s about a month earlier than Ukraine was previously known to be aware that the aid had been withheld.

If you want to go deeper, here’s our full story on the day’s events, the scene inside the hearing room, Mr. Sondland’s opening statement and Ms. Cooper’s opening statement.

‘Everyone was in the loop’

Here’s just some of the evidence Mr. Sondland presented today that shows how Mr. Trump and his top advisers knew about the pressure campaign waged on Ukraine.

President Trump

Mr. Sondland said he had about 20 conversations with Mr. Trump. Here, Mr. Sondland describes one of them, a call on which Mr. Trump asked about whether Ukraine was ready to announce an investigation.

Vice President Mike Pence

Mr. Sondland claims he told Mr. Pence ahead of a September meeting he had with Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, of his concerns about tying military aid to an announcement of investigations, something that Mr. Pence’s chief of staff denied today.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Mr. Sondland said he emailed Mr. Pompeo directly in August to ask whether he should make time for Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky to meet face-to-face in Warsaw, where the Ukrainian president would tell Mr. Trump that he would soon be able to publicly announce investigations. Mr. Pompeo responded, “Yes.”

Mick Mulvaney, acting chief of staff

Six days before the infamous July 25 call, Mr. Sondland emailed Mr. Mulvaney and his top aide, Robert Blair, to say that Mr. Zelensky was prepared to tell Mr. Trump on the phone that he would conduct a thorough “investigation” and then release an innocuous recap of the call with “no details.” Mr. Mulvaney responded that he asked for the call to be done the next day.

Sondland’s credibility issue

A Republican staff lawyer said today that Mr. Sondland displayed a “trifecta of unreliability.” A Democratic congressman accused him of being forthcoming only on his third try, after he had to revise his original testimony.

I asked my colleague Michael Crowley, who has written about Mr. Sondland, why his credibility was questioned by both sides.

Michael, why is Mr. Sondland’s “reliability” a problem here?

MICHAEL: Mr. Sondland is the only witness to substantially change his story, and he changed it dramatically. What’s more, he shifted his story in a self-exculpatory way, apparently designed to avoid becoming a fall guy. That could indicate a motive to shade the truth. He’s struggled to recall some key events, said he hasn’t been given access to all his phone records, emails and other documents, and admitted that he’s not much of a note-taker.

Why does he present problems for Republicans and Democrats?

MICHAEL: For Democrats, it’s because he’s changed his story. Any lawyer will tell you that is deadly for all your testimony. It contaminates everything you say, past, present and future. That’s a problem for Democrats in a fact-finding position.

For Republicans, it’s because he risks doing serious damage to the president. That’s why Republicans on the committee pounced on the way Mr. Sondland’s opening statement did not mention the call he had with Mr. Trump in which Mr. Trump told him there was “no quid pro quo.” It’s also why they have focused on what Mr. Sondland said was his “presumption” of what the president wanted, instead of what they believe were Mr. Trump’s real intentions.

What else we’re reading

“Ready?” Mr. Trump yelled at reporters on the South Lawn this afternoon. “Do you have the cameras rolling?” He then began reading from a notepad of talking points, scrawled in Sharpie, paraphrasing what he said were his comments in a phone conversation with Mr. Sondland: “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”

For Mr. Pompeo, who has long tried to portray himself as balancing loyalty to Mr. Trump with defending the traditional security interests of the United States, Mr. Sondland’s testimony may be a career-endangering blow.

The F.B.I. tried to interview the anonymous whistle-blower who helped ignite the impeachment inquiry, several people familiar with the matter said. The interview never took place, and it is not clear why agents wanted to talk to him.

The Washington Post found the menu at the trendy restaurant where Mr. Sondland says he called Mr. Trump, which includes an appetizer of black caviar with pancakes that costs $70.

Vladimir Putin weighed in on the impeachment inquiry today. “Thank God,” the Russian president said, “no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore; now they’re accusing Ukraine.”

Who’s on deck

Tomorrow’s star witness is Fiona Hill, Mr. Trump’s former top adviser on Russia and Europe, whose closed-door testimony included a riveting scene in which she tried to prevent Mr. Sondland from pressuring Ukraine into an investigation.

Investigators also plan to question David Holmes, an official in the American Embassy in Ukraine who testified about overhearing Mr. Sondland’s July 26 phone call with Mr. Trump.

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