UPDATE, 1:05 PM PT: The public gallery watching Wednesday’s impeachment hearing gave it a cinematic climax – they stood and applauded after Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) concluded the session with a lengthy statement explaining why Gordon Sondland’s testimony was “deeply significant and troubling.”
His voice rising, Schiff pushed back on Republican defenses of the president, particularly on their claim that he did nothing wrong because in the end, Ukraine got U.S. aid.
“Getting caught is no defense – not to a violation of the Constitution, or to a violation of his oath of office. And it certainly doesn’t give us reason to ignore our oath of office.”
Republicans have claimed that there is no there there in the impeachment inquiry – in part because Ukraine got its U.S. aid, even though the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, never announced an investigation of the Bidens or the 2016 election.
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“I do not believe that the president would allow himself to be led by the nose by Rudy Giuliani, or Ambassador Sondland, or anybody else. I think the president was the one who would decide whether the meeting would happen, or whether the aid would be lifted.”
PREVIOUSLY, 10:04 AM PT: As news outlets characterized Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony as the most dramatic so far in the impeachment inquiry, Republicans launched a counter-offense.
They keyed in on Sondland’s testimony that President Donald Trump never directly told him that foreign aid to Ukraine would be held up until Ukraine made a public statement about launching an investigation of the 2016 election and Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company where Hunter Biden served on the board.
“I did not hear directly from President Trump that the aid would be held up until the statement was made,” he said. He said that it was he who “came to believe” that aid was being held up until such an announcement was made.
Rep. Mike Turner (R-TX) practically was shouting as he accused Sondland of providing “confusing” testimony that has led to media outlets to claim that he had linked Trump to an impeachable offense.
“So you really have no testimony today that ties President Trump to a scheme to withhold aid from Ukraine in exchange for these investigations,” Turner asked Sondland.
“Other than my own presumption,” Sondland replied.
“Which is nothing,” Turner shot back.
But Sondland has been adamant that there was a quid pro quo, and has testified that Rudy Giuliani sought investigations in exchange for a meeting between Trump and Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky.
Steve Castor, the Republican counsel, questioned Sondland’s reliability.
“You don’t have records. You don’t have notes. You don’t have a lot of recollections. This is like the trifecta of unreliability. Isn’t that true?”
“I think I filled in a lot of blanks,” he said. Sondland said that the State Department and the White House had refused to provide records, emails and documents to he or his lawyer, or to the Intelligence Committee.
Castor later grilled Sondland over a September conversation he had with Trump. In that phone call, Sondland said that he asked Trump what he wanted from Ukraine. “I want nothing,” Trump said, insisted that there was “no quid pro quo.” “I want Zelensky to do the right thing,” Trump said, according to Sondland.
Asked why he did not include that conversation with Trump in his 19-page opening statement, Sondland said, “It was not purposeful. Trust me.” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), whose questioning has been at several decibels higher than most other lawmakers, sounded incredulous as he asked Sondland about the omission.
Trump’s defenders are keying in on that conversation in their defense of the president.
“Democrats’ smear campaign is falling apart,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) wrote on Twitter.
But the September call came after a whistleblower had filed a complaint over Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky. The whistleblower also expressed concerns over the reasons to withhold aid from Ukraine. And by then, the White House was aware of the whistleblower complaint.
Trump made brief remarks to reporters, his notes visible to cameras. On them, he had written notes, “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo.”
PREVIOUSLY, 7:22 AM PT: The House impeachment inquiry continued on Wednesday with a star witness — Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union who, in his opening statement, largely fulfilled the media buildup: He turned on Donald Trump, in that he confirmed that there was indeed a “quid pro quo.”
Some, like attorney George Conway, called his testimony a “John Dean” moment — the one that so many news commentators have been saying this impeachment hearing lacks.
But Trump’s defenders are likely to spend much of the day trying to poke holes in Sondland’s testimony. The Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have been solidly loyal to the president in their public pronouncements, blasting the hearings as a circus, even minimizing their impact with a Trump-esque claim of low ratings. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) said that the inquiry was the work of “partisan extremists,” and said that it was an “absurdity” that the president engaged in an impeachable offense.
As Sondland took his seat at the crescent-shaped witness table, dozens of photographers and reporters surrounded him, as he drank a glass of water and chatted a bit with his lawyer and the sound of cameras clicking overpowering the room for several minutes. In contrast to the witnesses so far, Sondland is a political appointee, i.e. an ambassador who came from the ranks of Trump’s large donors, not the foreign service. His access to Trump at key moments made him this week’s star witness, as he talked directly to Trump at key moments in the Ukraine timeline.
News networks built up the testimony as one of the inquiry’s most important moments, if not the most important. On Fox News, commentator Ken Starr said that Sondland’s testimony had the potential to be a “game changer.” After Sondland gave his opening statement, Starr predicted that Democrats would draw up articles of impeachment. “This obviously has been one of those bombshell days,” he said.
One quote stood out in Sondland testimony, as when he said that administration officials and diplomats were aware of what was going on. That included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then-National Security Adviser John Bolton and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. He even suggested that Vice President Mike Pence may have had some knowledge of the demands for investigations.
“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said.
Sondland also said that he understood that Giuliani, acting on behalf of Trump, wanted Zelensky to make an announcement of an investigation, but “he didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.”
There are a moment of humor when Sondland was asked about a July 26 phone call that he made with Trump. In the call, Sondland all but confirmed that he told the president that Zelensky “loves your ass.”
“That sounds like something I would say,” Sondland said. “That is how President Trump and I communicate. A lot of four letter words, or in this case three letter.”
Sondland said that he did not originally recall the July 26 phone call with Trump, which he did not bring up in his testimony behind closed doors. But he said that “the whole thing came back to me” when he recalled that they had discussed A$AP Rocky, the rap singer convicted of assault in Sweden. Trump had taken an interest in the case and sought his release.
During a break, the White House did issue a comment on the hearing, but it was directed by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who spoke to reporters just outside the hearing room. The comment was sent from the official White House Twitter account.
“Shifty Schiff thinks he hasn’t gotten enough camera time. So during a brief break, he’s doing a press conference. New hoax. Same swamp,” the White House said.
Trump also read a prepared statement to reporters before leaving on a trip to Texas. He did not take questions, and said that Sondland was a man he does not “know well.”
He cited Sondland’s testimony that in a September conversation, Trump told him there was no quid pro quo.
“This is the final word from the president of the United States. I want nothing,” Trump said.
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