Building the Case
House Democrats continued their media leaking operation today by releasing the transcripts of testimony from U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker as part of their impeachment inquiry.
For those who have been living underground for the last two months and need to be briefed: Democrats are investigating whether Trump pressured Ukraine to open investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, and whether military aid was withheld from the country to convince Ukraine to open the probe. Volker helped set up the July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that is at the center of the inquiry.
Sondland and Volker were involved in texts with another diplomat that have been publicly released. In the texts, Sondland said the president had been clear to him there had been no quid pro quo of any kind with Ukraine, before suggesting the men end the conversation over texts.
In his initial testimony, Sondland denied that he pushed for Ukraine to do an investigation of Biden, however other witnesses have since come forward with testimony that undermines his original account. Democrats have seized on these discrepancies and started the slow dribble of transcript releases in a week when a host of top administration officials are expected to defy congressional subpoenas and refuse to testify as part of the impeachment inquiry.
Yesterday, four officials declined to appear in the Capitol for interviews, despite subpoenas seeking their participation. And two others were no-shows today: Wells Griffith, a top energy expert at the National Security Council, and Michael Duffey, a senior national security aide at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
But the slow drip of transcript releases ensures that the impeachment investigation stays near the top of the news cycle in a week when the House is on recess and requested witnesses are refusing to appear, which is exactly how Schiff and the gang want it.
Unfortunately, this strategy will now be helped along with some new, “revised” testimony from Sondland, which suggests that he was more aware of a potential quid pro quo between the Trump and Zelensky administrations than he previously let on. This could be especially damaging to the president because Sondland is far from a NeverTrumper. To the contrary, he was a mega Trump donor in the last election who was essentially able to buy an ambassadorship through his campaign support. Distasteful as it may be, that is standard operating procedure for Washington, DC. Hillary Clinton even passed around a menu to her donors to allow them to choose which ambassadorship they preferred.
Sondland Changes His Tune
Yesterday, Ambassador Sondland submitted an amendment to his original testimony. In the update, he added that he had communicated a quid pro quo to a Ukraine official, linking military aid for Ukraine that was delayed by the United States to a public statement committing to investigations Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani wanted.
What makes this bad for the Trump administration is this testimony shows that the administration at least as headstrong about a public statement being made as they were about an actual investigation taking place. This indicates a political motive as opposed to a mere desire to root out corruption. The president would look much better if this were merely a demand to investigate corruption. But by having his personal lawyer lobby for a public statement, a picture is painted of a president using his power as president to essentially compel a foreign country to cut a negative campaign ad against his opponent.
Since his initial deposition, Sondland said reading other witness statements reminded him of a conversation he had with Andriy Yermak, the top adviser to President Zelensky.
“By the beginning of September 2019, and in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement,” Sondland said.
“I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland added.
Sondland’s sudden improved memory conveniently occurred once it became clear that the anti-corruption statement in question had been detailed by other officials in their depositions, namely that Trump envoys had pushed Ukraine officials to make a public commitment to investigating Burisma, the Ukrainian natural gas company tied to Hunter Biden.
Further assisting Sondland’s memory was testimony from Volker that Yermak had given him a draft statement about Ukraine’s investigation on corruption after meeting Rudy Giuliani in Madrid on Aug. 2. He said he shared it with Sondland and the pair had a conversation with Giuliani about the draft.
“Rudy says: ‘Well, if it doesn’t say Burisma and if it doesn’t say 2016, what does it mean? You know, it’s not credible. You know, they’re hiding something,'” Volker said.
Volker turned over text messages to the committees, and it was revealed that he texted additions to the statement for Zelensky was to read, which included language that would announce the investigations into Burisma, as well as the 2016 elections.
“Special attention should be paid to the problem of interference in the political processes of the United States, especially with the alleged involvement of some Ukrainian politicians. I want to declare that this is unacceptable,” Volker’s text to Yermak reads.
“We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections, which in turn will prevent the recurrence of this problem in the future,” the text continues.
This was a real Keystone Cops operation headed up by Giuliani.
There are a couple glaring issues with Gordon Sondland’s testimony. Testifying to what one “presumed” was going on is not the same as testifying that something actually happened. The fact that Sondland may have done a little process of elimination in his head to conclude that aid to Ukraine must have been held up pending a public corruption statement against the Bidens does not, in fact, constitute actual evidence of the quid pro quo he presumed. And saying that aid would “likely” not resume until the public statement was made is not the same as saying that it, in fact, would not resume until the statement was made. This may seem semantic, but when attempting to make a legal case, these details are very important. There’s a difference between knowing something and assuming something.
Then, there are the aforementioned texts in which Sondland told diplomat William Taylor that Trump was clear there was “no quid pro quos of any kind.” So is Sondland saying that he was passing along that message from the president, but didn’t actually believe it? That may be the case, but again, what matters is the actual evidence. And as things stand, there is more evidence of the administration rejecting a quid pro quo than there is of one being executed.
And finally, the quid pro quo itself never actually happened. The aid was released without any sort of anti-Biden press conference being held by the Ukrainian president. Unfortunately, the various testimonies, which are supported by contemporary communications, suggest that one was very much sought.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t malevolent actors within the administration who seek to destroy the Trump presidency. By all accounts, the original “whistleblower” was very much a partisan Democrat who used his position to hurt the administration at every turn. The bad news is, the administration didn’t exactly make his job difficult. But that doesn’t mean the president will or should be found guilty of a high crime.
The bottom line here is that Sondland’s testimony would be picked apart in an actual court of law, but it still makes the president look guilty. Sondland also makes himself look less than trustworthy, as he’s seemingly playing things by ear according to what others within the administration have revealed, then backtracking in order to save his own skin. I don’t for one second believe that Sondland suddenly remembered telling Yermak that he relayed a “presumed” quid pro quo, and I doubt anyone else will either.
The president must stay on offense in order to remind the American people of the corruption on the other side. Did he and Giuliani seek to use their foreign policy leverage in order to get Zelensky to publicly announce an investigation into the Bidens? It certainly appears that way. But it’s a relatively innocuous infraction when viewed through the lens of overall corruption as it relates to Ukraine, including the election interference in 2016 that the MSM has labeled a “conspiracy theory” despite facts being laid out by none other than Politico.
President Trump’s best asset continues to be his enemies, and he’s going to need to milk them for all their worth in order to overshadow these latest missteps. Fortunately, that won’t be hard. He has the benefit of legal technicalities that will provide Trump-skeptical Republicans with safe harbor to oppose his removal and thus preserve their own seats in Congress. He also has the benefit of AG Barr, US Attorney Durham and IG Horowitz preparing to deliver some flaming arrows in the other direction. And finally—and arguably most importantly—he has the benefit of a rabid Democrat party whose hysteria has become white noise to a substantial portion of the populace thanks to the nonstop impeachment drums that have been beaten since the day he took office.
All in all, the political calculus continues to be in the president’s favor and his ultimate victory is a near certainty. But man, it’s gonna be messy in the meantime.
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