"I expect that few Americans have heard my name before these events," Gordon Sondland, the United States Ambassador to the European Union, said in his opening statement to the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday (November 20). Given that about 70 percent of registered voters are paying attention to the impeachment inquiry currently being conducted by the House, that anonymity is likely set to change: During his appearance, Sondland confirmed in no uncertain terms that President Donald Trump engaged in "quid pro quo" in an attempt to force Ukraine into investigating potential 2020 rival former Vice President Joe Biden and his family.
"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?' As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes," Sondland said, referring to the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that sparked a whistleblower complaint, widespread politician outrage, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi formally establishing an impeachment inquiry into the President's conduct.
But Sondland's expertise doesn't center on that call specifically. While there were plenty of participants in the call outside of Trump and Zelensky — including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senior Director for European Affairs Timothy Morrison, Top Ukraine expert Alexander Vindman, Vice President Mike Pence's Adviser for Europe and Russia Jennifer Williams, and more — Sondland wasn't one of them. What he lacks in phone call attendance, though, he makes up for in experience: His testimony, and the attached documents including emails and text messages, show that he personally helped arrange the "quid pro quo" between the U.S. and Ukraine. And he was authorized to do so at the highest levels of this administration.
As NPR points out, the Latin phrase "quid pro quo" essentially means "something for something," and is baked into almost every human interaction. Where things get messier is the inherent power dynamic that can be caused by, say, the president of one of the most powerful countries in the world withholding millions of dollars in military aid from the president of another, less powerful country. In lay man's terms, that's bribery. Or, as Senator Kamala Harris tweeted, extortion.
As Sondland explained on Wednesday, key members of Trump's circle coordinated in advance of the July call, including Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has never been a formal member of the Trump administration. He said that he attempted to talk to Trump about the relationship between Ukraine and the U.S., but Trump routinely directed him to Giuliani.
“President Trump directed us to ‘talk with Rudy.’ We understood that 'talk with Rudy' meant talk with Mr. Rudy Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer,” Sondland said. “We could abandon the efforts to schedule the White House phone call and White House visit between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, which was unquestionably in our foreign policy interest — or we could do as President Trump had directed and ‘talk with Rudy.’ We chose the latter course, not because we liked it, but because it was the only constructive path open to us.”
Sondland testified that Giuliani had explained to Perry, Volker, and other officials that "President Trump wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing to investigations of Burisma [a Ukrainian company on whose board Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, served] and the 2016 election. Mr. Giuliani expressed those requests directly to the Ukrainians. Mr. Giuliani also expressed those requests directly to us." He added that Pence and Pompeo were aware of the bribery attempt, and said that neither of them ever objected to it.
"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 added.
While his testimony counters the closed-door testimony he gave on October 17, in which he said he "never" believed there were strings attached to unfreezing the aid that had been previously promised to Ukraine, it does echo the four-page memo he attached to the transcript of that testimony when it was released on November 5. He chalked up his course-correction to a claim that he is "not a note-taker, nor a memo-writer," and further that he was denied access by the State Department and the White House to "all of my phone records, State Department emails, and other State Department documents" that would have helped him remember the bribery sooner.
Sondland was nominated by Trump to serve as Ambassador to the European Union in March 2018. He previously worked as a successful hotelier and donated much of his money to political candidates, including a whopping $1 million to the President's inauguration committee. His résumé doesn't explain why he might be a good fit for a role in U.S. foreign policy with Ukraine, but, despite that, the "lifelong Republican" was elected to the position with bipartisan support.
But no matter how the remaining public hearings shake out, it might not make a dent in the public consciousness: A FiveThirtyEight poll found that most people believe the events in the whistleblower's complaints happened just as the whistleblower said they did, and that such dealings would be impeachable offenses.