When President Donald Trump proclaims, “Not only did we win today; it’s over,” you know it ain’t over.
That was his take on Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony. We learned things, however, as Sondland fought to keep his reputation with candid (up to an extent) talk about his relationship with Trump. In the Optics War, the headlines were not good for Trump: “Sondland, Defiant, Says He Followed Trump’s Orders to Pressure Ukraine,” was the top headline on the New York Times.
Republicans will—and did—argue that Trump constantly stated, “no quid pro quo,” and never directly told Sondland there was. But Sondland said he believed there was, and also said that “everybody” in high circles in Trumpworld knew what was afoot. As Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif) pointed out, Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, said Trump speaks “in code” in which incriminating words are avoided, but his intention is clear. Trump’s conversation with Sondland was a classic case of code-speak.
We also learned that Sondland is not afraid to throw some very important people under the impeachment bus; it will be crowded under there. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Vice President Mike Pence all had been alerted by Sondland, and they and chief aides were well aware of the work of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer.
The denials are already beginning, but it’s hard to believe that insiders of this rank had no idea what Giuliani and the president were up to, if not all the details.
We also saw a frustrated Sondland who was denied access to papers and calendars that would have avoided at least some of the several “I don’t recall” answers that diminished his testimony. Pompeo and Trump kept the material unavailable, so the case for obstruction of Congress moved up several notches. The president was more careful about disparaging Sondland—after all, he donated a million dollars—than career foreign service officers, but Republican allies were not as dainty.
Sondland, a newcomer to political office, learned the hard way what reporters learn the first day on the beat: take careful and comprehensive notes and keep them. When his testimony differed from that of career diplomats, they had the notes and he had a foggy memory.
The president’s refusal to release documents and to allow important witnesses to testify simply adds to the comprehensive “obstruction” section of the Mueller Report. It is not as sexy as abuse-of-power, but it is wide, deep, and damning, and could include intimidation of witnesses. Look for an article of impeachment on this matter.