Given the gravity of what he was about to do, Gordon Sondland seemed oddly relaxed.
The ambassador’s lawyer sat at his right elbow, picking at his cuticles and staring straight ahead. But Sondland smiled at the cameras, looked curiously around the room, gave a friendly nod to the chairman and sipped his coffee.
Why so at ease? It was the look of a man about to unburden himself.
“Was there a quid pro quo?” asked the most important Trump administration figure to testify in the impeachment inquiry to date. “… The answer is yes.”
He knew that President Donald Trump, through his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, required Ukraine’s president to announce investigations into Trump’s political opponent to secure a White House visit, and Sondland believed the same condition applied to nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid.
What’s more: Others knew what was going on, too, he said. Mick Mulvaney. Mike Pompeo. John Bolton. Vice President Mike Pence. And Trump himself. “Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland testified.
Gone were the claims that there was no quid pro quo, that allegations against Trump were hearsay, that there was no direct connection to Trump. Here was Sondland, a Trump donor whose calls Trump frequently took and a political appointee to be U.S. ambassador to the European Union, confirming that Trump was bent on using his official powers to coerce Ukraine’s president to announce investigations into Democrats.
Sondland testified that he reluctantly worked with Giuliani under “the president’s orders.” He confirmed that Trump asked him personally about the political investigations. Raising an index finger, he read a message from a Ukrainian official confirming the quid pro quo.
Sondland even blamed the inaccuracy of his earlier deposition on the refusal of the White House and State Department to release any documents related to the Ukraine affair.
Unloading on his boss and colleagues seemed to energize the ambassador. Under the table, his feet tapped out a steady drum roll as he talked. Others in the administration had testified about the “Gordon Problem” that was interfering with Ukraine policy. Now, the one with a “Gordon Problem” is Trump.
At the first break in Sondland’s testimony, Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee’s ranking Republican, turned to the minority counsel, Steve Castor, with a look as though his favorite uncle had died. Republicans in the audience filtered out. Several Republican members of the panel decamped to a staff room — presumably to revise strategy.
Apparently, the resulting consensus was that Sondland would have to be discredited. “You don’t have records, you don’t have notes, you don’t have a lot of recollections,” Castor later told Sondland. “This is the trifecta of unreliability.” Alas for Castor, Sondland’s testimony came with incriminating emails and text messages.
In Sondland, Trump may have met his match. The two hoteliers are both emotional and coarse, unpredictable and sometimes untruthful, and ultimately disloyal. Laughing, Sondland didn’t dispute telling Trump the Ukrainian president “loves your ass”: “Sounds like something I would say. That’s how President Trump and I communicate, a lot of four-letter words.”
Now, Sondland is what Trump might call a “John Dean type ‘RAT'” — saving himself from potential perjury charges, and potentially being the administration’s fall guy, by pointing the finger at colleagues and the boss.
Nunes seemed not to know what to do with Sondland’s revelations; he settled on declaring that Democrats would have impeached George Washington. Ohio’s Jim Jordan shouted at Sondland. Others pronounced worthless Sondland’s “presumption” that Trump tied military aid to political investigations. Several took comfort in Sondland’s testimony that Trump, when asked what he wants from Ukraine, told Sondland, “no quid pro quo.”
“And you believed the president, correct?” Castor asked.
“I’m not going to characterize whether I believed or didn’t believe,” Sondland replied. That political investigations were tied to military aid, Sondland said, was as clear as “two plus two equals four.”
A befuddled Nunes dismissed this “funny math problem.”
But there was no escaping the significance of Sondland’s testimony.
To refute what Sondland said would require documentary evidence or the testimony of senior officials — both of which the administration has, so far, refused to provide. If it would help their case, one suspects, they would have allowed both.
Otherwise, Sondland seems perfectly happy to be Trump’s “Gordon Problem.”
“That’s what my wife calls me,” he quipped when told the phrase.
Informed that Trump went from calling Sondland “a great American” to somebody “I hardly know,” Sondland laughed. “Easy come, easy go,” he said.
He is a truly Trumpian John Dean.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.