President Donald Trump’s hand-picked ambassador to the European Union told the House impeachment inquiry Wednesday what Republicans on Capitol Hill appear determined to deny at all costs: It was apparent Trump withheld military and political support from Ukraine in an attempt to force that country’s new government to investigate Trump’s domestic political rivals. Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony decimates the Republican talking points and raises the stakes for Congress to decide whether the president should be impeached.
Sondland detailed how the president instructed him and others to work with Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to establish preconditions with Ukraine before Trump would grant its new president a White House meeting or authorize the release of nearly $400-million in congressionally-appropriated U.S. military aid that Ukraine desperately needed to defend itself from Russian-backed separatists. Trump wanted Ukraine to publicly announce it would investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading 2020 Democratic presidential contender, and Biden’s son, and that it would pursue the debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine - not Russia - interfered in America’s 2016 election.
Sondland’s testimony built on earlier disclosures by State Department officials and national security aides who reported their concerns that Trump was extorting foreign assistance for his personal political benefit. Yet unlike the career diplomats and military professionals whom Trump and congressional Republicans have attacked as partisans or second-hand sources, Sondland was a major financial supporter of the president and spoke to him often as ambassador. Sondland said he worked with Giuliani “at the express direction of the president.” While Sondland testified that he and others opposed linking Ukraine policy to an investigation of the Bidens, "We knew that these investigations were important to the president.”
“Was there a quid pro quo?" Sondland asked rhetorically, in his opening statement Wednesday. “The answer is yes.”
Sondland also painted a far broader picture of who was aware of the situation. He implicated Vice President Mike Pence, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and other senior officials. “Everyone was in the loop," Sondland testified. “It was no secret.” Giuliani and Sondland also made it clear directly to Ukrainian officials that the resumption of aid hinged on the investigations. The ambassador said he - like others in the State Department - objected to withholding the military assistance, which “was critical to Ukraine’s defense and should not have been delayed,” but that ultimately, “We followed the president’s orders.”
This testimony by a Trump insider who communicated directly with the president as the scandal unfolded should dispel any fanciful defense that Trump’s intentions were benign or that the impeachment inquiry is a contrived political grievance. Like other witnesses before him, Sondland testified despite orders from the White House and State Department not to appear. The Trump administration also refused to give Sondland access to his phone records, emails and other documents that he sought to reconstruct the record. This is not the conduct of an administration with nothing to hide.
At some point soon, even congressional Republicans will have to confront the facts: The president withheld vital military aid and an important meeting to a desperate ally in an attempt to force that ally to help the president’s own political fortunes. Now he has obstructed the impeachment inquiry and intimidated congressional witnesses. What should be the appropriate response by Congress and the American people?
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