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Trump's point man on Ukraine: 'We followed the president's orders'

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union,

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, at the public impeachment hearing Wednesday. Credit: AP/Andrew Harnik

The POTUS made me do it

Gordon Sondland's stunning testimony Wednesday may have been most damaging yet in the House impeachment inquiry. Challenging his account posed a steep challenge for Donald Trump's defenders.

They had tried to dismiss other witnesses' accounts because they hadn't heard directly from the president. But Sondland said he'd spoken to Trump about Ukraine six or seven times. They didn't even try to sell the baseless "never Trumper" accusation hurled at others. Deep state? Sondland is a million-dollar donor who made a fortune in the hotel business, just like Trump. 

Sondland — Trump's hand-picked ambassador to the European Union — was among those tasked by the president to work with his private lawyer Rudy Giuliani to pressure the Ukrainians to announce investigations of Trump’s political foes. Sondland was feeling pressure himself after his earlier closed-door testimony, which was more aligned with Trump’s story, was contradicted by subsequent witnesses.

"We followed the president’s orders,” Sondland said. "Was there a quid pro quo?” he said. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting [that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wanted], the answer is yes.”

Sondland said he didn't personally hear the president explicitly link $400 million in U.S. military aid for Ukraine that was frozen for two months to his demands, but the ambassador's dealings with Giuliani and other administration officials made it as obvious to him as "Two plus two equals four.”

Sondland resented other witnesses' descriptions that he'd been part of "irregular" policymaking outside of official channels. Sondland said everyone was aware that he, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and special Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker were dealing with Ukraine at Trump's request. "We never thought it was irregular. We thought it was in the center lane," Sondland said.

Outside the White House holding Sharpie-scrawled notes, Trump tried to depict one slice of Sondland's testimony as exonerating — a Sept. 9 conversation in which the president told the ambassador: “I want nothing” from Ukraine. Democrats noted that was the same day the House committee learned of the whistleblower complaint, suggesting Trump was scrambling to cover his tracks. Two days later, the aid was released.

Queued up for quid pro quo 

It's getting so crowded for those under the bus in the Ukraine scandal that they're going to need a bigger bus. Sondland testified that "everyone was in the loop" about the quid pro quo Trump and Giuliani tried to pull off, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

Sondland testified that it was "based on my communications with Secretary Pompeo" that he told a top Zelensky aide that military aid funds likely wouldn't be unfrozen until Ukraine committed publicly to the investigations sought by Trump. 

Sondland emailed Pompeo seeking to arrange a Trump meeting with Zelensky, who would "look him in the eye" to promise moves "on those issues of importance" to Trump — the investigations — adding, "Hopefully, that will break the logjam." Pompeo replied, "Yes." A spokeswoman denied that Pompeo heard from Sondland about a linkage.

Sondland said he told Pence before the vice president met with Ukrainians in Warsaw that "I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations." He said Pence nodded. A Pence aide denied the Pence-Sondland exchange ever happened.

Sondland said Mulvaney also was in the know.

New: When Ukraine knew

Another leg of the Trump defense by committee Republicans buckled later Wednesday — the argument that there was no extortion going on because Ukraine didn't know for a long time that military aid had been frozen.

A top Pentagon official, Laura Cooper, testified Wednesday that Ukrainian officials knew as early as July 25 that there was an issue with U.S. aid to the country — the same day as Trump's "favor"-seeking call with Zelensky.

"What is going on with Ukrainian security assistance?" one Ukrainian contact emailed a member of her staff, Cooper recalled. Cooper couldn't say for certain whether Ukraine knew specifically about the hold, but she explained: "It's my experience with the Ukrainians they would call about specific things, not just generally checking in on the assistance package."

Bottom lines

Newsday's Tom Brune has five takeaways from Sondland's appearance. Last, and perhaps least, but notable nevertheless is the ambassador's explanation for why, as a previous witness related, he told Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass.” 

"That’s how President Trump and I communicate, a lot of four-letter words.” Or three-letter ones. Sondland added, “And so, putting it in Trumpspeak, by saying he ‘loved your ass, he'll do whatever you want,’ meant that he would really work with us on a whole host of issues.”

Watch Sondland's opening statement on video or read it here.

Janison: It's a lose-lose

If you haven't watched every minute of the impeachment hearings, and you think you might have missed testimony that Trump's Ukraine pressure campaign was a great idea, relax. That's not happening.

Nor, as Newsday's Dan Janison writes, has anyone said it was a good choice to make Giuliani its mastermind. Nor has anybody produced evidence that corruption was a deep and abiding concern for the president before he cited it as a factor in his Ukraine gambit.

Nor does anyone point to an upside in the delay in military aid to Ukraine. The best talking point for Trump's defenders is that it was ultimately released, so no harm, no foul.

Also, nothing accomplished except a presidency at risk. Trump's prepared talking point of the day, "I want nothing," could have been replaced credibly with "I got nothing." 

Distance grows between them

In a tweet on Oct. 8, Trump called Sondland "a really good man and great American." He said he would love to "send" Sondland to testify, but not before a "totally compromised kangaroo court."

On Wednesday, Trump said, "I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much."

Asked during his testimony about the president's revisionist view of their relationship, Sondland quipped: "Easy come, easy go."

Rudy sees red 

Giuliani tweeted indignantly that the Republican counsel at the hearing, Steve Castor, wasn't looking out for his reputation.

"Republican lawyer doesn’t do his own research and preparation, and is instead picking up Democrat lies, shame," the tweet said. "Allow me to inform him: I have NO financial interests in Ukraine, NONE! I would appreciate his apology."

One line of Castor's questioning of Sondland referred to Giuliani's personal "business interests" in Ukraine. Two of his associates who pursued business in Ukraine while collaborating with Giuliani's investigation have been indicted, and Giuliani is under scrutiny by Manhattan federal prosecutors.

No knockdowns but Biden gets punchy

The Democrats’ fifth debate opened Wednesday night with the question: Should Trump be impeached and removed? No one said no, but Joe Biden — the target of the Ukraine plot — also said Democrats shouldn’t take a cue from the Trump rallies of four years ago by shouting, “Lock him up.”

“Look, we have to bring this country together. Let's talk civilly to people,” Biden said. He would leave it to a Justice Department to decide, independent of politics, whether Trump should be a target for criminal prosecution after leaving office.

Elizabeth Warren counted herself as a yes vote on impeachment and pivoted with a swipe at Sondland, pledging not to reward big donors with ambassadorships. Bernie Sanders warned Democrats: “We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump. Because if we are ... we're going to lose the election." Pete Buttigieg said Democrats had to focus on a post-Trump America and “unify a nation that will be as divided as ever.”

It was hard to see a game-changer from the top tier as the candidates sparred, politely for the most part, over familiar positions, such as differences on how to expand health care. The nastiest fireworks came between two candidates near the back of the pack, Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard.

Fact-checkers taking things literally might find fault with how Cory Booker took a hit at Joe Biden for opposing outright legalization of marijuana: “I thought you might have been high when you said it.” And there surely is an alternate explanation for why Biden said that to stamp out domestic violence, we need to "keep punching at it and punching at it."

For more, see Newsday’s story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

What else is happening:

  • The FBI has been seeking to question the CIA whistleblower who sparked the impeachment inquiry, Yahoo News reported. The FBI appears to be seeking cooperation in an investigation in its early stages, suggesting that he isn’t himself under investigation, according to The Wall Street Journal.
  • Vladimir Putin is pleased that Trump and his allies are pushing discredited theories that Ukraine was behind the 2016 U.S. election interference. "Thank God, no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore; now they’re accusing Ukraine," Russia's president told an economic forum in Moscow.
  • Trump disputed Sondland's account that he was in a "bad mood" during their Sept. 9 call. "I'm always in a good mood. I don't know what that is." 
  • In the forthcoming book "A Warning," the senior administration insider "Anonymous" writes that Trump regularly struggles to "remember what he's said or been told," Newsweek reported.
  • During a flare-up with North Korea in 2017, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley sent confidential emails over an unclassified system instead of a secure one, explaining later: "Can't find my password." The revelation came from unredacted portions of emails recently obtained by a watchdog group under the Freedom of Information Act, the Daily Beast reported.
  • Navy Special Operations Chief Eddie Gallagher, restored to his rank under Trump's order after a war crimes trial that acquitted him on most charges, may be booted from the SEALs. That could set up a confrontation between Navy brass and Trump.

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