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Analysis: The 5 questions Gordon Sondland needs to answer

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/14/2019 Amber Phillips
Gordon Sondland, Robert Luskin are posing for a picture: Ambassador Gordon Sondland © Saul Loeb/Afp Via Getty Images Ambassador Gordon Sondland

Gordon Sondland is one of the few witnesses in the impeachment inquiry who is in a position to confirm what President Trump wanted out of Ukraine in exchange for holding up its military aid. Sondland, a Trump ally and U.S. ambassador to the European Union, is expected to testify publicly Nov. 20 after testifying privately in October, then amending his testimony recently to remember a quid pro quo he gave the Ukrainians.

Here are the five questions we have for Sondland.

1. Were you acting of your own volition, or at the direction of Trump?

This is the crux of the impeachment inquiry right now: Did Trump orchestrate all of this? We don't know.

We know there was a quid pro quo Sondland offered Ukrainians. We know Trump told his acting chief of staff to hold up military aid days before he called Ukraine’s president and asked for investigations into the Biden family. But we don’t know for sure that Trump tied those things together himself; military aid in exchange for investigations into his political opponents. Sondland is the best witness to shed light on that because he was one of the few people in all this who appeared to be communicating both with Trump and the Ukrainians.

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He was a Trump donor who was awarded with a cushy job as the top U.S. diplomat for the European Union, and others testified Sondland and people such as lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and diplomat Kurt Volker were running an informal channel of diplomacy.

Sondland testified that he “presumed” the frozen aid was linked to investigations Trump wanted, and so he told the Ukrainians as much. Was he just acting of his own volition? Was someone else telling him what to do? Sondland’s revised testimony to Congress doesn’t give us any hints he plans to implicate the president: “I always believed that suspending aid to Ukraine was ill-advised, although I did not know (and still do not know) when, why, or by whom the aid was suspended.”

2. What did you say to Trump — and Trump to you — on a July phone call from Kyiv?

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Acting Ukraine ambassador William Taylor testified Wednesday that Sondland was visiting Ukraine in July when he called Trump from a restaurant. During that call, Taylor’s staff member overheard Trump ask about “the investigations.”

Taylor: “The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’ Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”

Soooo many questions here. Trump has said he didn’t remember that phone call. But does Sondland? Why would he call Trump directly from a restaurant in Ukraine over a cellphone, a security risk for a country experts say is so closely monitored by Russia? The rest of that conversation could go a long way to helping uncover whether Trump was ordering Sondland directly.

3. You told the Ukrainians their military aid would come when their president announced an “anti-corruption statement.” Was that code for investigations into the Bidens/the 2016 election meddling?

In his amended testimony to Congress, Sondland confirmed to Congress he effectively gave the Ukrainians a quid pro quo, though he doesn’t use those words. In fact, he seems to be glossing over what he wanted the Ukrainians to do: “I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement,” he said in his clarified statement to Congress.

Taylor and top State Department Ukraine expert George Kent would probably not agree that Sondland had Ukraine’s best interests at heart. They testified that they thought Trump’s allies were undermining U.S. interests in Ukraine, not helping Ukraine battle corruption. Taylor testified he repeatedly asked Sondland to get Trump to back off forcing Ukraine’s president from making a statement that he was investigating a company linked to the Bidens.

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So Sondland needs to explain why he thought that having Ukraine investigate Democrats was the right thing to do, despite experienced diplomats warning him against it, and his own apparent hesitations.

4. Why didn’t you remember the offer you gave to the Ukrainians in your original testimony?

Sondland first testified behind closed doors in October with a lot of “I don’t recall” statements. It wasn’t until Taylor testified that he understood Sondland gave Ukraine a quid pro quo, and then National Security official Tim Morrison confirming Taylor’s testimony, that Sondland suddenly remembered what he did.

Was Sondland trying to protect himself with his original testimony by effectively denying a quid pro quo? Or Trump? Or both?

The gaps in Sondland’s memory perplex Jack Sharman, a lawyer who worked on the impeachment of Alabama governor Robert Bentley and was a counsel for the House during the Whitewater investigations in the 1990s. Wouldn’t Sondland have tried to nail down every detail before going under oath to testify in the impeachment inquiry of a president? “It seems he was a little relaxed given the scrutiny each person was going to get,” Sharman said. “It seems unusually loose to me.”

5. Why did you agree to testify?

Others in Trump’s orbit have ignored subpoenas, like acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Even former national security adviser John Bolton, who seems to want to testify, isn’t going to Congress until a court tells him he has to. So I’m genuinely curious why Sondland agreed (after a subpoena, of course, and a brief moment where the State Department blocked him). He is someone who has tied his career ambitions to Trump even if he didn’t agree with the president during the campaign.

Now he’s in a difficult position, seemingly wanting to protect himself and the president, but one of the few witnesses who can confirm what Trump knew and when.

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