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Is Gordon Sondland still covering for Trump?

When compared to documents and other witness accounts, Sondland’s testimony is full of holes.

Gordon Sondland, Ambassador to the European Union, arrives to testify before the impeachment inquiry of President Trump in Washington, D.C. on November 20, 2019.
Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The most common interpretation of US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland’s impeachment testimony this week is that Sondland turned on the president, finally spilling what he knew about the Trump-Ukraine scandal.

And on the surface, Sondland’s testimony indeed looked bad for Trump. He confirmed the first quid pro quo (investigations for a White House meeting). He said he believed himself to be carrying out the president’s orders. And he gave new details implicating other top administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence.

Yet when it comes to a crucial topic — what President Trump actually told Sondland about all this — Sondland’s memory continues to fail him.

Sondland claims to have a clear recollection of only one phone call with Trump related to Ukraine, toward the end of this saga, on September 9, in which Trump said, he wanted “nothing” and wanted “no quid pro quo.” Trump himself seized on this Wednesday, writing out Sondland’s account of this call in block letters and shouting it out to the White House press corps, insisting it gets him off the hook.

However, other witnesses and documents suggest there were several other calls between Sondland and Trump prior to the September 9 call — including just days before the 9th, after news broke that Trump was blocking military aid to Ukraine. Those other calls have a very different takeaway, and one that’s far more damaging to Trump.

Bill Taylor claimed Sondland spoke of such a call with Trump on September 1, and Tim Morrison said Sondland spoke of a new call on September 7. Both said that, per Sondland, Trump was adamant the Ukrainians make the statement about investigations. That is: he very much wanted something, not nothing.

Sondland professed not to remember the details of this — and claims he can’t even remember whether those calls with Trump even happened. (He blames the White House’s failure to turn over call records for this.)

Regardless, there appear to be holes in his story — ones that raise the possibility that he is still crafting his testimony to protect President Trump.

Sondland’s goal Wednesday was clearly to get the heat off himself — he was widely viewed as the least credible of the closed-door witnesses, and some Democrats even said he may have perjured himself. He seems to have succeeded in that. But he seems to have done so by offering up new details implicating basically everyone except Trump.

Sondland denies knowing that Burisma meant Biden. That’s ... questionable.

Before getting to Sondland’s testimony about his contacts with the president, it’s worth examining a separate dubious claim he continues to insist on.

Sondland claims that, through most of this months-long saga, he was completely unaware that the gas company Burisma had any connection to the Biden family — and, therefore, that investigating Burisma could be interpreted as investigating the Bidens.

In his deposition, Sondland testified that he only learned “very much later” of the Biden-Burisma connection. And in his open testimony, Sondland reiterated that he “never heard” Vice President Joe Biden’s name come up, and he only realized Burisma meant Biden at some unspecified moment “very late in the game.”

“I can’t remember when the light bulb went on. It could have been when the transcript went out. It was always ‘Burisma’ to me,” Sondland said.

This claim always seemed hard to believe. For one, Rudy Giuliani had repeatedly mentioned the Burisma-Biden tie in media appearances and tweets that year — he talked about it constantly. Yet Sondland testified he had completely missed all of Giuliani’s media appearances, and that when he talked to Giuliani, only “Burisma” (not “Biden”) was discussed.

President Trump, too, we know, blatantly framed investigating Burisma as investigating the Bidens during his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky.

Sondland also was not on that call, so he wouldn’t have heard that. Yet Sondland phoned Trump the morning of the call (July 25), and the day after the call (July 26), to discuss it. (Sondland testified he couldn’t remember what he talked to Trump about on the first call, and that his memory of the second call was only jogged by another witness’s testimony.)

Sondland also met with Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak the day after the call. It would be rather strange if the word “Biden” never came up in any of these interactions.

Beyond that, two witnesses have testified that, in separate instances in July, they heard Sondland specifically mention investigating “Biden.”

  • Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an NSC staffer, testified that after a White House meeting with Ukrainian officials on July 10, Sondland “emphasized the importance of Ukraine delivering the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma.” Vindman said he told Sondland this was inappropriate.
  • David Holmes, a Kyiv-based State Department official, testified that when he was having lunch with Sondland at a restaurant on July 26, Sondland called Trump. Afterward, Holmes says he asked whether Trump cared about Ukraine, and Sondland said Trump only cared about “big stuff” that benefits him, ‘like the ‘Biden investigation’ that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.”

Finally, during her own testimony on Thursday, former NSC staffer Fiona Hill was asked whether Sondland could really have been ignorant of the Burisma-Biden connection. “It is not credible that he was oblivious,” she said.

The weight of evidence, other witness testimony, and simple common sense contradicts Sondland’s account here. And if he is still not being fully forthcoming on this topic — what else might he be continuing to hide?

Sondland can’t remember calls with Trump during the most important period of the scandal

In Sondland’s testimony, he openly confirmed that there was a “quid pro quo” offered to Ukraine: Zelensky would get the White House meeting he badly wanted, as long as the Ukrainians publicly announced investigations.

Yet that was only the first quid pro quo at the heart of this scandal. Sondland’s account of the second and even more scandalous quid pro quo — releasing hundreds of millions of dollars in blocked military aid for Ukraine, in exchange for Ukrainians — is far murkier.

It’s important to understand the timeline here. Trump ordered the aid blocked back in July. However, witnesses have suggested, and documents have corroborated, that through July and August, discussions with the Ukrainians did indeed focus on the White House meeting for Zelensky, and not yet the blocked aid.

That all changed on August 28, when news that Trump was blocking the aid became public. The Ukrainians panicked. “Need to talk to you,” Yermak wrote to US special representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker in a text message.

On September 1, Vice President Mike Pence met with Zelensky in Warsaw. Shortly after that meeting, Sondland now admits, he told Yermak that the military aid likely depended on whether the Ukrainians announced the investigations Trump wanted.

But why did Sondland do this? His latest testimony is that he simply “presumed,” on his own, that there was a linkage. That no one else, and certainly not President Trump, ever told him any such thing. (“I don’t recall President Trump ever talking to me about any security assistance. Ever,” Sondland testified.)

That same day, Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Kyiv, asked Sondland whether they are “now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” And Sondland responded, “Call me.”

Now —with bolding for emphasis — this is Bill Taylor’s account of what Sondland then told him on that call.

During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.

Ambassador Sondland also told me that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling Ukrainian officials that only a White House meeting with Presidnet Zelensky was dependent on a public announcement of investigations — in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including assistance. He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky ‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.

That is: Sondland claimed, according to Taylor’s account, that he was linking military aid to an investigation statement because of what President Trump told him. Not because of something he simply presumed.

Taylor isn’t the only witness to give an account like this. Fast forward a few days later to September 7. NSC staffer Tim Morrison testified that Sondland claimed to have spoken with President Trump again about this. This is from Morrison’s deposition, with bolding added for emphasis.

[In] the September 7th phone call, he told me he had just gotten off the phone with the President. I remember this because he actually made the comment that it was easier for him to get a hold of the President than to get a hold of me, which led me to respond, ‘Well, the President doesn’t work for Ambassador Bolton; I do,’ to which Ambassador Sondland responded, ‘Does Ambassador Bolton know that?’ But that’s why I have a vivid recollection of this. And he wanted to tell me what he had discussed with the President.

... He told me... that there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelensky must announce the opening of the investigations and he should want to do it.

Again: This isn’t “I want nothing!” It’s the opposite. It’s: “President Zelensky must announce the opening of the investigations.”

On the next day, September 8, Sondland texted Taylor and Volker, and again claimed to have spoken with Trump.

Gordon Sondland: Guys, multiple convos with Ze, Potus. Lets talk

Taylor testified that they did soon talk, and that Sondland described what sounds like the same Trump instruction that Sondland told Morrison about.

Ambassador Sondland and I spoke on the phone. He confirmed that he had talked to President Trump as I had suggested a week earlier, but that President Trump was adamant that President Zelensky, himself, had to ‘clear things up and do it in public.’ President Trump said it was not a ‘quid pro quo.’

...Ambassador Sondland also said that he had talked to President Zelensky and Mr. Yermak and had told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelensky did not ‘clear things up’ in public, we would be at a ‘stalemate’ I understood a ‘stalemate’ to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance. Ambassador Sondland said that this conversation concluded with President Zelensky agreeing to make a public statement in an interview on CNN.

Again: Here, though Trump claims he’s not asking for a quid pro quo, he is not saying “I want nothing,” instead, he is “adamant” that Zelensky make the announcement.

But Sondland claims not to remember any of these conversations with Trump he claimed, at the time, to have had. Perhaps tellingly, though, he did include this bit in his “addendum,” updating his initial closed-door testimony:

Finally, as of this writing, I cannot specifically recall if I had one or two phone calls with President Trump in the September 6-9 time frame.

And as another reminder: Sondland testified that he doesn’t recall “President Trump ever talking to me about any security assistance.” His testimony is that even when, after the news of the aid holdup had leaked and the Ukrainians were desperate to get it lifted, the topic never even came up between him and Trump.

Sondland’s account of the one call with Trump he does claim to remember is very strange

Continuing in the timeline, it’s on September 9 — the day after Sondland texted Taylor about “multiple convos with Ze, Potus” and described a conversation with Trump — that Sondland finally remembers speaking to Trump.

This is the day Taylor sent the now-infamous text: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign” — a text that took Sondland four-and-a-half hours to respond to.

After receiving that text, Sondland says, he called Trump. And this is his account of the conversation — the account Trump repeated with such relish on Wednesday:

I said, What do you want from Ukraine? I may have even used a four-letter word.

And he said I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I just want Zelensky to do the right thing, what he ran on, or words to that effect

After this, Sondland texted Taylor:

Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign. I suggest we stop the back and forth by text. If you still have concerns, I recommend you give Lisa Kenna or S a call to discuss them directly. Thanks.

But does Sondland’s account of his call with Trump really make sense?

Remember — other documents and witnesses suggest Sondland had talked with Trump about this topic more than once in the days before this. Sondland even talked to President Zelensky about this. He was trying to close a deal.

So, why would Sondland open this call to Trump so late in the process with the broad question: “What do you want from Ukraine?” It’s ... strange. Especially when Taylor and Morrison claim that, days before this, Sondland claimed to be perfectly clear on what Trump wanted (that he was “adamant” on an announcement from the Ukrainians, that he wanted Zelensky “in a public box,” etc.)

But Sondland says he can only recall Trump saying, “I want nothing.” And, more vaguely, that he wants Zelensky to “do the right thing.”

Interestingly, while other administration officials have disputed aspects of Sondland’s testimony, Trump himself has refrained from attacking him too aggressively. Instead, he insisted that Sondland’s testimony was “fantastic” for him. And maybe there’s a reason for that.