All eyes will be on Gordon Sondland when he testifies in front of the House impeachment inquiry on Wednesday. In the roster of current witnesses scheduled to testify publicly, he is the person with the most direct knowledge of President Donald Trump’s interests in seeing Ukraine launch an unprecedented investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden. On Wednesday he’ll be telling his story as the lone voice who’s already been forced to update his initial deposition, with his memory “refreshed” by others’ testimony, but he may not be the last. Likewise, Sondland, as a Portland-based hotelier, will also be the lone figure facing a call from detractors to boycott his business, effectively placing a financial cudgel over his head as he prepares to swear in.
Clearly – for the president, for the country, and for Sondland himself – Sondland’s testimony is of perhaps greater import than any thus far scheduled. And, it took on even greater significance last week, when David Holmes, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, testified that he’d overheard Sondland discussing the political investigations with Trump on the phone on July 26.
And yet, it’s still unclear what, exactly, Sondland will testify to. Will he stick to his recent deposition revisions, confirming the extortion scheme Trump pushed with Ukraine? Will he reveal new conversations he had with Trump – including the one outlined by Holmes where Trump reportedly asked Sondland, “So, he’s gonna do the investigation”? Or will he simply feign ignorance, claiming, as he did in his deposition, that he didn’t realize Hunter Biden was connected to Burisma until September, even though Rudy Giuliani was regularly linking them on TV for months? As the Carnegie Endowment’s Andrew Weiss said, Sondland “somehow wants all of us to believe that he is ‘shocked, shocked’ that anything he was wrapped up in was aimed at the Bidens. That beggars belief.”
Whatever Sondland decides to testify to on Wednesday, it’s clear that he will likely face more pointed questioning from Democrats than any other witness currently scheduled. And it’s not hard to see why. No other witness has seen his previous testimony contradicted by so many other witnesses – nor have other players poked as many holes in a story as we’ve seen with Sondland’s. Indeed, a look through the revelations over the past month reveal the lengths to which Sondland allegedly went in an effort to aid Trump’s bribery and foreign interference efforts, and the means with which he tried to cover up that role, time and again:
- Sondland, as we now know, effectively acted as the bureaucratic front-man for Trump’s designs in Ukraine. While he was nominally the U.S. ambassador to the EU, Sondland worked hand-in-glove with Giuliani, who was pushing Trump’s extortion campaign as the president’s private lawyer. As Tim Morrison, former top European affairs official on Trump’s NSC, revealed in his deposition published over the weekend, Sondland “chiefly led” the “second track” – i.e., the track pressuring Zelenskyy to investigate the Bidens. Sondland not only hosted a July 10 discussion with Ukrainian officials in the White House in which, as NBC wrote, he “explicitly mentioned” Burisma in the context of a meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy, but, per former National Security Council official Fiona Hill, Sondland also got in a heated exchange with then-National Security Adviser John Bolton over Sondland’s “rogue effort” to upend America’s Ukraine policy. As Hill quoted Bolton, “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and [acting White House chief of staff Mick] Mulvaney are cooking up.” Hill proceeded to report the interaction, and Sondland’s private meeting, to deputy White House counsel John Eisenberg.
- According to Hill, Sondland told her “he was in charge in Ukraine.” When Hill corrected him that, in fact, he was not charged with steering the U.S. policy in Ukraine, Sondland, per Hill, “got testy.” When Hill asked him who said he was “in charge of Ukraine,” Sondland responded: “the President.” There was nothing in Sondland’s testimony about this interaction with Hill; rather, as Sondland testified, if Bolton or Hill “harbored any misgivings about the propriety of what we were doing, they never shared those misgivings with me, then or later.”
- According to Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, at the July 10 meeting, Sondland “emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma.” Vindman confronted Sondland that the discussion was “inappropriate” and that “the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security.” Vindman added that Sondland told him that conditioning the White House meeting on Ukraine investigating the Bidens and the 2016 elections “had been coordinated with White House Chief of Staff Mr. Mick Mulvaney.”’ There was nothing in Sondland’s testimony on this interaction with Vindman.
- In October, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) revealed that Sondland had explicitly outlined the quid pro quo attempt. Johnson, according to the Wall Street Journal, said that Sondland “had described to him a quid pro quo involving a commitment by Kyiv to probe matters related to U.S. elections and the status of nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine.” There was nothing in Sondland’s initial testimony on this interaction with Johnson.
- Sondland revised his initial testimony on Nov. 5, in which he said he’d “refreshed his recollection” after reading other witnesses’ testimonies. Among those “refreshed” memories: Sondland discussed suspension of military aid and the investigations Trump desired in a Sept. 1 meeting in Warsaw with Andriy Yermak, Zelenskyy’s top aide. While claiming he thought that withholding the aid was “ill advised,” he admitted that he “presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anticorruption statement” – which would have seen Ukraine explicitly announce an investigation into the Bidens. “I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” he added.
- However, Sondland’s revision came with its own holes, as well as allegations that he’d fabricated details. For instance, after Sondland claimed he’d discussed Ukraine policy with Hill over coffee, Hill’s lawyer took to Twitter to dispute the claim. “Sondland has fabricated communications with Dr. Hill, none of which were over coffee,” Lee Wolosky wrote. “Dr. Hill told Sondland what she told lawmakers – the lack of coordination on Ukraine was disastrous, and the circumstances of the dismissal of [ousted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie] Yovanovitch shameful.”
- On Friday, Holmes – an aide to Bill Taylor, the U.S.’s highest-ranking diplomat in Ukraine – confirmed that he had firsthand knowledge of a July 26 call between Trump and Sondland. Taylor had already mentioned the call in last week’s testimony, but Holmes’ opening statement in his closed-door session revealed far more details – namely, that Trump expressed clear, overriding interest in an investigation into the Bidens, effectively undercutting Sondland’s claims that he only learned about the Biden connections to the investigation in September. Per Holmes’ deposition, Sondland told Holmes that Trump only cares about things in Ukraine “that [benefit] the President, like the Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.” Holmes further revealed that the phone call, which took place on Sondland’s unsecured cell phone in a restaurant in Kyiv, was overheard by multiple staffers. (Hill had previously expressed counterintelligence concerns about Sondland’s cell phone habits.) According to Holmes, Sondland told Trump that Zelenskyy would do “anything you ask him.” There’s nothing in Sondland’s testimony about this phone call.
Whatever comes from Sondland’s testimony on Wednesday, one thing is clear: He has already decimated his reputation in the United States. He’s transformed himself from an unknown donor-cum-ambassador, jetting between Brussels and Washington and Portland, into little more than a perceived lackey and yes-man in Trump’s extortion efforts. And it’s not as if Sondland doesn’t recognize what’s happened; as he told NBC last month, “I don’t have a reputation to salvage.”
Meanwhile, the threat of a boycott of Sondland’s businesses continues to hang over him. In early October, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) led the charge, saying, “Anyone who cares about America should not do any business or stay at any of Gordon Sondland’s hotels. Not until he fulfills his duty as a citizen to testify and turn over all relevant documents to the House of Representatives. Nobody is above the law. Mr. Sondland and the entire Trump administration need to be reminded of that.” That boycott has since been coupled with public protests in Portland against Sondland, with organizers describing him as a “Trump crony” and someone “implicated in Trump’s crimes.”
At this point, few remain willing to publicly defend Sondland. The spokesperson for his hotels, Ellen Carmichael, has deleted all of her recent tweets defending Sondland’s behavior, while Trump claimed this month that he “hardly know[s]” him. Needless to say, Holmes’ deposition undercuts Trump’s claims, given that Trump was apparently familiar enough with Sondland to speak to him on an unsecured line in Kyiv. Regardless, Sondland’s testimony could be the most-watched of the entire impeachment proceedings, and his public appearance could lead directly to the unseating of a sitting president. As a spokesperson for Blumenauer told Just Security, “[I]t’s clear that Ambassador Sondland has bigger issues to deal with” than just a boycott – issues the entire country will be following closely when he takes the stand this Wednesday.
Image: U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland arrives at a closed session before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees October 17, 2019 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images