Tuesday saw a series of no-shows in terms of new appearances before the House impeachment inquiry. Instead the news was releases of transcripts covering the depositions of special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland. The pair were two-thirds of the “three amigos” who were in charge of subverting normal diplomatic relations with Ukraine in favor of securing the “investigations” Donald Trump sought into a ludicrous conspiracy theory centered on the 2016 election, and into a second conspiracy theory aimed at manufacturing dirt for the 2020 election. However, the most interesting statements may have come from a third document—the one in which Sondland “remembered” a whole series of phone calls, meetings, and texts that slipped his mind until he saw the testimony of others.
The documents are lengthy, with Volker’s original deposition running to 360 pages, and Sondland’s testimony with the “supplemental statement” making it to page 379. But the take-away from the over 700 pages of text was simply that it confirmed everything we already knew. Not only did Trump seek investigations meant to turn the 2016 election into a “trap” that featured the DNC hacking itself with the help of Clinton-allied Ukrainians pretending to be Russians (No. Really.) there were multiple efforts to convince Ukraine to launch an investigation into Burisma, the company where Joe Biden’s son once served on the board.
If these had simply been requests, it still would have been vastly wrong, because Donald Trump would have been asking a foreign government to take actions meant directly to interfere in a U.S. election. But what the transcripts underline—again—and what Sondland’s “addendum” in particular makes clear, is that these were not requests. They were not favors. They were demands; demands made with stakes that could not be higher. Sondland made it clear to Ukrainian officials that if they did not play along with what Trump wanted, they would not be getting the military assistance they needed to survive against a Russian invasion.
- Soliciting the investigations was an abuse of power in itself, because it involved using Trump’s office and diplomatic officers to seek interference in U.S. elections.
- However, the testimony of Sondland and Volker leaves no doubt that there was a quid pro quo as the relationship with Ukraine, including military assistance, was made hostage to Trump’s demands.
One thing that both transcripts agree on is that Donald Trump hated Ukraine from the outset—a hatred that was reflected in both his actions and in the connections that the “amigos” had with Rudy Giuliani. Volker described Trump saying that the Ukrainian officials were “all corrupt” and “all terrible people” who “tried to take me down” during the 2016 election. Sondland’s testimony also included the idea that Ukraine wanted to “take Trump down.”
The convoluted conspiracy theory—in which there never was any real Russian hacking of the DNC servers, with the real action involving Ukrainians working in concert with Hillary Clinton to set up the Trump campaign and plant false evidence—began growing in the Trump campaign even before they took up residence in the White House and Giuliani has spent years in Ukraine looking for someone willing to testify that Ukraine provided the pretend hackers, that a nonexistent “missing server” was secretly spirited to Ukraine, and that U.S. cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike was called in to clean up the tracks. Support for this very same theory is exactly why Attorney General William Barr has been touring Europe with his Russia-investigation-investigator John Durham in tow.
One interesting note from Volker’s transcript was that even as he and Sondland were working to not only force Ukraine into opening these twin investigations—to the extent that they were working on a script for the announcement they wanted the Ukrainian president to deliver—Volker learned that none of these requests were being made through official diplomatic channels. But the fact that everything they were doing was contradictory to what Ukraine was hearing from the actual ambassadors—first Marie Yovanovitch, then William Taylor—did not seem to slow the effort to extract what Trump wanted.
But it’s Sondland’s testimony, and his efforts to amend that testimony, that definitely presents the clearest image of Trump’s disdain for Ukraine, his conviction that they were his enemy, and his efforts to force them into proving themselves by buying into his pro-Russia and anti-Biden schemes.
- Sondland described the actions that Trump’s team was carrying out in Ukraine by saying they “kept getting more insidious as timeline went on.”
- While Sondland put off the first demands being made to the Ukrainian president and others are vague and “all about just corruption” those demands increasingly became more detailed. “No, corruption isn’t enough, we need to talk about the 2016 election and the Burisma investigations.”
- Sondland said that the investigations were sold to him, by Giuliani, as “ongoing investigations that had been stopped by the previous administration.” Which was not true.
- Asked about the attempt to investigate Biden, Sondland agreed that he believed it to be illegal. “I’m not a lawyer,” said Sondland, “but I assume so.”
- Sondland made it very clear that though a quid pro quo definitely did happen. While speaking directly to an aid to the Ukrainian president, “I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” wrote Sondland in his amended statement
A quid pro quo is not necessary to show that Trump took actions worthy of impeachment. But that quid pro quo definitely happened.
But on Wednesday morning, the attorney for former White House adviser Fiona Hill tweeted that Sondland’s amended testimony needs more amendments, because contained in that testimony were claims about discussions that Sondland supposedly had with Hill that the attorney says were “fabricated.” Rather than a reassuring coffee chat with Sondland, Hill’s attorney says that she passed along to him the same message she’s told everyone else—the scrambling to force Ukraine to do Trump’s bidding was “disastrous” and the dismissal of Ambassador Yovanovitch “shameful.”