After ten hours of testimony from U.S. ambassador Gordon Sondland on Wednesday before the House Intelligence Committee, both parties declared their side had won. CNN’s John King crowed that Sondland’s testimony had “guaranteed Trump’s impeachment.” An ebullient Adam Schiff told reporters he was looking forward to Congressional action. Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, President Trump claimed that “it’s all over” [for Democrats] after Sondland’s testimony and declared that the Witch Hunt was finally OVER!
While I understand that contradictory headlines and opinions aren’t all that unusual, the spin following Sondland’s appearance was different. While listening to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speak on Wednesday night’s “Hannity” show, I realized why. It served Sondland’s personal agenda to “throw a bone” to everyone. He provided a little something to please both parties.
First, let’s look at Ambassador Sondland’s agenda. He is the wealthy founder and former CEO of a lucrative hotel chain who donated $1,000,000 to President Trump’s inauguration fund which earned him an ambassadorship.
Democrats have savaged his businesses ever since his closed door testimony before the House impeachment inquiry panel in October when it was reported his remarks had favored the President. For example, Democrats have been leaving devastating reviews on Yelp about his hotels. The Daily Beast reported that “establishments owned by Provenance Hotels are getting spammed with bad reviews.” Here’s one of many.
“If you’re looking for a hotel owned by a Trump supporter who gave the campaign a million dollars in exchange for an ambassadorship that he’s unqualified for so he can extort foreign leaders into attacking fellow Americans, look no further,” Zee L., a Yelp user from West Hollywood, California, wrote for his assessment of the Revolution Hotel in Boston. “BONUS: plush bath robes and white hoods available in each room.”
Graham wants to know, “why didn’t he mention it [the quid pro quo] the first time he testified? What happened between the first time he testified and today? His business is being destroyed. His family is being harassed. (Protestors have swarmed Sondland and his family in public.) He needed to get that “monkey off his back.” Hence, the bone. Yesterday, Sondland said “yes” there had been a quid pro quo and that “everyone knew it.” Afterward, he was welcomed to the “resistance”. It was clear he had won over the Democrats.
More reluctantly, he also offered some red meat to the Republicans. Reps. Mike Turner (R-OH), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Andy Biggs (R-AZ) and others managed to extract key admissions from Sondland. He acknowledged he had no evidence that Trump had engaged in a quid pro quo other than his “presumption.” Nor had the President ever told him about any preconditions for a White House meeting. That pretty much takes the air out of the Democrats case against Trump. But Schiff will cling to Sondland’s earlier comment that “yes” there had been a quid pro quo and will run with it.
(Note: As mentioned above, when Sondland first appeared before Schiff’s committee in October, he was seen as a Trump friendly witness. Oddly, a couple of weeks ago, he amended his testimony. Sondland claimed that reading the transcripts of Tim Morrison and Bill Taylor had refreshed his memory and that he now recalled telling Ukrainian official Andriy Yermak that the aid was being delayed until President Zelensky announced the investigations Trump had requested.)
One final point. Tucker Carlson pointed out that all four of Sondland’s attorneys are Democratic donors. Carlson played a clip of Sondland being grilled by Jordan. Jordan demands to know why he left out the exculpatory information that Trump had directly told him he wanted nothing from Ukraine, no quid pro quo, that he wanted Zelensky to do the right thing. He wanted him to do what he ran on. Why, Jordan asked, would you leave that out of a 23 page opening statement?
Fair question, actually. So why wasn’t that fact – and it’s not a small point, by the way, it’s the point on which the entire impeachment hangs – why wasn’t that point included in Sondland’s opening statement? We don’t know, really. But here’s one possible explanation. The statement was likely drafted by Sondland’s legal team and all four of his attorneys, it turns out cause we checked, are Democratic donors. The man seated next to Gordon Sondland today during the hearing, that would be a man called Robert Luskin. He has given over $130,000 to the Democrats over the years. Luskin also represented FBI informant Stefan Halper during the Russia hoax not too long ago. So is it possible that someone like Luskin was thinking about more than his client’s personal interests in this case? Could impeaching public enemy number one have crossed his mind? We don’t know, but it doesn’t seem implausible.
Sondland’s testimony was a mixed bag. Because he offered something for both parties, it’s easy to understand why contradictory conclusions were reached. The question is why did he amend his initial testimony? And why did he state in his opening remarks that there had been a quid pro quo? Was he surrendering to political pressure? Did he do it for personal and/or business reasons?
And, on a lighter note, how much longer do you think he will keep his ambassadorship?