The White House had good reason to be worried about this witness
It was a bombshell day, a blockbuster moment.
Gordon Sondland was the witness the White House was most worried about and they had a reason to be concerned.
The EU Ambassador (who is still employed as I write) knifed most of the administration. It was a stunning turnaround for a man who had invested $1m in Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. This was not a so-called Never Trumper (as some other witnesses has been accused of being). There was a quid pro quo, he insisted and everyone from Donald Trump, to the vice president and the secretary of state Mike Pompeo knew about it.
A few minutes before his 23-page opening statement, the US networks caught wind of what he was going to say. In the press seats, computers were buzzing with the alerts – it was a pivotal U-turn – evidence from an insider that would be seen as the most damaging yet.
Once he was sworn in, Mr Sondland not only explained how and who was involved in withholding aid, but he also undermined a key Republican defence.
In recent days the GOP has focused on the fact Donald Trump wanted an investigation into Joe Biden and Bursima to root out corruption. But Mr Sondland claimed the Ukrainians were only told to publicly announce the investigation – Mr Trump didn’t actually insist on an investigation being launched. That would appear to directly contradict the Republican defence that Mr Trump was applying pressure on Ukraine to tackle corruption, rather than for personal political gain.
Mr Trump was clearly rattled. In a rare move, he emerged on the South Lawn of the White House with some pre-prepared bullet points written in capital letters. He wanted to make clear there was no quid pro quo and he had said exactly that to Mr Sondland in a phone call. Mr Sondland, he claimed, wasn’t even someone he knew very well. But he was one of the “three amigos”, central to US policy in Ukraine.
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There were definitely weaknesses in Mr Sondland’s testimony. He admitted he was never actually told military aid was being held up as leverage for Biden and the 2016 probes. He didn’t really know why aid was suspended and he used vague language to describe Mr Trump directly discussing investigations. It was an easy line of attack. What was surprising is that they didn’t hit him harder on that. Eventually though, Jim Jordan, perhaps the president’s most effective attack dog, stepped into the breach, admonishing Mr Sondland for failing to make clear in his lengthy statement that Mr Trump has told him “no quid pro quo.”
As the hearing finished, the corridors were buzzing with anticipation. There is a choreography that has formed and we’ve come to expect Republicans and Democrats to hold impromptu press conferences. But only the Republicans emerged. They roundly rejected any claims of bribery and touted the day as a good one for their side.
As so often with President Trump, this may come down to language and how people interpret his words. They are rarely black and white. The Democrat-controlled House may well deem what Mr Trump said and did to be impeachable. But let’s not jump the gun. Sondland may be a major test for the Senate but few think they show any signs of budging yet. Twenty Republicans would need to vote to convict Mr Trump to unseat him. That still seems unlikely.