Perhaps it’s a sign of our strange political times that Portland hotelier Gordon Sondland, a frequent Republican donor and President Donald Trump’s pick to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, could emerge as a hero of sorts for Democrats watching the Trump impeachment inquiry.
Sondland, who has been targeted by anti-Trump protesters in recent weeks, delivered to a congressional committee last Wednesday emails, texts and damaging testimony that implicated not only the president but also other top administration officials in an alleged effort to withhold aid and pressure Ukraine into initiating an investigation that would benefit Trump politically. Sondland’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee triggered an avalanche of approval from Democrats, including a “welcome to the resistance” tweet from Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Portland, who just weeks ago had urged a boycott of the ambassador’s hotels.
In reality, Sondland’s testimony might not change anyone’s mind about whether the president should face articles of impeachment. Congressional Democrats and Republicans seem just as committed to their divergent views as ever. But without question, Sondland’s sworn statements should erase any worries by members of the public that this impeachment inquiry is the partisan witch hunt that Trump loyalists have claimed.
In his six-hour appearance last week, Sondland testified that he and other top U.S. officials all understood that U.S. military aid to Ukraine was contingent on the country’s announcing an investigation into a company tied to the son of Trump’s political rival Joe Biden. The ambassador said Trump expressly directed him to work with the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to achieve those objectives, torpedoing some House Republicans’ conjecture that Giuliani was acting on his own. And while the State Department has blocked release of documents to the committee, Sondland brought some of his own emails and text messages to back up his testimony that “everyone was in the loop” about Trump’s expectations – with “everyone” including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney.
Such damning information from one of Trump’s assumed allies helps shred the argument that Democrats manufactured a scandal to bring down Trump. Rather, Sondland’s testimony clarifies once again that Congress not only has the right to investigate whether the president is abusing the authority of his singular office; it has the obligation. The power that Americans entrust to all our elected officials should be used for fulfilling the country’s national interest, not chasing the whims or vendettas of any one individual.
A coronation, however, is not in order for Sondland. While his decision to testify in spite of State Department opposition is laudable, the ambassador provided the committee with incomplete testimony that required a significant revision just a few weeks ago – after other witnesses’ statements about his actions “refreshed” his memory. His own testimony and that of others also paint an unflattering portrait of Sondland as an accidental diplomat at best and a dupe at worst. Sondland was given the plum ambassadorship after donating $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee – a perk that, unfortunately, both major parties use to reward donors – despite clearly lacking the experience, curiosity, historical knowledge and instincts of the career diplomats around him
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He claimed that he did not know the connection between Burisma, the energy company Trump wanted investigated, and the Bidens – despite the fact that Hunter Biden’s position as a board member was well reported and easily discovered in a quick Google search. He knew Trump wanted Ukraine to publicly announce an investigation before welcoming the Ukrainian president to the White House and, Sondland gathered, before releasing military aid, but failed to grasp the impropriety of such a demand.
And while Sondland didn’t relish the idea of working with Giuliani, he also didn’t seem to recognize the risks and hazards of using foreign policy to achieve the political goals set by the president’s personal lawyer. As former National Security Council official Fiona Hill said so devastatingly in her testimony last week, she now realizes that her frustration with Sondland for pursuing conflicting objectives was misplaced. “We weren’t doing the same thing,” she said. “He was being involved in a domestic political errand and we were being involved in national security foreign policy.”
For his part, Sondland appeared to bask in the attention of last week’s committee appearance, grinning for cameras and joking occasionally as the day wore on. But he should take his admitted lack of awareness as a hint to reflect on whether he is truly serving the country well as its ambassador to the European Union. He hasn’t appeared to, considering his lawyer indicated to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Jeff Manning that Sondland was eager to return to Brussels to continue the job he’s been doing.
The public deserves to know more, but so far, top officials in the administration have resisted answering questions or releasing pertinent documents. Instead, Trump’s allies have gone to great lengths throughout the impeachment inquiry to try to shift the focus onto the Bidens, the CIA whistleblower who triggered the inquiry and anything else to deflect attention from the allegations that the president sought to coerce a foreign government into conducting investigations for Trump’s political gain.
The deflection hasn’t worked. Sondland’s testimony, as well as that from the other witnesses, shines the spotlight right back where it belongs.
— The Oregonian/OregonLive