Sondland revises testimony on quid pro quo

Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the EU and a key player in the dispute over what the Trump administration said or didn’t say to Ukraine about military aid, has revised his testimony to the House impeachment probers. He says the revision is the result of having his memory refreshed by the testimony of Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine.

The Washington Post reports:

In a “supplemental declaration” provided to the House impeachment inquiry Monday, Sondland wrote, “I now recall speaking individually” with a Ukrainian official and in that conversation saying “that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”

Any competent journalist would follow up this paragraph by immediately describing the nature of “the public anti-corruption statement that [Sondland and the Ukrainian official] had been discussing for many weeks.” If that statement was a general pledge to combat corruption, for example, then there was nothing wrong with withholding aid until Ukraine made the statement.

If that statement included a promise to investigate Joe Biden, then the administration’s position would be problematic. The provision of U.S. military aid should not be made to depend on a foreign government investigating a political rival of the U.S. president.

Unfortunately, Post reporters Shane Harris and Aaron Davis don’t bother to tell us in the following paragraphs what the “anti-corruption statement” was. Instead, they promptly assume the worst — that the statement encompassed investigating the Bidens.

Towards the end of the article, we finally get a discussion of what kind of statement Sondland had been discussing with Ukraine:

Sondland negotiated with Ukrainian officials in August to craft a press statement that said they would investigate corruption, as part of a bid to schedule a meeting between the two leaders, he said.

The initial draft, he said, had no specific commitments: “It just said corruption per se.”

Later, he said, Giuliani added new conditions about referencing Burisma, the Ukrainian company that employed Biden’s son.

It’s not clear from this reporting whether “the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks” was the initial draft that just said corruption, or a later version that referenced Burisma. It’s also not clear that a reference to investigating Burisma would be tantamount to an investigation of Joe Biden. Finally, it’s not clear whether Rudy Giuliani was adding “new conditions about referencing Burisma” at Trump’s instruction or on his own.

Evidence that Trump wanted the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens can be found in Trump’s own statement to Ukraine’s president in late June. He said:

There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that[,] so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.

Trump wasn’t asking Ukraine to look into Burisma generally. He was asking it to look into Joe Biden, the guy who bragged about stopping the prosecution.

In the phone conversation between Trump and Ukraine’s president, there is no direct statement of a quid pro quo involving aid (or a visit to Washington) in exchange for “looking into” Joe Biden. It is other evidence, such as Sondland’s revised testimony that shows a quid pro quo. The phone conversation makes it clear, I think, that what Trump sought was not just a generic anti-corruption statement and not just a general investigation of Burisma, but rather a probe by Ukraine of Joe Biden.

The way the House Democrats reveal evidence to the public makes it difficult to stitch together a chronology of the relevant events. We get a piece here relating to one time frame, then a piece there relating to another.

Even so, I don’t think there’s much doubt about what was going on. Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and he tried, for a time, to use military aid (along with a visit to the U.S. by Ukraine’s president) to get the Ukrainians to undertake one. Sondland’s revised testimony is another piece of evidence that supports this version of events.

This is why the editors of National Review contend, as Andy McCarthy has, that Trump and some of his supporters are making the wrong defense when they insist there was no offer of a quid pro quo involving aid for an investigation of Biden. The better defense, say the editors, is that there is no high crime and misdemeanor because Ukraine got military aid without making any statement committing to the investigations.

I agree that this is the better defense against impeachment/removal. However, I can understand why Trump’s supporters want to deny the “aid for an investigation of Biden” narrative.

This is not conduct most Americans (including me) want to see from their president. And the “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard applies to impeachment, not elections.

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