A year ago, Portland hotel magnate Gordon Sondland seemed to be pretty unextraordinary, at least in this, our blessed Trump Era. For all intents and purposes, Sondland was just one more Ayn Rand-reading, self-proclaimed "pillar of the community" who gave Trump so much money that he bought himself an ambassadorship he was wholly unqualified for.
(How unqualified? Sources say that closed-door testimony provided by Fiona Hill, Trump's former policy adviser for Russia and Europe, essentially characterized Sondland as someone who, as the New York Times put it, was "metaphorically driving in an unfamiliar place with no guardrails and no GPS," and "a counterintelligence risk because his actions made him vulnerable to foreign governments who could exploit his inexperience.")
All that changed this morning, though, when Sondland threw pretty much everyone who's of interest in the impeachment investigation directly under the bus, testifying to the House Intelligence Committee that he and others "followed the president's orders" when it came to the scandal at the core of the inquiry.
With this morning's testimony, Sondland continued to revise his previous testimony, which was, alas, offered at a time when he was plagued by a sudden and mysterious memory loss that doctors have yet to officially diagnose.
Sondland didn't waste any time, either, with a no-holds-barred opening statement that clearly caught Republicans, including Devin Nunes, utterly flat-footed. (Trump loyalist Nunes, wrote Eric Lutz at Vanity Fair, "seemed unprepared for Gordon Sondland's damning testimony as he went to even more absurd lengths to defend the president.")
"Secretary [Rick] Perry, Ambassador [Kurt] Volker, and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the President of the United States," Sondland said in his opening statement, simultaneously implicating Trump and Guiliani while also complaining about Giuliani the same way everyone complains about that one coworker they can't stand.
"We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani," Sondland said. "Simply put, we were playing the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose a very important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the president's orders."
Sondland kept going, too, testifying that Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a slew of other major figures in the Trump administration—so many of them, in fact, that Sondland eventually just gave up and said, "A lot of senior officials. A lot of senior officials"—were "in the loop" regarding a quid pro quo arrangement between the Trump administration and Ukraine president and former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. The Trump administration's dispensation of financial aid to Ukraine was dependent on whether Zelensky was willing to publicly announce Ukraine would launch an investigation that could smear the reputation of Joe Biden, Trump's political opponent.
"Everyone was in the loop," Sondland said. "It was no secret. Everyone was informed."
In a sane world, Sondland's testimony would be major. In a world where two-thirds of Americans insist that "no new information" will change their opinion on impeachment? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Sondland was also clear that it wasn't an actual investigation that anyone in the Trump administration wanted—just an announcement of an investigation. Any outcome of an investigation couldn't matter less; the important thing was the PR.
"Now, for Mr. Giuliani by this point, you understood that in order to get that White House meeting—that you wanted President Zelensky to have and that President Zelensky desperately wanted to have—that Ukraine would have to initiate these two investigations. Is that right?" asked House Intelligence Committee counsel Daniel S. Goldman.
"Well, they would have to announce that they were going to do it," said Sondland.
"Right," Goldman continued. "Because Giuliani and President Trump didn't actually care if they did them, right?"
"I never heard, Mr. Goldman, anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed," Sondland replied. "The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise was that they had to be announced in some form, and that form kept changing."
Is there more? Of course there's more. Sondland's still going! But already, in the space of just a few hours, Sondland has dealt a series of brutal blows to the GOP's attempts to both cover up and justify Trump's actions. This morning's testimony was remarkable, and in the coming days (or, hell, probably in the coming hours), we'll begin to get a sense of how much impact it'll have. In a sane world, this would be major. In a world where two-thirds of Americans insist that "no new information" will change their opinion on impeachment? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Trump hasn't said much about Sondland's testimony, but he did briefly speak with reporters this morning about Sondland—a man who, Trump tweeted, last month, is "a really good man and great American."
"I don't know him very well. I have not spoken to him much," Trump told reporters this morning. "This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though."