As the Impeachment Soap Opera Turns

The star of Wednesday’s episode in the impeachment inquiry show was Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, and despite his dull appearance he proved a fascinating character.
Sondland testified that President Donald Trump pursued a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian government to get political favors, and that the Vice President and Secretary of State and White House chief of staff and various other administration officials were in on it, and that he has e-mails and text messages and other evidence to back the claim. He also had an interesting back story about how he wound in the middle of it all.
Unlike the career diplomatic and military officials who had previously testified to a quid pro quo, having worked their way up the ranks through both Democratic and Republic administrations to find themselves working in Ukraine, Sondland had no previous foreign policy experience and seems to have bought his ambassadorship by donating a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee. He’s said to have made $60 million with a chain of upscale hotels, and for some reason rich guys often want to be ambassadors somewhere, and there’s a longstanding tradition of presidents rewarding big donors with a fancy title in some warm and scenic country of little economic and geopolitical importance.
Past presidents have always appointed more seasoned and well-credentialed ambassadors to the hot spots, but that’s another one of those longstanding presidential traditions that Trump cares nothing about, and he figured that his fellow hotelier was just the guy to represent America with the world’s third largest economy and our most important allies. Sondland seemed in over his head from the outset, and was unable to smooth over spats Trump was having with the EU over trade and defense issues, but Trump also dragged him into his dealings with non-EU member Ukraine, presumably because Trump expected him to loyally do whatever was asked of him.
Which is exactly what Sondland did, which is why he wound up testifying under oath on national television Wednesday. He remained loyal enough to Trump that he offered no damning testimony to a House committee in a closed session, but then hired a high-powered Washington lawyer who’s a veteran of some high-profile political scandals, and was persuaded to be more forthcoming and more in line what the career officials had testified in closed sessions and what the texts and e-mails and other evidence showed.
All of which made him a hard witness for his Trump’s dogged defenders among the Republican committee members to handle. They tried to cast the previous career professionals as traitorous “deep state” conspirators, and even one of the vice president’s top aides was slurred as a “Never Trumper,” but this was a guy who’d given Trump more than a million dollars and done the president’s bidding right up to the moment his lawyer explained the penalties for perjury and the way things often turn out for rank amateurs who find themselves in over their heads in a big political scandal. The Republicans seized on the fact that Sondland had amended his sworn testimony, which does raise credibility issues, but getting Sondland to admit that he’d erred by saying Trump hadn’t done anything wrong wasn’t much help to their cause.
Near the end of his testimony Sondland loyally testified that in his last telephone conversation with the president about the matter Trump had said he wanted nothing from Ukraine and offered no quid pro quo and asked Sondland to tell the Ukrainian president to “do the right thing.” Die-hard Trump defender California Rep. Devin Nunes demanded to know why that tidbit wasn’t in Sondland’s opening statement, and all the Republicans on the committee and the conservative media tried to make hay of it. Trump addressed a gaggle of media with Marine One’s rotor whirring in the background and dramatically read the statement, and declared he was therefore cleared of everything and everyone can move on, as there’s nothing to see here..
The show will go on though, for several reasons. For one, even someone so brazen as Trump is hard-pressed to argue that he’s been cleared by the lying rat who testified at the beginning of opening statement that Trump had pursued a quid pro quo for political gain. There’s also all that corroborating testimony from those career professionals with the impeccable records, and the texts and e-mails and other corroborating evidence. Not to mention the secular timing of that call when Trump suddenly sounded uncharacteristically high-minded about foreign policy.
Records indicate that the call came after Congress had a received a “whistle blower” complaint, deemed “urgent and credible” by two layers of Trump appointees in the intelligence community, about a shady quid pro quo Trump was working up with the Ukrainian government that was afoot, and we’re certain some Republican in Congress gave the White House warning about it. It was at that point that Trump chanting the mantra of “no quid pro,” and he’ll likely stick with the defense to the end.
Trump and the rest of his Republican party are still wanting to know everything about that “whistle blower” whose complaints started all this mess, and whatever Ukraine can say about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and potential Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s son and how Ukraine rather Russia meddled in the last election. They’re also arguing that Trump never got his quid in exchange for Ukraine’s quo in the end, so it’s no big deal, and certainly not impeachable, even as Trump insists against all evidence there was never any talk of a quid pro quo.
Even so, this byzantine reality show will surely slog on, and might well feature some big-name guest stars. Sondland’s testimony will likely result in subpoenas for the Vice President and Secretary of State and White House chief of staff and other administration officials, and if they’re compelled to testify under oath and on live television the ratings will be sky-high. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has also been frequently mentioned in the testimony, and he winds up as witness there’s no telling what he’ll say.. If they all ¬†somehow manage to dodge the duty, because of bone spurs or some legality technicality, that won’t look good.
Here’s hoping that it all ends with Sondland returning to his happy rich guy life of well-deserved anonymity, as we’ve come to rather like this character. Such an amiably idle rich guy who finds himself way in over his head in a big political scandal could have conjured only by real life or the great British satirists Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse, and with his balding head and sad sack face Sondland plays the part perfectly. Throughout hours of grilling from Republicans and Democrats alike he seemed quite comfortable, and occasionally even jocular, as when he admitted that telling Trump the president of Ukraine “loves his ass” sounded like something he would say.
This is an entirely subjective opinion, we must admit, but Sondland struck as someone who felt blissfully unburdened by telling the truth. He seemed to realize that his rich guy hubris had gotten him in way over his head in a historic political scandal, and that like others who had pledged loyalty to Trump he was best advised to exit the public stage with truthful testimony and a since mea culpa. His hotel business is already suffering from the Democratic backlash against his million dollar donation to Trump and his shady dealings on Trump’s behalf, and the Republicans all regard him as traitor to the cause, even as they cite him as proof that Trump was blameless all along.
At this point we have no rooting interest in either side, but we liked the satisfied look on Sondland’s face when he finished his testimony. That he ended with the beginning of Trump’s “no quid pro quo” defense only made him more believable. He seemed a man that had done the right thing in the end, putting his faith in truth ahead of his faith in princes, and was free at last. How it turns out for the rest of the Trump loyalists remains to be seen.

— Bud Norman

When There’s No Getting Over It

Ambassador William Taylor spent 10 hours testifying to a House oversight committee on Tuesday about the Ukraine brouhaha, and by the time it was over President Donald Trump and his apologists needed yet another new defense.
Ever since a “whistleblower” report alleged that Trump had sought election help from the Ukrainian president during negotiations over aid and arms sales Trump and his defenders have insisted it was “fake news” and even if it did happen there was no quid pro quo, which does not let them off the hook for illegally soliciting foreign influence in American election, but doesn’t sound as bad,¬†so it’s no big deal. In fact, the president insists, the phone call was “perfect.”
Since then both friendly and hostile witnesses have testified, texts have been released, and all of it made it sure like that there had indeed been a quid pro quo, even if no one was careless enough to use the term. It didn’t help when White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told a news conference that Trump did indeed withhold help to Ukraine unless it agreed to investigate a possible Democratic presidential nominee, adding that “we do it all the time — get over it,” or when Gordon Sondland, the big bucks Trump donor was tabbed as Ambassador to the European Union without any diplomatic experience, testified about his involvement in what sure sounded like a quid pro quo.
Taylor’s testimony the defense even harder to sell. A West Point graduate and a veteran of the Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq wars with an unblemished record of service to both Democratic and Republican administration over the past 50 years, he’ll be hard to smear as an America-hating “deep state” operative, but Trump tried that with war hero and respected public servant Robert Mueller, so maybe they’ll try it again.
Along with his stellar reputation Taylor brought documents and notes and other evidence to back up his account, which pretty damning to Trump. He was acting ambassador to Ukraine during that disputed phone call, and he describes how Sondland and soon-departing Energy Secretary Rick Perry and envoy and longtime Trump loyalist Kurt Volcker were running an “irregular” foreign policy with Ukraine that worked against longstanding principles of the United States government. He also testified that Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and two of his recently indicted-and-jailed associates were also involved in gaining political help from the Ukrainians, and had undermined well-regarded and soon removed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch because they saw her as an impediment to a possible deal.
Trump will continue to chant his “no quid pro quo” mantra, if only to calm himself, but at this point his best defense is probably “So what?” He might as well come right out and reiterate that “We do it all the time — get over it,” as his die-hard fans don’t seem to mind. He’s already selling “Get over it” t-shirts at his campaign’s web site, and we expect to see a lot of them at the next Make America Great Again rally.

— Bud Norman