November 20, 2019

Today was a day for the history books.

Gordon Sondland, the Ambassador to the European Union who became Trump’s point man for pressuring Ukraine to announce an investigation into the Bidens, took the floor at the impeachment hearings. The testimony of other witnesses has made it clear that they were setting up Sondland to be the fall guy for whatever trouble came from the Ukraine scandal, and today Sondland set out to protect himself by burning it all down. He flipped from an administration man to a witness for those trying to figure out what really happened, and in the process, he implicated Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and, of course, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Everyone was “in the loop” on the scheme to force the Ukrainians to declare they were opening an investigation into the Bidens, he said, and it was understood that Ukraine would not get a visit to the White House—a vital signal of American support in the face of Russian aggression—until that declaration was made. When asked if the deal was a “quid pro quo,” Sondland answered “yes.”

The Republican defenders of the president did not know Sondland’s dramatic flip was coming. They had asked Sondland’s legal team for information about what he was planning to say and had been rebuffed. So they assumed he was still on board with the administration, leaving Devin Nunes (R-CA), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, to deliver an opening statement commiserating with Sondland. “Ambassador Sondland, you are here today to be smeared,” he said. “But you’ll make it through it and I appreciate your service to this country and I am sorry that you’ve had to go through this.” Nunes was right, of course. Sondland absolutely was smeared during the course of the day. But, after his opening statement, the smearing was not by Democrats, but by Nunes and his colleagues.

When Sondland began to read his statement, the shock around the country was palpable. In all of American history, we have never before heard a high-ranking member of an administration implicate the top members of that administration in a criminal scheme. In the hearing room, as Sondland read his statement, Republicans filed out until their seats in the chamber were notably vacant, likely to plan their next moves. And they needed them. Nunes was visibly shaken by the statement, and Republican counsel, Steve Castor, was so blindsided that at one point during questioning ran out of things to say and had to yield back his time. Some of his questions elicited yet more damning information.

In the course of the day, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo both released statements denying the allegations, although the statements were notable for their careful wording. Trump, too, spoke to reporters with a list of talking points, helpfully caught by a photographer, that echoed the wording of his statement to Sondland after former Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor flagged what they were doing. Democrats noted that that Trump’s declaration stating he wanted “no quid pro quo” (when the heck did everyone start speaking Latin?!) was on September 9, the day the House Intelligence Committee learned there was a whistleblower complaint that was illegally being withheld from it; that is, he was caught.

And Giuliani handled today’s disastrous testimony by angrily tweeting at the TV.

In the end, to try to refute Sondland, the Republicans were left relying on the antics of Ohio’s Jim Jordan and Texas’s John Ratcliffe. They yelled carefully cherry-picked pieces of evidence at Sondland and hammered on the fact that Trump had never explicitly said to Sondland that he was extorting the Ukrainians. As Trump fixer Michael Cohen (now in prison) pointed out, Trump has always applied pressure with suggestions that allow him plausible deniability, first of all, and second, Sondland repeated again and again that Trump told him to “Talk to Rudy,” and that Giuliani was quite clear that Ukraine must make the announcement of an investigation into Burisma before it got either a White House visit or the money Congress had appropriated for it. The Republicans’ yelling was a sign of desperation and it was designed to frame this disaster to snow Fox News Channel viewers. It will not convince anyone else.

Sondland implicated the leaders of the administration in a criminal conspiracy. But while his story is damning, the investigation is not yet over. Sondland has changed his testimony three times now, and is clearly motivated by a keen desire to stay out of jail. He is an extraordinarily wealthy hotel owner who evidently so wanted to add the cachet of an ambassadorship to his resume that he was willing to dump $1 million into Trump’s inauguration fund, and also clearly loved the idea he was playing with world leaders, but he is not really an insider. He has no need to fall on his sword, so is willing to spill anything that will help his case. But while he sure scored hits today, he was also clearly being very careful with his wording over some issues, and there is no reason to take his testimony as gospel truth. Certainly his claim that Ukraine fell within his portfolio is wrong and self-serving. Ukraine is not part of the European Union, and at the time he began his shenanigans, Ukraine had an ambassador, and a very good one: Marie Yovanovitch.

Still, my long-standing prediction that this administration ends in a resignation is looking stronger than it did a day ago. (Aside from anything else, Republicans’ attempts to defend Trump by blaming Giuliani for everything could spark Giuliani’s self-preservation instincts, just as Sondland’s kicked in, and Giuliani undoubtedly knows a great deal that Trump would like to keep hidden.)

If we cannot assume that Sondland will take down the entire Trump administration, though, there was a larger story behind today’s scorched earth testimony that we can bank on, and it’s the whole game: America is now being run by leaders who are so determined to stay in power that they are willing to sell out America in exchange for foreign help rigging an election.

Never forget, among all the talk of meetings and statements and texts, and who knew what when, the Ukraine scandal was about undermining Trump’s leading Democratic challenger by starting rumors that he was under investigation for a crime, exactly as happened in 2016 with Trump’s constant refrain about Hillary Clinton’s emails. He is afraid he cannot win in a free and fair election, so he wants to rig it. To do that, he was willing to sell out America. Congress members did not appropriate money for Ukraine out of the goodness of their hearts; they believed that Russia is a dire threat to America and that shoring up Ukraine in its fight to stop Russian expansion was crucial for our national security. Trump’s plot weakened Ukraine and strengthened Russia. Indeed, if he hadn’t been caught and had managed to run the clock out for just a few more weeks, the fiscal year would’ve ended on September 30 and the money would never have gotten released. This would have left Ukraine, and our interest in keeping it pro-democracy, at Russia’s mercy.

All of this is illegal of course, but it is also something much more profound. It is an attack on American democracy itself, taking away our right to choose our own leaders. And it was not just one rogue president and his aides in on the scheme, but also the vice president, secretary of state, and a slew of other top officials.

We are in a profound crisis, but I am hopeful. With today’s revelations, the stakes are finally quite clear. This is not about Republicans or Democrats, but about America, and those of us who care about democracy now have a fighting chance of keeping it.