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Impeachment Today Podcast: Gordon Sondland Paid A Million Dollars And All He Got Was This Lousy Impeachment

The bizarre story of the Trump donor who put up a million bucks, and in return got caught up in a historic presidential scandal.

Posted on November 7, 2019, at 11:09 a.m. ET

BuzzFeed News

It's Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, 44 days since House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Every morning, the Impeachment Today podcast helps you separate whatโ€™s real and groundbreaking from whatโ€™s just, well, bullshit.

In today's episode: Bill Taylor, who ran the US embassy in Ukraine, gives a detailed account of how it all went down with Rudy Giuliani, President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky. And we talk to our DC bureau chief Kate Nocera about Gordon Sondland, the Trump donor who paid a million dollars for the privilege of getting caught up in a giant presidential scandal. What a deal!

You can listen to today's episode below, or check it out on on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

It's Thursday, November 7, 2019, 44 days since the house launched its impeachment inquiry. And this is Impeachment Today. Good morning. I'm HB, reporter and editor at Buzzfeed News. Things are about to get spicy down on the hill and I for one am excited and pretty exhausted. Okay. Today we're talking to Buzzfeed News DC bureau Chief Kate Nocera about Gordon Sondland, the hotel owner turned ambassador turned key witness in the impeachment inquiry.

But before we get to all that, let's catch up on what happened yesterday. President Trump wanted Attorney General Bill Barr to hold a press conference announcing that there were no crimes committed in his call with the president of Ukraine because, of course, he did. Barr clearly did not hold that press conference. But as the Washington Post reported last night, the president has told people he was pretty disappointed. Barr's name was brought up alongside Rudy Giuliani's in Trump's call with Ukraine's President Zelensky.

But Barr has maintained that he never followed up on it or taken any action involving Ukraine, and the justice department has worked to make clear that whatever Giuliani was up to, he was not working with DOJ. But that does not mean the justice department hasn't had an effect on how this story has played out.

After receiving the whistleblower's complaint, the department reportedly chose not to pursue an investigation into whether campaign finance violations took place. They made that decision apparently after just reading the transcript-ish of Trump's call. Meanwhile, another day, another deposition transcript released by House Democrats. This time it was Ambassador Bill Taylor, the chargรฉ d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. That's a fancy term. That means he's running the place, but not actually the official ambassador. Taylor provided an intensely detailed account of his time in Ukraine since he arrived at this spring, and he was more than happy to provide Congress with direct quotes that he'd written down as they were said.

Now, here's one of the most important things that Taylor told Congress. I think the origin of the idea to get President Zelensky to say out loud he's going to investigate Burisma in 2016 election, I think the originator, the person who came up with that was Mr. Giuliani. When asked whose interest Giuliani was representing, Taylor said simply, "President Trump." Okay, that was the news. This is the noise.

Rudy Giuliani nearly made an infomercial for a company called Fraud Guarantee. That's the name of the company owned by Lev Parnas, one of the people Rudy Giuliani worked with when doing his sleuthing in Ukraine. Parnas hired Giuliani for $500,000 to do legal work for the company, the New York Times reported. Giuliani wouldn't talk to me that TV spokesperson for the company as of earlier this year, according to the Daily Beast. The commercials would have aired on daytime cable, and we're supposed to spin up after Giuliani finishes work defending Trump during the Russia investigation, but it's not clear what he would have been promoting. The company apparently didn't have any clients.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention this. In his testimony, Bill Taylor noted that this summer it was hard to schedule a meeting with president to talk about Ukraine. Part of that was because various senior officials were traveling, but also Taylor said, "I think this was also about the time of the Greenland question about purchasing Greenland. And that took up a lot of energy in the National Security Council." Greenland.

And now for the numerically-inclined of you, we have today's reading from our Nixometer.

On our scale, a zero is a normal day in a normal White House, and 10, is President Richard Nixon resigning and flying away in a helicopter? And this morning we're at a six. Yeah, a six. There was a lot of news yesterday, but the momentum of the impeachment movement feels a little slowed for now. Things are said to pick up next week in a big way. Huge. So, hang on, everyone.

Okay, after the break, we talk to Kate Nocera about Gordon Sondland. Stick around, guys.

All right. It is time for another edition of This Fucking Guy. It's where we take a closer look at a person, event, or idea that's shaping the impeachment saga. Today we're talking about Gordon Sondland. He's Trump's ambassador to the European union, and my guy has some stories to tell. Well, now that he's remembered them anyway. Here in the studio to talk about Sondland is Kate Nocera, Buzzfeed News DC Bureau Chief and currently a person who is having a stress meltdown over impeachment. Hello, Kate.

Kate Nocera:

Hello.

Hayes Brown:

So Sondland reportedly donated $1 million to the President's inauguration committee to get his position as ambassador. What do you think? Good investment at this point?

KN:

I mean look, the job that he has, EU ambassador, that's like a very plum gig. That's the gig that you want if you are a top donor to a president. I think probably in the moment he felt like that was a great investment. Now, now that he's being dragged in front of the committees, maybe not so much.

HB:

Right because normally it's just you go to Brussels, you hang out, and schmooze with some European union leaders.

KN:

You take weekend trips to Paris. Sounds really lovely.

HB:

Instead he decided, "You know what I want to do? Ukraine. That's my shit right there, my guys. I want that."

KN:

He's very into it.

HB:

Sondland's fingerprints have been all over this mess, especially in those text messages that Congress released earlier this week. What's your take so far? Do you think he knew what he was doing?

KN:

It's a little tough to tell. I mean, it's always the line between active criminality and stupidness is very fine in this whole drama. He definitely realized-

HB:

Some point in.

KN:

Some point, "Oh, I could get in a lot of trouble here if I don't clean some things up." I'm not sure if he knew exactly what he was doing. He very clearly knew that something had to be done. He was trying to facilitate this conversation between the President of Ukraine and Trump and really wanted it to happen and was told the only way it could happen was via one Rudolph Giuliani.

HB:

Right. And so the story that he apparently has been telling Congress according to his testimony was, "Okay, so I was being told by Giuliani that we had to investigate Burisma," whatever that is. "But I had no idea it had to do with Joe Biden. I don't know what a Google is." So it's really wild that he could be in this position where he knows that Giuliani has to be the guy to sign off on all these policies, but didn't do the research. What do you think? Do you think Congress is going to buy that?

KN:

No, and I mean they clearly didn't. I mean, at the end of the day, right? If you read his original testimony, it's like, "I don't remember. I don't recall. I can't quite place that. Maybe this happened, but I don't really remember." And so then on Tuesday he comes out with this addendum to his testimony that says, "You know, I've had some time to think about it. And upon further reflection seems like there was a quid pro quo."

HB:

Right. And so what's the [rue 00:07:06] been like from Republicans on his testimony, especially after this reversal where he did say, "Yes, there was a quid pro quo. I did tell the Ukrainians that in order to get this foreign aid, you have to say publicly that you're doing these investigations into Biden and the 2016 U.S. election."?

KN:

So there have been two reactions from Republican or three. One, haven't read the testimony.

HB:

Of course.

KN:

Sorry, I can't weigh in on it. Two, that's just like his opinion, man, which we're calling the Big Lebowski defense. Not original. I stole that from Twitter. I don't remember who. Apologies to them. And the third reaction that I saw sort of bubbling up on Twitter yesterday was that Sondland during the campaign put out a statement saying his values don't align with Donald Trump's values. He's a lifelong Republican. But he couldn't support the president during the campaign, which many, many Republicans were doing. And then once he won, kind of changed their vibe. But it's very clear that the defense is, he doesn't like the president.

HB:

So he's flipped from being a supporter to a never-Trumper after the Access Hollywood tape came out to donating million dollars, get back in good races to now. Yeah, he's kind of been on a winding path.

KN:

It's almost like he's doing whatever is politically expedient for him in the moment.

HB:

How about that in Washington? Go on then. Okay, so it is a year into the future. It is just after the 2020 election. What's Gordon Sondland up to in your opinion?

KN:

I don't know. Maybe he's hiding out in Brussels. He's just not going to leave.

HB:

Sanctuary!

KN:

There's the question of like, how much trouble do you want to get in for Rudy Giuliani? And I think Gordon Sondland made the decision that he actually didn't want to get into a lot of trouble for Rudy Giuliani. But yeah, he's definitely that fucking guy, and we will probably be hearing more from him I think in the future.

HB:

Before we let you go though, it's time for the segment we call the Kicker where we ask our guests to bring in a quote, a tweet, audio clip of something that really sums up to them where we are in this moment. So Kate, what do you got for us?

KN:

So this is something Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters yesterday, and I saw this tweet from Steven Portnoy, "Senator Lindsey Graham defending Trump now says the president and his aides 'seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo,' because their policy toward Ukraine was so 'incoherent.'" So we have fully moved-

HB:

Oh my God.

KN:

Into... No, actually everyone was too dumb to do crimes.

HB:

Chef's kiss. That's like you brought a really good one in, Kate. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your non-existent free time to do this. I really appreciate it, and we'll be talking to you soon, I'm sure.

KN:

Anything for you, Hayes Brown.

Hayes Brown:

All right. It is time to testify where we talk about who's testifying to Congress next and what you can expect, and, wow, we have got some updates for you. So White House Acting Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, will not be appearing before Congress anytime soon. House Democrats invited him to speak behind closed doors this week and he said pass. But Democrats are like, "Who cares? We're moving on." Because next week is the start of open impeachment hearings, the most exciting, boring thing that will change the world and/or nothing at all. We'll talk more about what to expect from all of that soon, but for now, here's the schedule.

On Wednesday, the nation will hear from two career diplomats, Ambassador Bill Taylor, currently running the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, and George Kent, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian affairs. And next Friday, we'll have Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S Ambassador to Ukraine telling her story before cameras. All three have already testified behind closed doors, but now it's when a lot of people are going to be really tuned in to the whole saga to television. You know what I mean? Anyway, it's going to be lit, folks. Absolutely lit. Okay, that's it for today. But before we go, a special treat. We imagined what that Giuliani infomercial might've sounded like and well, just have a listen.

Are you worried about frauds? Want guarantees? We'll get on down to Fraud Guarantee right here in sunny Boca Raton for our biggest sale ever. Fraud Guarantee! At Fraud Guarantee, we protect your identity while also doing several other things unrelated to crimes unrelated to crimes. Un. Related. Need a campaign contribution that comes from a very real company? Fraud Guarantee. Fraud Guarantee! Need an ambassador fired? Fraud Guarantee. We're allegedly in serious legal trouble, so everything's got to go. Our crazy prices won't last! Come on by and tell him big Rudy sent you. You don't want to miss it.

Hayes Brown

What might've been. Okay, so it's unlikely we'll actually hear from Rudy. Though if he wants to come on the show, Mr. Mayor, we'd love to have you. We definitely want to keep hearing from you, the listeners, though. All this week we're asking you to send us the things about impeachment you're most curious about. What are your questions? What doesn't make sense? Open the voice memo app on your phone. Tell us your question and email it to impeachment@buzzfeed.com. We'll be including some of your sponsors on a future episode. So tell us your name and where you are in the world. Be sure to subscribe on the the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows - and leave us a rating and a review if you feel like it. Also tell your friends about the show as we all try to figure this out together. Oh, lastly, a special thanks to Ryan Loya, a vocal genius and the best Rudy our budget could buy.

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