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Impeachment Today Podcast | Gordon Sondland: Messy, Loves Drama

In today's episode, everything you need to know about the *extremely* lively testimony yesterday from EU ambassador and Trump donor Gordon Sondland.

Posted on November 21, 2019, at 3:50 p.m. ET

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Gordon Sondland, the U.S ambassador to the European Union, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee.

It's Thursday, November 21st, 2019, 55 days since House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Every morning, the Impeachment Today podcast helps you separate what’s real and groundbreaking from what’s just, well, bullshit.

In today's episode: everything you need to know about a long day of hearings Wednesday, dominated by the testimony of Gordon Sondland, the Trump donor who was made US ambassador to the European Union and got wrapped up in the Ukraine saga. He had a lot to say! And both Democrats and Republicans had a lot to ask him.

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 21st, 2019, 58 days into the impeachment inquiry, and day five of impeachment hearings, and this is Impeachment Today.

Good morning. I'm Hayes Brown, reporter and editor at BuzzFeed News. And wow, that was a fucking day. So we're going to get you all caught up on yesterday's bombshell testimony ahead of the home stretch of this week's marathon of hearings. We learned a hell of a lot, so let's get the ball rolling.

One of the most highly anticipated witnesses testified on Wednesday morning, and holy shit. The US Ambassador to the European Union delivered. Gordon Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee that there was a deal in play to trade a White House meeting in exchange for Ukraine announcing the investigations that Trump wanted for political reasons, the quid pro quo that Trump and his allies still deny, to break the fancy Latin out.

Gordon Sondland:

Mr. Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky. Mr Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election DNC server, and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew these investigations were important to the President.

Hayes Brown:

He also said that by early September he'd concluded that nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine on hold would remain frozen until those investigations were announced. Here's him talking about it with the Democrats' lawyer.

Democrat Lawyer:

And you understood the Ukrainians received no credible explanation. Is that right?

Gordon Sondland:

I certainly didn't, couldn't give them one.

Democrat Lawyer:

So is this a two plus two equals four conclusion that you reached?

Gordon Sondland:

Pretty much.

Democrat Lawyer:

It's the only logical conclusion to you that, given all of these factors, that the aid was also a part of this quid pro quo?

Gordon Sondland:

Yep.

Hayes Brown:

Not only that, Sondland said that many, many people were aware of the efforts. The wheels on the bus were spattered with gore from all the people he ran over in the first hour and a half. Here's him, first during his opening statement.

Gordon Sondland:

If we wanted to get anything done with Ukraine, it was apparent to us we needed to talk to Rudy.

Democrat Lawyer:

Right. You understood that Mr. Giuliani spoke for the President, correct?

Gordon Sondland:

That's correct.

Hayes Brown:

And the hits kept coming as he basically read off the administration's org chart.

Democrat Lawyer:

By this time, you and many top officials knew that that coveted White House meeting for President Zelensky was conditioned on these investigations, right?

Gordon Sondland:

The announcement of the investigations, correct.

Democrat Lawyer:

Thank you. And that includes Secretary Pompeo, right?

Gordon Sondland:

Many, many people.

Democrat Lawyer:

Well, Secretary Pompeo?

Gordon Sondland:

Yes.

Democrat Lawyer:

And acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney?

Gordon Sondland:

Yes.

Hayes Brown:

Oh, and we can't forget Vice President Mike Pence. Here's Sondland talking about a meeting held in advance of Mike Pence sitting down with the President of Ukraine.

Gordon Sondland:

I spoke up at some point late in the meeting and said, "It looks like everything is being held up until these statements get made, and that's my personal belief."

Democrat Lawyer:

And Vice President Pence just nodded his head?

Gordon Sondland:

Again, I don't recall any exchange, or where he asked me any questions. I think it was sort of a duly noted response.

Democrat Lawyer:

Well, he didn't say, "Gordon, what are you talking about?"

Gordon Sondland:

No, he did not.

Democrat Lawyer:

He didn't say, "What investigations?"

Gordon Sondland:

He did not.

Hayes Brown:

That is so many people who allegedly knew about the deal the President was allegedly angling to make. The Republicans' lawyer responded by asking Sondland about testimony from last week's hearing that said that he was part of an irregular channel conducting a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine, basically going rogue.

Republican Lawyer:

I'm not sure how someone could characterize something as an irregular channel when you're talking to the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, the Chief of Staff of the White House, the Secretary of Energy.

Republican Lawyer:

I don't know how that's irregular. If a bunch of folks that are not in that channel are aggrieved for some reason for not being included, I don't know how they can consider us to be the irregular channel.

Hayes Brown:

That is honestly so bad for the President, though. If Sondland is saying he did all of these things while briefing and updating and acting on behalf of the administration's top officials, that's bad for the White House. And through it all, there was never an official change in policy announced to the American people.

Meanwhile, here's the best that ranking member Devin Nunes could drag up in his questions to Sondland. He basically complained that Sondland couldn't prepare properly because he didn't have testimony that an Office of Management and Budget official gave last Saturday, which hasn't been released yet.

Devin Nunes:

I would think it's obstruction of justice to not give the American people, and give the Ambassador, the right to look at the transcript of the man who's in charge of the foreign aid in this town.

Now, I can get into what he said, but...the Chair could release what he said. And we're not even allowed to call that witness here today.

Hayes Brown:

That might be a textbook example of a weak sauce argument, considering what a democratic aide on the Intelligence Committee said Monday night.

Nunes apparently had the opportunity to get any excerpts from the transcript he was yelling about. So I guess that they didn't need them after all.

Sondland's memory has been shaky in the past. After his first closed-door deposition, he had to add an update to say that yes, he had talked about a quid pro quo with a Ukrainian official. In his new testimony, his memories were a bit clearer, but it wasn't exactly photographic, shall we say.

Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York called him on some of his past equivocations in a pretty intense moment.

Maloney:

So answer this. When he asked you about investigations, which we all agree now means the Bidens, we just did this about 30 seconds ago. Right?

It's pretty simple question, isn't it? I guess I'm having trouble why you can't just say-

Gordon Sondland:

When he asked about investigations, I assumed he meant-

Maloney:

I know what you assumed-

Gordon Sondland:

...the company. He's-

Maloney:

But who would benefit from an investigation of the Bidens?

Gordon Sondland:

They're two different questions.

Maloney:

I'm just asking you one. Who would benefit from an investigation of the Bidens?

Sondland:

I assume president Trump would benefit.

Maloney:

There we have it. See? Didn't hurt a bit, did it? Didn't hurt a bit.

But let me ask you something.

Gordon Sondland:

Mr. Maloney?

Maloney:

Hold on, sir.

Gordon Sondland:

Excuse me. I've been very forthright, and I really resent what you're trying to do.

Maloney:

Fair enough. You've been very forthright. This is your third try to do so, sir. Didn't work so well the first time, did it?

We had a little declaration come in after, you remember that? And now we're here a third time, and we got a doozy of a statement from you this morning. There's a whole bunch of stuff you don't recall. So all due respect, sir, we appreciate your candor, but let's be really clear on what it took to get it out of you.

Hayes Brown:

I mean, holy shit, am I right? This time around, though, he's blamed the lack of clarity on the fact that he's been unable to review all of his files from the State Department, which is really clever because the White House and State have been stonewalling Congress on any and all documents related to the inquiry. So, by shifting the blame and teasing that there's more that he can't remember that's in them, Sondland is putting the ball in their court.

And President Trump couldn't help but get involved because, of course. Here's what he yelled at reporters outside the White House.

Donald Trump:

You asked me the question. What do you want? I keep hearing all these things. What do you want? He finally gets me. I don't know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. Seems like a nice guy, though. But I don't know him well.

He was with other candidates. He actually supported other candidates. Not me. Came in late.

But here's my response. Now, if you weren't fake news, you'd cover it properly. I say to the Ambassador's response.

Hayes Brown:

He then reads off a piece of paper, "I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing. This is the final word of the President."

Multiple cameras caught a shot of Trump's notes to himself ahead of that beautiful, uplifting speech, and that was exactly what they said in large black Sharpie.

But yeah, that's not a defense. Oh, and hopefully you caught that dig at Sondland for briefly abandoning Trump during the campaign when the Access Hollywood tape came out. Expect the attacks to get worse.

Before we move on, we have BuzzFeed Congressional Correspondent, Paul McLeod, with his views from DC on how things were on Capitol Hill after Sondland's hella long hearing wrapped up.

Paul McLeod:

Hey, Hayes, this is Paul coming to you from outside the Committee Room where I just spent seven or eight hours now. Feeling a little bit delirious, if you can't tell. What a day. Maybe the most impactful day we've had a public hearings so far.

Gordon Sondland, who once looked like he would be the top Trump defense witness, a guy who raised a million dollars for the President, got a plum ambassadorship, now sitting in front of the Committee saying, "Yeah, I knew there was a quid pro quo. Everyone knew there was a quid pro quo."

And Republicans, let me tell you, had no idea what to do off of the top. They looked miserable. They didn't know how to handle this witness. And then, at a certain point, things really shifted. They honed in on Sondland saying that Trump never told him directly that there was a quid pro quo, or that there was any demand of an investigation. And then they were just off and running, saying, "Look, you had no idea that this was the case. You had just assumed this. You have no evidence against the President."

So, a real momentum shift from Republicans being flatfooted to being on the aggressive. But the Democrats feel great about today, too. We had Adam Schiff giving his concluding remarks, and there was a standing ovation in the back of the room with people cheering.

And now there's still dozens of people lined up to get into the Committee Room, because we still have hours to go. I cannot believe it. But even though everyone is exhausted, and everyone feels like the day has to be over, after all of that dramatic testimony, no, we still have a whole evening session. And there are people milling about outside the room, lining up, waiting to get in.

And I just say a prayer for the poor reporters who had to cover this thing all day, and have to go back in for the evening. But luckily that is not me, because Addy's coming to take over. So I'm going to take off. I'll talk to you later.

Hayes Brown:

Thanks, Paul. I hope you got some rest. He pointed out that Sondland did say he never heard directly from Trump that the aid and investigations were linked. And that led to the President declaring on Twitter that Wednesday was a win, which, sure, Jan.

And now, after all that, there is another round of hearings to get through. Stick around and we'll give you the play by play and today's Nixometer reading.

Okay, we're back. Onto the under card fight of the day with David Hale and Laura Cooper.

Cooper is the Pentagon official who has Russia and Ukraine in her portfolio. And she told Congress that she was extremely concerned about this summer's hold on military aid, which she referred to as FMF, the mega-official term for it.

But, like ambassador Bill Taylor last week, she came prepared with some new information. Here's what she dropped in her opening statement.

Laura Cooper:

Deposition testimony was publicly released on November 11th, 2019. Members of my staff read the testimony and have come to me since then and provided additional information.

Specifically, on the issue of Ukraine's knowledge of the hold, or of Ukraine asking questions about possible issues with the flow of assistance, my staff showed me two unclassified emails that they received from the State Department.

One was received on July 25th at 2:31 PM. That email said that the Ukrainian Embassy and House Foreign Affairs Committee are asking about security assistance.

The second email was received on July 25th at 4:25 PM. That email said that the Hill knows about the FMF situation to an extent, and so does the Ukrainian Embassy.

Hayes Brown:

Okay, that's pretty damn big. As a refresher, here's what the first two witnesses, Bill Taylor and George Kent, told the Democrats' lawyer at the first hearing a million years ago,

Democrat Lawyer:

Ambassador Taylor, you testified that President Trump obviously also knew that the aid had been frozen as well, since he was responsible for doing that, is that correct?

Bill Taylor:

That's what I had been told. That's what we heard on that conference call, yes.

Democrat Lawyer:

But to neither of your knowledge, the Ukrainians were not aware of that at that point?

Bill Taylor:

Not to my knowledge.

George Kent:

Not to my knowledge.

Hayes Brown:

Now, Republican seized on that to argue that there couldn't be any pressure on the Ukrainians if the Ukrainians didn't know the money was held up.

Hayes Brown:

But the emails Cooper brought forward suggest that yes, Ukraine knew that there was something fucked up with the aid delivery, and they reached out about it just hours after Trump's call with the Zelensky.

Cooper later said that it's not normal for the Ukrainians to just call to check up to see how their funding is doing. They only do so for something specific.

Hale, meanwhile is the number-three person at the State Department, and the question towards him was lackluster. That makes sense because by this point it's clear that everyone was exhausted due to the fact that the hearing didn't start until nearly 6:00 PM. And the committee skipped out on the normal lawyers' questions, and went straight to the committee members.

Republicans honed in on Hale's previous testimony where he said that there had been many cases of foreign aid being frozen in the past. But he didn't give representative John Radcliffe quite as clear-cut an answer as he wanted about an ongoing hold on aid to Lebanon.

John Radcliffe:

When aid was first held withheld from Lebanon, were you given a reason why it was withheld?

David Hale:

No.

John Radcliffe:

So, having no explanation for why aid is being withheld is not uncommon.

David Hale:

I would say it is not the normal way that we function.

John Radcliffe:

But does happen.

David Hale:

It does happen.

Hayes Brown:

And if the day wasn't bad enough for Secretary of State Pompeo, he got dragged back into the inquiry in the evening session.

Representative Mike Quigley asked Hale about the case of Marie Yovanovitch, the former US Ambassador to Ukraine, and why the State Department never wound up giving her the support she asked for in the face of a smear campaign orchestrated by Rudy Giuliani this spring.

Mike Quigley:

You testified, around the same time that the Secretary did not render assistance to a long-serving and highly respected ambassador, he made two phone calls to Rudy Giuliani. Is that right?

David Hale:

It's correct that he... I've seen a record that he made those phone calls.

Mike Quigley:

One on March 28, and again the next day on March 29.

David Hale:

I saw the record of that, yes.

Mike Quigley:

Right. So we don't know what he said to Rudy Giuliani, but we have a pretty good idea of what Rudy Giuliani said to him, "Get rid of Yovanovitch."

Mike Quigley:

She was gone, and the statement never came forward, right?

David Hale:

Correct.

Hayes Brown:

Those calls were not reported before Hale's testimony was released. So I, for one, am wildly curious about what the heck Pompeo said to Giuliani on them.

An that was it. By the time things wrapped around 8:00 PM, everyone just seemed tired as hell. And, well, I'll let BuzzFeed Congressional Correspondent, Addy Baird, give you a vibe check on how the Hill was feeling when everything was done.

Addy Baird:

Hello, Hayes, and Peach Pod listeners. It's Addy. I'm on the Hill, at the end of a very long day. The afternoon hearings started late. They were supposed to start around 2:30, but for various reasons, mostly having to do with Congress being Congress, they didn't start until about 5:30.

In order to save time, they decided to skip lawyer questioning and go straight to member questioning. It will not shock listeners of this podcast to know that it was not particularly enlightening, and even worse than usual, honestly, because everyone was just so tired.

The afternoon hearings did not pass the vibe check, and that's my report.

Hayes Brown:

Yeah, that's some real talk. Thanks, Addy. And now, with what little strength remains in our bodies, we present 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 Milhous Nixon resigning and flying away in Marine One.

And this morning we're at a 7.3. Wednesday morning was absolutely wild, and Sondland was more than happy to throw everyone else in the Executive Branch into the line of fire to save himself. And the facts of the case remain the same, and just as bad for the President.

Republicans, though, managed to cling tight to Sondland's inability to cite Trump specifically saying, "Please give me a bribe, Ukraine."

So, as we head into the final hearings of this inquiry, question mark, we've got a hell of a lot that's going to be going into potential Articles of Impeachment.

All right, it's time to testify. Up next, we have... JK. We're done for the week, guys. We are fresh out of new hearings after today's ends.

Will the Democrats call more witnesses next week? Well, that's up to Schiff. For now, just enjoy the last two folks testifying today.

Okay. Fuck. That is it for today. Tomorrow we'll have all the hot Hill and Homes goss for you. But, before we go, as always, we want to hear from you, the listeners.

And this week, we really want to know, as the hearings have piled up and grown, and now that they're finally at their end for now, what are you still or newly confused by? What just doesn't make sense?

Open the voice memo app on your phone, record your message and send it to us impeachment@buzzfeed.com, or just send me a direct message on Twitter. I'm @HayesBrown, and my DMs are always open.

Be sure to subscribe on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows - and please a leave a rating and a review. Also, tell your friends about the show as we all figure this out together.

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