Why Trump Won’t Let Ambassador Sondland Testify

At 6:23 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the president of the United States used Twitter to announce that he will not consent to have the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, give a deposition to the House impeachment inquiry.

It’s important that Trump called Sondland “a really good man and a great American,” It’s not too surprising, either. Although not initially a supporter, Sondland has been a very generous donor to the president, and that’s why he landed a plum diplomatic job in Europe despite the fact that his experience is in the hotel industry.

However, Trump is lying about why he won’t let him testify and he may live to regret vouching for Sondland’s character.

To understand why, you should read an article the Wall Street Journal published on October 4. It details a conversation that Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin had with Sondland on August 30. The senator had been reading press reports that military aid to Ukraine was being held up and this concerned him because he is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation. He contacted Sondland and learned something troubling:

Sen. Ron Johnson said that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had described to him a quid pro quo involving a commitment by Kyiv to probe matters related to U.S. elections and the status of nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine that the president had ordered to be held up in July…

…Under the arrangement, Mr. Johnson said Mr. Sondland told him, Ukraine, under its newly elected president, would appoint a strong prosecutor general and move to “get to the bottom of what happened in 2016—if President Trump has that confidence, then he’ll release the military spending,” recounted Mr. Johnson.

“At that suggestion, I winced,” Mr. Johnson said. “My reaction was: Oh, God. I don’t want to see those two things combined.”

The next day, August 31, Sen. Johnson talked directly with Trump. He was scheduled to meet Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on September 1 and he wanted clarity on the situation. According to Johnson, Trump said that there was no quid pro quo but he did not deny that he was interested in having a prosecutor appointed who would look into the 2016 election. Johnson admits that he informed the president at this time that Sondland had told him otherwise.

When private and secure text messages from September 9 between Sondland, Ambassador Kurt Volker and Ukrainian embassy charge d’Affaires Bill Taylor were released, it showed that Taylor also understood the situation to involve a quid pro quo. By this time, however, Sondland knew better than to go along with that interpretation.

What this shows is that the quid pro quo was understood quite clearly by the State Department officials on the ground who were responsible for Ukraine. By the time of this exchange, Sondland had heard back from Sen. Johnson and spoken directly with Trump. He did not want them texting about a quid pro quo even on a classified system.

It should be obvious why the impeachment inquiry wants to talk to Sondland and also why the president will not allow this.

As for Sondland, he is not pleased with this development.

“Ambassador Sondland is profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify,” said a statement from the envoy’s attorney, Robert Luskin. “Ambassador Sondland traveled to Washington from Brussels in order to prepare for his testimony and to be available to answer the Committee’s questions.”

It’s unclear what authority Trump has to prevent Sondland’s testimony or how long it will take for the House to secure it. But he’s one of the key witnesses in this case and he’s eager to cooperate.

As for Senator Johnson, when he had that call with Trump on August 31 and was told there was no quid pro quo, he naturally asked that he be permitted to tell this to the Ukrainian president the next day when they met in person.

In the call, Mr. Johnson said he also asked Mr. Trump if he could be authorized to tell the Ukrainians that support was coming. “He did not give me that authority,” Mr. Johnson said in a separate interview Wednesday. He said Mr. Trump assured him: “I hear what you’re saying; you’ll probably be happy with my decision.”

The true test is usually what people do rather than what they say. Trump said there was no quid pro quo but would not permit Johnson to deny it to the Ukrainians.

Trump says that the process is unfair to him, but he’s obstructing justice with his treatment of Ambassador Sondland, and it will potentially serve as one of several articles of impeachment.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com