The Legal Liability That Poses the Biggest Threat to the Three Amigos

Gordon Sondland dropped a bombshell during his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday morning.

In other words, Sondland’s understanding was that Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate his political opponents involved a quid pro quo.

The other thing Sondland attempted to do during his testimony was to refute the claim made by Ambassador Taylor that there was an “irregular channel” involved in that pressure campaign that was operating outside of regular diplomatic channels. To refute that idea, Sondland went into great detail about how people like Secretary Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton were in the loop on what was happening.

But the fact that there was an irregular channel is what fueled Sondland, Volker and Perry to call themselves the “three amigos.” They had been the delegation that attended the inauguration of Zelensky and returned to brief Trump on the newly-elected president of Ukraine. During that meeting, Trump badmouthed the new Ukrainian administration and directed the three amigos to “talk to Giuliani.” According to Sondland, that gave them their marching orders on how to approach their efforts in Ukraine.

One of the things that stands out to me about the testimony from both Sondland and Volker is that, when discussing the two investigations Trump and Giuliani were insisting that the Ukrainian government announce, they took great pains to define them as (1) an investigation into Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 U.S. election, and (2) an investigation into the Ukrainian company Burisma. Sondland and Volker both claimed that they were completely unaware that there was a connection between Burisma and the Bidens. On Wednesday, Sondland also claimed that Secretary Perry was unaware of the connection.

Those assertions are simply not credible. To the extent that the three amigos were working with Giuliani, he was making it very clear that it was the Bidens who were the focus of his attempts to prompt an investigation into Burisma.

The reporter that was coordinating stories with Giuliani, Parnas, and Fruman—John Solomon— wrote his first article about the Biden’s and Burisma on April 1, 2019, three weeks before Zelensky was elected. A week and a half after that election, Ken Vogel and Iuliia Mendel published their infamous article in the New York Times, which seemed to have been lifted straight from Giuliani’s playbook. After going into great detail about Hunter Biden’s role at Burisma and Joe Biden’s efforts to get a Ukrainian prosecutor fired, they wrote this.

But the renewed scrutiny of Hunter Biden’s experience in Ukraine has also been fanned by allies of Mr. Trump. They have been eager to publicize and even encourage the investigation, as well as other Ukrainian inquiries that serve Mr. Trump’s political ends, underscoring the Trump campaign’s concern about the electoral threat from the former vice president’s presidential campaign.

The Trump team’s efforts to draw attention to the Bidens’ work in Ukraine, which is already yielding coverage in conservative media, has been led partly by Rudolph W. Giuliani, who served as a lawyer for Mr. Trump in the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. Giuliani’s involvement raises questions about whether Mr. Trump is endorsing an effort to push a foreign government to proceed with a case that could hurt a political opponent at home.

Weeks before the three amigos travelled to Zelensky’s inauguration on May 20, Giuliani was involved in a public relations campaign to smear the Bidens due to Hunter’s involvement with Burisma. And yet, these three men, who were told by the president to work with Giuliani, want us to believe that they had no idea that the pressure to investigate Burisma was an effort to dig up dirt on the president’s potential political opponent.

When it comes to Sondland’s claims about that, the testimony of David Holmes indicates that the ambassador might not be telling the truth. Here is how Holmes described his conversation with Sondland after a telephone call with the president (emphasis mine).

I asked Ambassador Sondland if it was true that the President did not “give a s—t about Ukraine.” Ambassador Sondland agreed that the President did not “give a s—t about Ukraine.” I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated that the President only cares about “big stuff.” I noted that there was “big stuff” going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia, and Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant “big stuff” that benefits the President, like the “Biden investigation” that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.

I’m not sure why a denial of the obvious is so important to Sondland and Volker, but it has all the hallmarks of being a coordinated legal strategy. Both of them were forced to admit that, after seeing the memo summarizing Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, it became clear that the president was focused on an investigation of Joe Biden.

What the three amigos are telling us is that, when it comes to their own legal liability, their major concern is being linked to the obviously corrupt attempt to pressure a foreign government to smear an American citizen, who also happened to be the president’s main political rival at the moment. They might be able to lie their way out of any culpability on that count, but that certainly isn’t the case for the president.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.