On November 20, United States Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified in an open hearing as part of the impeachment investigation targeting President Donald Trump. From the perspective of those who want Trump removed from office, Sondland’s latest testimony was incriminating. That perspective is accurate, though, only if certain facts are ignored or overlooked.
According to Sondland, he and others were convinced that U.S. co-operation with the Ukrainian Zelensky government was conditional upon a commitment by the latter to investigate certain matters of potential corruption and 2016 election meddling.
Where Is the Proof?
What still eludes congressional lawmakers, though, is definitive proof that such a quid pro quo had been demanded by President Trump. For impeachment to be justified, nothing less will do than indisputable evidence that the president personally directed government officials to suspend cooperation with Ukraine until President Zelensky committed to opening investigations that would benefit Trump personally.
From the ambassador’s testimony – as has been the case with other hearings – Democrats, Republicans, the media, and ordinary Americans on social media will pick out certain statements or answers that appear to seal the case either for or against the president. That being understood, Trump’s supporters appear to have the upper hand here. Sondland recounted a brief Sept. 9 phone call with the president, in which the clearly frustrated ambassador asked Trump what he wanted from the Ukrainians. According to Sondland, the president – who seemed not to be in a good mood – responded: “I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”
That last sentence, of course – “Tell Zelensky to do the right thing” – can be construed as either a threat or as a desire that the leader of a corrupt foreign country takes steps to clean up that corruption. Is the Senate going to convict and remove from office a duly elected president over the interpretation of one sentence? Probably not – especially not a Republican Senate convicting a Republican president.
The Timing of Ukraine Aid
Another crucial point raised during the ambassador’s hearing was the timing of the eventual release of aid to Ukraine, which was held back for reasons which have not been established. Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), who is, in effect, directing the impeachment investigation, has repeatedly claimed the aid was released only after Democrats began their inquiry into the Ukraine matter. The implication here is obvious: That the withheld aid was only released because the president had been “caught” attempting to “bribe” the Ukrainians. Yet, Sondland was asked during his hearing whether he was aware of communications between Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and the president before the impeachment investigation began. Johnson spoke to Trump by phone on Aug. 31 because he, the senator, was concerned about the hold-up in providing assistance to Ukraine. Johnson recounted that he asked the president if delivery of aid was tied to Ukrainian investigations. The president appeared surprised at the question, Johnson claimed. Trump complained to the senator that Ukraine was corrupt and that other nations were not doing their fair share in assisting the country. “We’re schmucks, Ron. We’re schmucks,” Johnson recounts Trump telling him. He warned the president that the withholding of aid would look political and Trump responded that the senator would like the decision that he, the president, would eventually make on releasing the aid.
Unless Sen. Johnson is fabricating this conversation, it seems very likely that Trump intended to authorize the release of aid to Ukraine before the Democrats began their inquiry – and even though the Ukrainians had not, at that point, taken any steps to act upon the U.S. president’s wishes.
Ambassador Sondland appeared vague on the details of numerous meetings and telephone conversations and would not be drawn by Democrats into claiming definite knowledge of any quid pro quo. He was consistent on the point that the quid pro quo was his assumption: One based upon a sequence of events and what other U.S. officials had suggested to him, but only an assumption, nevertheless.
Even before the hearing was over, Democrats and their media lackeys began promoting the assertion that Sondland’s testimony paves the way for the impeachment of President Trump. In truth, though, the ambassador provided no proof that would support the Democrats’ case. The testimony, when filtered through a highly partisan media, may appear damning. The most important question, though, remains whether it was decisive enough to drive national opinion to a point where every Democrat in the Senate plus 20 Republicans will vote to convict the president.
Read more from Graham J Noble.