State Department official Bill Taylor delivered a shot of adrenaline to the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Tuesday, providing testimony to the House of Representatives that was more detailed and damning that even many of the White House's fiercest critics anticipated. But in addition to powerfully strengthening the case that Trump engaged in a serious abuse of power and potential criminal wrongdoing in the Ukraine scandal, it raised the possibility that U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland may have broken the law in his previous testimony to Congress.
Sondland, who texts show was a key figure in Trump's efforts to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, downplayed his role and his knowledge of the scheme in testimony to lawmakers last week. If he lied in this testimony, he could be open to criminal charges.
And after hearing Taylor's testimony on Tuesday, some Democrats were sent signals that Sondland's testimony may now be in doubt.
"After today, Mr. Sondland is going to have some explaining to do," Democrat Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois said.
And Olivia Gazis of CBS News tweeted: "One Democrat lawmaker says Amb. Sondland may indeed be facing a criminal referral for perjury."
More details about the potential wrongdoing weren't immediately provided, but Taylor's testimony placed Sondland much more at the center of the Ukraine scheme than Sondland himself had indicated.
For example, here's what Sondland told Congress:
- "Although Mr. Giuliani did mention the name 'Burisma' in August 2019, I understood that Burisma was one of many examples of Ukrainian companies run by oligarchs and lacking the type of corporate governance structures found in Western companies. I did not know until more recent press reports that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma."
- "I recall no discussions with any State Department or White House official about Former Vice President Biden or his son, nor do I recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens."
- "I do not recall any discussions with the White House on withholding U.S. security assistance from Ukraine in return for assistance with the President's 2020 re-election campaign."
- "Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong. Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong. I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings."
Here's what Taylor testified:
- "During this same phone call I had with Mr. Morrison, he went on to describe a conversation Ambassador Sondland had with Mr. Yermak at Warsaw. Ambassador Sondland told Mr. Yermak that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue the Burisma investigation."
- "During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election."
- "Ambassador Sondland also told me that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President Zelenskyy was dependent on a public announcement of investigations — in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, 'everything' was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance. He said that President Trump wanted President Zelenskyy 'in a public box' by making a public statement about ordering such investigations."
- [On Sept. 7] "According to Mr. Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a 'quid pro quo.' But President Trump did insist that President Zelenskyy go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelenskyy should want to do this himself. "
- "Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelenskyy and Mr. Yermak and told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelenskyy did not 'clear things up' in public, we would be at a 'stalemate.' I understood a 'stalemate' to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance. Ambassador Sondland said that this conversation concluded with President Zelenskyy agreeing to make a public statement in an interview with CNN."
- "I had come to understand well before [Sept. 25] that 'investigations' was a term that Ambassadors Volker and Sondland used to mean matters related to the 2016 elections, and to investigations of Burisma and the Bidens."
Now there's a lot going on here, but there are several key details to pick out. First, Sondland is very specific with his words — suspiciously so. He uses phrases like "I do not recall" strategically, which could make it hard to pin him down on a perjury allegation. And when he made what seemed to be sweeping denials, some are actually rather specific. For example, he said he doesn't remember "any discussions with the White House on withholding U.S. security assistance from Ukraine in return for assistance with the President's 2020 re-election campaign." But this doesn't really rule out withholding the aid for investigations into Biden — which Sondland could claim that he didn't think had anything to do with the helping Trump's 2020 campaign. (It's important to note that only Sondland and Taylor's opening statements are public — they each provided much more extensive testimony in question periods with the lawmakers that may have included less careful phrasing.)
So does anything here not match up? It does seem that Sondland tried to skirt around the truth with his statement.
Perhaps the most dangerous territory for Sondland is when he claimed he does not "recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens." Taylor's testimony strongly indicated that Sondland did repeatedly take part in this effort.
Sondland said that he was focused on the investigation of Burisma and specifically that he wasn't aware that Hunter Biden sat on the oil company's board. But Taylor said that Sondland had used the phrase "investigations" to refer, in part, to an investigation of the Bidens. And, as shown above, Taylor's testimony explicitly indicated that Trump told Sondland that he wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation of Biden.
If this is true, then it would suggest Sondland was lying when he said he wasn't part of an effort to get Ukraine to investigate Biden.
Taylor appears to be a credible witness, and reports found that he had extensive notes and records to corroborate his claims. If those records can show Sondland knew more than he claimed to, that could be damning. However, the text of the two statements themselves to do not seem decisive on the question of whether Sondland provably lied. Taylor's claim about Sondland's knowledge is vague, and he could have been mistaken about the extent to which Sondland was informed. Some of Taylor's testimony relied on second-hand claims from Tim Morrison, who serves on the National Security Council. Moreover, even if Sondland did in fact lie, proving what Sondland knew and when could be very challenging.
Of course, even if there is strong evidence that Sondland lied to Congress, and the case is referred for prosecution, it's not clear Attorney General Bill Barr's Justice Department would be willing to bring charges.
Whatever potential charges could be brought against Sondland, however, are much less significant than the facts that Taylor presented. In providing powerful testimony that Trump engaged in a quid pro quo to get Ukraine to go after Biden, Taylor knocked the legs out from under Republicans' defenses of the president as impeachment proceeds.