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Republicans caught flat-footed as Trump’s hand-picked man in Kyiv delivers an unexpected knockout punch

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Terry H. Schwadron
Terry H. Schwadron

The impeachment case outlining Donald Trump’s bad behavior in launching a campaign for personal political gain just took a huge, if not a devastating, slam-dunk leap forward.

The revised testimony of Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland today made it certain that he led this campaign for extortion against a vulnerably new Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the direct order of Trump, Rudy Giuliani and the full team of top administration figures.

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From Sondland, the news was that rather than this being some kind of hidden, “irregular” mob-type plot being engineered by a wily Giuliani, the months-long effort was right out there in the open.

Republican defenders of the president, left off-guard by the changes in Sondland testimony, were left with disputing details to undermine the witness, and continue their weird argument or that none of it amounts to illegal behavior or abuse of office.

Sondland testimony made it sound as if a whole bunch of people were running around trying to meet the partisan political demands of Donald Trump.

Strangely, the Sondland testimony made it sound as if a whole bunch of people were running around trying to meet the partisan political demands of Trump.

For Democratic committee chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the testimony and the days preceding it, amount to a campaign described in words of only increasing distress for the nation and Trump disdain for the Constitution.

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Republicans spent their time looking to scratch at the details, at the holes in the testimony, at whether there ever was a “direct” order from the president. Generally, they were seeking to besmirch Sondland, as they have each witness who has stepped forward, likely having expected that Democrats would have questioned Sondland’s truth-telling over three separate versions of history. Unlike previous witnesses, who were career professionals, Sondland stood out as a specific Trump partisan, who contributed a million bucks to the Trump inaugural to get his appointment.

From the Republican point of view, there was no campaign, or there were historic efforts to undermine Trump, there was nothing here wrong, there was no extortion, bribery, constitutional abridgment, obstruction or abuse of office. The hearings are a “circus,” though yesterday ranking Republican Devin Nunes added, “asinine.”

The Sondland Testimony

In coming clean, Sondland bulldozed Rudy Giuliani and smacked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton, as well as Trump.

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So, basically on one side, regardless of which party called them we have a line of diplomats who testified about acting to alert all when they learned that military aid was being held by Trump until Zelenskyy would commit to a public call to investigate conspiracy theories from 2016 and to gather dirt against Joe Biden and son. They include diplomats and a uniformed intelligence officer who have served several administrations.

The gist is that whether on the specific July 25 phone call at issue or not, to a person, they all expressed varying degrees of surprise or appall that Trump turned political in the call, and broke with tradition, protocol—and most importantly, with military security policies of the country. They also made clear that this is not a single phone call, but about a months-long campaign back to 2018 and that suspension of military aid would harm Ukrainians fighting Russian invasion and American and NATO security concerns.

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Now we have Sondland, who already had “refreshed” his testimony, who adjusted again, and, this time was a full-on punch in the nose for Trump. Sondland, who worked with Giuliani and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, to carry out this campaign “on the express direction” of Trump.

Clearly, he said, it was a quid pro quo—a trade, now described by Democrats as extortion. Trump wanted a public statement from Zelenskyy to investigate Burisma and the Bidens before military aid would be forthcoming.

In his defense, Sondland insisted that at the time, he did not think there was anything wrong, that he did not identify “Burisma” as involving the Bidens, that he kept the State Department and the White House informed over months, that State has withheld his emails and communications records, and agreed only reluctantly to work with Giuliani because he and others felt so strongly about military aid for Ukraine.

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Danger Signs

Indeed, throughout those months, Trump opposed military aid to Ukraine, said Sondland, repeatedly arguing that Ukrainian figures had acted to undercut his election—the heart of conspiracy theories debunked by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, among others. It underscores that personal political biases are primary for Trump.

Sondland acknowledged the call with Trump over an open cell phone in a Kyiv restaurant on July 26, and said it likely included previously reported demands for investigations. As well as underscoring weird practices in conducting such business on open phone lines, it emphasizes the nature of Trump’s preoccupation with the demanded investigations.

While Sondland disagreed about some details of meetings from previous witnesses, Sondland owned up fully to leading this “irregular” campaign for Trump. That acknowledgment, fused with earlier testimony, shows how far the Trump administration staff is willing to go to ameliorate Trump’s demands in order to get the things he wants done.

Once again, as citizens, we are being presented with increasingly certain versions of truth in the impeachment hearings outlining Trump’s bad behavior in launching a campaign for personal political gain, depending solely on who’s asking the questions.

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Republican refusal to look at the possibilities of fact-finding about the actual bad behavior leaves too many people withdrawing to partisan views of what happened and therefore what to do about it.

We’re on our own as to whether this Congress will acknowledge abuse of office and standing up to Trump.

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