Gordon Sondland is entering a lions’ den.
Democrats view the hotel tycoon and Republican mega donor as the co-conspirator and agent of a presidential scheme to pressure Ukraine for political favors that amounts to a flagrant abuse of power.
If this scandal is to produce imagery of historic resonance like John Dean’s appearance before the Senate Watergate hearings or Oliver North’s stunning Iran Contra testimony, it is most likely come in Sondland’s trial by fire before millions of viewers.
And two witnesses called by the GOP, former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker and former NSC Russia expert Tim Morrison, not only failed to provide the total repudiation of Democratic narratives on which the White House had pinned its hope, but instead undermined the GOP line of attack.
“The Republicans are absolutely killing it. They are doing so well because it’s a scam,” President Trump said at a Cabinet meeting.
“They’re using this impeachment hoax for their own political gain to try and damage the Republican Party and damage the President, but it’s had the opposite effect.”
Key questions for Sondland
Sondland, who is now the US ambassador to the European Union, has significant explaining to do on three key episodes.
They include talks at the White House between senior US and Ukrainian officials on July 10 when witnesses say he raised a deal for Kiev to open investigations in return for a presidential visit.
The comment is important because it appears to show that no later than July 10, the Ukrainians understood that an Oval Office visit for President Volodymyr Zelensky was conditional on opening the investigations that Trump wanted to see.
Sondland may be asked whether his decision to change his testimony suggests a coverup if he reasoned that the Yermak conversation would emerge in other witness testimony.
On Tuesday, Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman asked Morrison what he knew about the content of the Warsaw conversation.
He replied: “That the Ukrainians would have to have the prosecutor general make a statement with respect to the investigations as a condition of having the aid lifted.”
A stunning call from Kiev
The third episode that is sure to be drilled into by Democrats is Sondland’s call to Trump from the terrace of a Kiev restaurant on July 26 this year.
According to a US diplomat in Ukraine, David Holmes who overheard much of the call, Sondland told Trump that Zelensky was willing to open investigations he had request the day before in the now notorious presidential phone call. “He loves your ass,” Sondland said, according to a deposition by Holmes.
When he got off the phone, after a conversation in which the President’s loud talking caused him to “wince,” Sondland said Trump doesn’t “give a s—t” about Ukraine, only about “big stuff” like an investigation into Biden, Holmes said.
One tactic for Republicans will be to suggest that Sondland may not have been operating at the direct behest of the President but was freelancing in pursuit of goals he assumed Trump wanted.
A Ukraine power grab
Democrats will want to know why Sondland — whose area of geographic authority did not even include non-EU nation Ukraine — came to be such an influential force in policy towards Kiev.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Sondland regularly kept the Trump administration officials like Energy Secretary Rick Perry and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney up to date with his efforts in Ukraine.
Fiona Hill, formerly the top Russia and European expert on the National Security Council is due to testify in public on Thursday with Holmes — the last scheduled day of televised hearings — and could flesh out more details of the back-door effort led by Sondland, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Perry to go around official US policy channels in Ukraine.
Hill also testified that Sondland was sometimes “clueless” about the nature of intelligence threats and opened himself to eavesdropping by Russia with his use of texts and cell phones.