Sondland Drops a Few Bombshells

7 mins read
"U.S. and Ukrainian government representatives at the inauguration of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, May 2019" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sondland started Wednesday’s impeachment hearing by dropping a few bombshells. It got more interesting from there.

There was much speculation ahead of today’s hearing. What would Sondland do after the testimony he gave in his deposition had been contradicted by so many other sworn witnesses. Would Sondland lie to protect Trump? Would he try to take the fifth? Would he fail to show up?

Sondland came in with a plan: He started by acknowledging that his past testimony wasn’t completely honest. Then he blamed the State Department for refusing to cooperate and allow him access to his records.

“In the absence of these records,” he writes, “my memory has not been perfect.”

Prosecutors always love that moment when the defendants start pointing their fingers at each other, which he did in points Four and Five:

He also testified that officials at the highest levels at the State Department were in the loop and knew what was going.

He also pushed back against the characterization that he, Volker, and Perry–working under the direction of Rudy Giuliani–were running an unofficial operation.

They were not running a second tier shadow operation, he insisted. They were working at the direction, and with the approval, of the United States president and officials at the highest level of the state department.

If he was running contrary to US policy, Sondland asked, why didn’t anyone tell him? Why didn’t anyone stop him?

There are two answers to that question. The first became apparent as Sondland’s testimony progressed.

Sondland described an increasing “insidiousness” this way: At first, what Trump wanted was vague—he and Giuliani wanted a general commitment that Zelensky would pursue investigations. Then gradually more conditions were added until, by August, both Sondland and Taylor realized that Trump was withholding both the White House meeting and security aid until the Ukrainians announced an investigation that would ensnare Joe Biden.

This is how Trump operates. He corrupts people. He pulls them in. The increasing insidiousness is so gradual that the person is soon so entangled that he or she finds they have have no choice but help Trump cover the tracks.

As James Comey said, “Trump eats your soul in small bites.” (h/t @RobAnybody2)

The second answer is that the President cannot, by definition, run a shadow campaign. He is the nation’s chief foreign service officer.

What he can do, however, is completely corrupt the system by setting people to work against each other. He can figure out ways to maneuver and manipulate people, setting them against each other, keeping them off balanced and scared that he may turn on them, while he figures out how to pull the levers of government to suit himself.

Mindy asked:

Absolutely not. It does not matter in the least that nobody testified that they received direct instructions from Trump. The Republicans are offering the absurd and legally incorrect argument that evidence must be direct instead of circumstantial.

Examples of direct evidence are:

  • A witness sees Person A point a gun at Person B, pull the trigger and kill person B.
  • A person is caught on video committing a crime.
  • A person announces in front of witnesses his intention to commit a crime–and then he does it.

Circumstantial evidence, on the other hand, requires the fact-finder (usually the jury) to draw an inference. An example would be the witness walks into the room, sees Person A holding a smoking gun and Person B dead on the floor. The obvious inference is that Person A shot Person B.

The law makes no distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence, and in fact, most crimes are proven with circumstantial evidence.

Republicans would have you believe that unless Trump specifically told someone to commit bribery, we can’t draw the reasonable inference from the fact that Trump knew what was going on and was directing the shakedown.

Bud asked:

A more sensible way to deal with circumstantial evidence is to offer alternative possibilities, like this: Yes, your honor, I know I walked into the bank and came out with the money, but I am not guilty! The real villain was walking behind me holding a gun at my back, forcing me to walk into the bank with the gun and get the money.

The natural inference from the facts is to concludethat Trump withheld security assistance to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation into Burisma.

The Republicans are offering an alternative possibility: Trump withheld the security aid because he wanted to make sure Zelenskiy was serious about anti-corruption reform.

There are a few problems with this alternative possibility:

  • There is no evidence whatsoever that Trump investigated to make sure Zelensky was committed to reform
  • The law does not permit the president to hold back the aid because he has “concerns”

The Republicans are running out of defenses.

What remains to be seen is whether today moves the needle of public opinion.

Originally posted on Musing About Law, Books, and Politics.
Re-posted with permission.

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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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