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Sondland testifies

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

America’s ambassador to the European Union, the only witness so far to have had direct contact with President Donald Trump on matters that are the focus of current House impeachment proceedings, made crystal clear Wednesday that there was a quid pro quo attached to military aid to Ukraine. It was the most damaging testimony so far in Trump’s bid to avoid impeachment because Ambassador Gordon Sondland directly contradicted the president’s repeated claims that no conditions were placed on that aid.

Sondland, a major donor to Trump’s 2016 campaign, was close enough to the president that they shared brash, unguarded, expletive-filled conversations with each other over an unsecured cellphone line. And now, Sondland is effectively calling Trump a liar for having asserted that there was no link between a U.S. delay in providing crucial military aid to Ukraine in exchange for help advancing Trump’s personal political agenda.

Other witnesses have challenged Trump’s veracity, but Sondland’s testimony was the most explicit and authoritative. He described in detail the conversations in which Trump directed those involved in contacts with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to defer to Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, regarding the required quid pro quo attached to arranging a White House meeting between the two leaders.

Sondland indicated that he and other U.S. officials regarded Giuliani’s involvement as “insidious.” Nevertheless, they dealt with Giuliani because that was “the express direction of the president.” Sondland was emphatic that all senior officials connected with this episode, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, were aware of the improper demands Giuliani was making on Trump’s behalf.

Guiliani told Sondland that Zelenskiy had to meet certain preconditions regarding investigations into unsubstantiated Ukrainian meddling in the U.S. 2016 elections and corruption related to the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, whose board of directors including the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

“We all understood that these prerequisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements,” Sondland stated.

How damning was this testimony for Trump? He seemed almost frantic when speaking to reporters during a midday break, cherry-picking quotes to minimize the damage.

“Explosive” is the word used by John Dean, the former White House counsel under President Richard Nixon. Dean should know, having provided key Watergate testimony that helped prompt Nixon’s resignation. Sondland is “not a man who appears willing to lie for his colleagues,” Dean told CNN.

Sondland testified despite White House and State Department instructions not to. The State Department denied him access to phone records and emails. The effort to obstruct a congressional investigation could not be more clear. The president’s effort to extort a foreign leader — then lie about it — is becoming more clear by the day.