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5 things to watch for during Gordon Sondland’s hearing

Nov 20, 2019, 6:25 AM
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Gordon Sondland's public testimony is the most highly anticipated hearing so far in the impeachment inquiry. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

(CNN) — Gordon Sondland‘s public testimony is the most highly anticipated hearing so far in the impeachment inquiry.

The testimony of the US ambassador to the European Union could invariably shift the Democrats’ probe and challenge key Republican talking points that there was no quid pro quo between US military aid and Ukraine investigating the Bidens and the 2016 election, because Sondland could be the first witness that may testify that there was a direct connection between the two.

Here are five things to watch for during his public hearing:

1. What did President Trump tell Sondland?

Unlike other witnesses Democrats have brought in for questioning, Sondland had direct conversations with the President.

His ability to get President Trump on the phone became legendary, chronicled in others’ testimony as the reason why Sondland took on an outsized role in foreign policy in Ukraine, a country that wasn’t even in the European Union. Democrats are sure to ask Sondland how much of his effort to get the Ukrainians to announce investigations into 2016 or Burisma was improv and how much of it was at the behest and direction of the President.

Tim Morrison, a former National Security Council official, told investigators that he came to understand that Sondland wasn’t acting on his own volition, but instead at Mr. Trump’s direction. Morrison said he knows of approximately five times Sondland had talked directly with Mr. Trump between July 25 and September 11, when the nearly $400 million in US military aid was finally released.

“He related to me he was acting — he was discussing these matters with the President,” Morrison said of Sondland.

Expect Democrats and Republicans to zero in on one conversation in particular between Sondland and Mr. Trump. On July 26, according to testimony from aide David Holmes, Sondland called Mr. Trump while in a restaurant. The call was so loud, Holmes could hear the President through the phone asking about the future of the investigations.

Holmes testified he’d never seen anything like the call before.

“This was an extremely distinctive experience in my foreign service career,” Holmes said in his closed-door deposition. “I’ve never seen anything like this, someone calling the President from a mobile phone at a restaurant, and then having a conversation of this level of candor, colorful language. There’s just so much about the call that was so remarkable that I remember it vividly.”

In the call, Sondland told Mr. Trump that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “loves your ass,” and he said that the Ukrainians were willing to move ahead with announcing the investigations.

In his deposition, Holmes said Sondland later told him that Mr. Trump “doesn’t give a s–t about Ukraine,” and that his primary focus was on the “big stuff” like the “Biden investigation that Giuliani is pushing.”

2. Whose side is Sondland on?

Part of why Sondland’s testimony is one of the more highly anticipated by Democrats and Republicans alike is because they aren’t sure what he’s going to say, or whose side he’s going to appear to be on.

Sondland at first appeared to be a Trump ally. He was appointed to his post as US ambassador to the European Union after making a substantial donation to the Trump campaign in 2016. He came to the post with no political experience, working as a hotel magnate for years beforehand. In his closed-door deposition, and according to testimony from other witnesses in the House impeachment probe, Sondland believed he had a good relationship with Mr. Trump.

But when he submitted an addendum to his original testimony adding that he did believe there was a link between US military aid to Ukraine and Ukraine investigating the Bidens and the 2016 election, Republicans began to question if Sondland would prove to be Mr. Trump’s defender in the House impeachment inquiry.

In his short time as a US ambassador, he has earned a reputation as a diplomatic risk among other White House and State Department officials, according to witness depositions and conversations with sources.

In one instance, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman said there was a presidential delegation to Ukraine, and Sondland’s name was taken off the list because there was concern he would freelance.

“It was outside of his portfolio, and he tended to go off script, so there was some risk involved,” Vindman said.

For that reason, Democrats and Republicans are both cautious about what Sondland’s testimony will reveal, and how truthful it will be.

3. How does Sondland handle member questions?

Sondland has been criticized by members of both parties. In the immediate aftermath of his deposition, Democrats argued that Sondland hadn’t been forthcoming enough, and they argued there were too many instances when Sondland couldn’t recall key moments.

But, those tables seemed to turn after his deposition was released with a three-page addendum that Sondland did indeed remember a quid pro quo.

“I now recall speaking individually with Mr. (Andriy) Yermak, where I said resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland said in his amended testimony.

Republicans have attacked Sondland as an unreliable witness. If, they argue, Sondland changed his testimony once what would keep him from adapting the story in the future? How can he be trusted?

Sondland may not turn out to be either party’s star witness, but Democrats seem to be bracing for Sondland to bolster their case, focusing less on the fact he may have initially left out key details in his closed-door desposition and more on what he can provide now.

How he responds to both Democratic and Republican members of the committee will contribute to how his testimony is ultimately received.

4. About that amended testimony

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will focus on one key aspect in Sondland’s original testimony to House investigators when they question him in public — the additional three pages he submitted to the House intelligence Committee after his closed-door deposition.

The day before the Committee released the transcript of Sonldand’s deposition, he sent them an addendum to his original statements, admitting that there was a quid pro quo between US military aid and Ukraine announcing investigations into Hunter Biden, Burisma and the 2016 election.

In the additional testimony, Sondland said he had remembered a September 1 conversation in which he told a top aide to Zelensky that the security aid was linked to investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 election.

“I now recall speaking individually with Mr. (Andriy) Yermak, where I said resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland said.

Democrats and Republicans will focus on this aspect of Sondland’s testimony for different reasons. Democrats will highlight this because it gets at the heart of their impeachment inquiry — was the President withholding military aid until Ukraine agreed to investigate matters for his own political gain and interest? Sondland, a key player in the investigation, believes so, according to his additional statements.

Republicans will argue that Sondland’s additional testimony, which contradicts his original statements, makes him less credible. They will likely ask Sondland why he changed his testimony, and if there were any outside influences or influencers who asked him to do so.

5. Sondland, the ‘free radical’

Top diplomats have named Sondland, a career hotelier, as problematic when it came to dealing with Ukraine.

At times, Sondland frustrated career officials as he used his personal cell phone and discussed foreign policy over insecure channels like Whats-App and e-mail.

Fiona Hill, a former top Russia advisor, testified Sondland had given her and others’ personal cell phone numbers to foreign officials who would show up unannounced at the White House requesting meetings.

One source who works closely with Sondland told CNN he is “an op-sec nightmare.”

Tim Morrison, a former NSC official, referred to Sondland as a “free radical.”

And, several top aides said Sondland would often go off script.

During a July 10 meeting, Sondland was the one, according to Vindman’s testimony, who told the Ukrainians that a meeting at the White House was contingent upon the announcement of investigations. Sondland’s comment struck several people in the meeting, including former national security adviser John Bolton, as inappropriate.

“When the Ukrainians raised this issue of trying to figure out what the date would be for the Presidential meeting, Ambassador Sondland proceeded to discuss the deliverable required in order to get the meeting, and he alluded to investigations,” Vindman said in a closed-door deposition.

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5 things to watch for during Gordon Sondland’s hearing