Republicans, meanwhile, seized on Sondland’s acknowledgment that he never heard directly from Trump to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine. The GOP has tried to paint some of the most explosive testimony as nothing but “hearsay” and “assumptions” made by witnesses in the probe.
Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, also issued a statement denying Sondland’s claim that he told the vice president during a trip to Warsaw “that the delay in aid [to Ukraine] had become tied to the issue of investigations.”
“Ambassador Gordon Sondland was never alone with Vice President Pence on the September 1 trip to Poland. This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened,” Short said in a statement.
But Sondland’s testimony is by far the most dramatic moment amid a two-week slog of public hearings, which has so far featured an array of credible witnesses who have confirmed many of Democrats’ allegations but hadn’t produced many bombshell moments.
That changed Wednesday morning, when Sondland told a crowded hearing room that he and other Trump advisers had carried out orders to demand investigations of Trump’s political rivals from Ukraine at the “express direction” of the president. Sondland also directly communicated the quid pro quo to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he testified.
“This is the smoking gun,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said of Sondland’s testimony. “I think it’s a stunning moment. And it makes me really sad to see because it confirms our worst suspicions of what was going on.”
“From what I have seen so far, this is just a real bombshell,” Kildee said, noting that Sondland was initially seen as a witness that could defend Trump, not bolster the Democrats’ case to impeach the president.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a law professor, said it didn’t matter if Sondland never heard Trump directly say that a resumption in Ukrainian aid was linked to the Biden investigation.
“They keep moving the goalposts,” Raskin said. “The new litmus test is we’re going to need a written confession from Donald Trump. All of the evidence supports one central conclusion — Donald Trump developed and executed this shakedown strategy toward Ukraine.”
Sondland’s stunning testimony came on the heels of a marathon series of hearings, where Republicans largely felt like they held their own — despite four first-hand witnesses testifying about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine.
Republicans have continually had to adjust their defense strategy, as new revelations have emerged in the public phase of the inquiry, which came after weeks of newsy closed-door depositions.
Sondland was quietly feared by Republicans to be the biggest wild card — and potential threat — during the whole impeachment probe.
Now Republicans feel like their best strategy to undermine Sondland is to cast him as someone who was exaggerating his close relationship with Trump to impress people and never heard from Trump’s mouth there was a quid pro quo.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a fierce defender of Trump, said the “most important quote out of this hearing so far” was Sondland’s acknowledgment that he never heard from Trump directly that the military aid was conditioned on the investigations.
“He reached this conclusion on his own. So, in short, yet another witness who can’t testify to the Democrats’ accusations,” Meadows tweeted during the hearing.
Sondland told lawmakers he was carrying out orders at the direction of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, though he said everyone was “in the loop” and knew exactly what was going on. But even before Sondland testified, Republicans were laying the groundwork to foist the blame on Giuliani.
“This is an impeachment of Rudy Giuliani. But last time I checked, he’s not the president,” Meadows told reporters last week.
Trump also sought to distance himself from Sondland, a political appointee who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee.
“I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though.”