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Gordon Sondland chooses to save himself, not Trump

Highlights from Day 4 of the impeachment hearings, with Ambassador Gordon Sondland testifying.

Minutes after he took his seat Wednesday in the House impeachment hearing, Ambassador Gordon Sondland made himself clear: He had come to save his own reputation, not the president’s.

The process was “less than fair,” the onetime Trump loyalist complained.

But he did not blame the Democrats conducting the historic inquiry. Instead, the longtime Republican donor from Oregon laced into his bosses at the State Department and the White House — who tried to bar him from testifying and refused him access to his own files and phone records.

Then, with a batch of private emails he was able to recover and fresh recollections in hand, he let loose.

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“Was there a quid pro quo?” he said. “The answer is yes.”

Speaking slowly and clearly from a long prepared statement, he implicated President Trump’s entire inner circle as part of a scheme to demand Ukraine investigate Trump’s political rivals in exchange for U.S. military aid and a White House visit.

Vice President Mike Pence, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.

“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said repeatedly, denying he was heading a “rogue operation.”

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“We followed the president’s orders,” he said at another point.

Sondland, who has tried to downplay the scheme for weeks, was facing a dilemma that almost everyone in Trump’s orbit confronts sooner or later: Stick with Trump and risk lasting damage, or break away and face his wrath.

Sean Spicer, then the president’s press secretary, learned it as soon as Trump took up residence in the White House in 2017, when he followed the president’s demands to lie about the crowd size at the inauguration.

His reward? A few supportive tweets and a neon green ruffled shirt when he became a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.” (He was voted off last week.)

Others fared much worse.

Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, his first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and his longtime political whisperer, Roger Stone, were all convicted of federal crimes after trying to protect Trump. They now hope for presidential pardons.

Other associates abandoned the president.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime New York lawyer and fixer, sits in a federal prison in Otisville, N.Y., after pleading guilty to tax, banking and campaign finance crimes.

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Cohen broke spectacularly with his former boss, painting the president in sworn testimony as a con man, a cheat and a racist. Trump now refers to Cohen as a liar, a failure and a rat.

Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 10 days as White House communications director before getting the boot, has become a full-time Twitter troll against his former boss.

Others who hitched their reputations to Trump remain in the administration. Atty. Gen. William Barr helped the president spin the special counsel’s report into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign and possible obstruction of justice as a complete exoneration. Some of Barr’s former colleagues were aghast, but he has stood fast.

Special advisor Kellyanne Conway, the first in Trump’s circle to argue for “alternative facts” in his defense, has withstood a public dissection of her marriage as her husband, conservative lawyer George Conway, has become a prominent critic and target of Trump.

Sondland’s calculations have been a mystery. Though he was confirmed as ambassador to the European Union, he was trusted by Trump to play a key role in U.S. policy toward Ukraine, a country outside his official portfolio.

In October, Trump described Sondland in a tweet as “a really good man and great American,” and urged him not to testify.

Sondland was close enough to Trump to dial him up on a cellphone from a Kyiv restaurant on July 26. During the five-minute call, which two U.S. Embassy employees overheard at the table, he updated Trump on his efforts to get Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to announce the investigations into Democrats that Trump had demanded.

“He loves your ass,” Sondland told Trump.

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“That’s how President Trump and I communicate,” Sondland explained Wednesday, suggesting a locker room camaraderie. “A lot of four-letter words.”

Last week, Trump said he did not remember Sondland’s call from the Kyiv restaurant “at all.” But, he added, “I guess Sondland has stayed with testimony that there was no quid pro quo.”

But Sondland did not stick with that testimony.

On Wednesday, he gave Trump only a small thread to hang on. He said many of Trump’s demands were channeled indirectly, through his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.

“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani,” he said, but Trump demanded it.

He said Giuliani, acting on Trump’s behalf, told him that Trump would not meet with Zelensky at the White House unless he opened investigations into the 2016 presidential elections and Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that employed Joe Biden’s son Hunter.

But that link was not drawn as clearly when it came to $391 million in security aid that Trump had held up, Sondland said.

“President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on the meetings,” Sondland said. “The only thing we got directly from Guiliani was that the Burisma and 2016 elections were conditioned on the White House meeting. The aid was my own personal, you know, guess.”

“Two plus two equals four,” he added.

Sondland tried to frame his efforts as doing his best in a bad situation. He said he fully believed in the official American policy that the United States needed to put its money and its public support behind Ukraine’s efforts to build democracy and combat Russian aggression.

“Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt.”

Before Sondland took the stand, the most damaging revelations in the impeachment probe had come from career government employees, who spoke of a duty to speak out regardless of political party. Trump and his allies labeled them deep-staters and Never Trumpers, questioning their character and patriotism.

Sondland, by contrast, is a businessman and hotelier like Trump. A political appointee, he regarded himself as a peer, addressing the secretary of State as “Mike,” and bantering profanely with the president from a foreign country.

“No witness has so overturned a presidential defense like Ambassador Sondland since John Dean,” said Tim Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, who noted that Sondland was appointed after he donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.

“He cannot be dismissed as a Never Trumper,” Naftali said. “Never Trumpers don’t give a million dollars. He cannot be dispensed with as some Obama holdover. He cannot be described as someone who didn’t have direct access to the president and is sharing hearsay alone.”

Unlike presidential impeachment hearings in 1974 and 1998, the evidence in the Trump inquiry is unspooling in real time and on live television. Naftali said that presents a unique challenge for the president’s Republican defenders, who have been forced to change their defenses on the fly.

Dean, the former Nixon White House counsel who famously turned on Nixon during the Watergate hearings, largely agreed.

“It’s really nice to see someone put country over party,” he said on CNN on Wednesday, during a break in Sondland’s testimony. “He wants to do the right thing and he’s not going to be influenced by the pressure of the president.”

Trump, watching it all unfold, reacted as he often does when people in his orbit turn on him, by diminishing their significance.

“I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much,” Trump said as he left the White House for a planned trip to Texas while Sondland remained at the witness table. “This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though.”

Sondland testified that he had probably spoken with Trump about 20 times. When a congressman read aloud Trump’s contrasting statements about how well he knew Sondland, the ambassador laughed.

“Easy come, easy go,” he said.

Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.


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