Trump’s million-dollar donor Sondland testifies: “We followed the president’s orders.”
In this July 10, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump is joined by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Sondland's testimony on Nov. 20, 2019, confirmed that the Ukraine extortion effort was directed from the top, by Trump himself. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

I was only following orders. It’s the classic defense offered by someone further down the chain of command who gets caught up in the nefarious deeds of their superiors. And it’s exactly the mea culpa offered by Gordon Sondland, Trump’s Ambassador to the European Union, when he testified at the House Intelligence Committee’s public impeachment inquiry Wednesday morning.

In his opening statement and subsequent testimony, Sondland confirmed—as have all other officials subpoenaed so far—the main details of the president’s campaign to extort an election interference effort from the government of Ukraine. Trump withheld $391 million of military and other aid to Ukraine earlier this year, conditioned upon the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, agreeing to open an investigation into the business activities of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. The younger Biden served on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, which is notoriously corrupt, at the time his father was overseeing Obama administration policy in Ukraine. Trump’s extortion effort was exposed by the whistleblower report that initiated the current impeachment inquiry.

Sondland is a wealthy hotel owner and major Republican donor who secured his nomination as EU representative following a $1 million donation to Trump’s inauguration. He told Congress that he was appearing despite a White House and State Department order not to do so. Whether sensing that the investigation is closing in on Trump or just displaying more of the daftness that has characterized his time as ambassador, Sondland ended up offering testimony that was even more damning of Trump than expected. He effectively threw not only Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani but also the president himself under the bus.

Complaining about the administration’s embargo on letting him review any of his own records, Sondland testified from memory about his role in Ukraine—memories which conveniently portrayed himself, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, and others as powerless to stop the machinations of Giuliani. He said they were essentially forced to cooperate with Giuliani’s campaign to secure a Burisma/Biden investigation, doing so “at the express direction of the President of the United States.”

He also dared to utter the phrase that Republicans have latched onto in their defense of Trump—quid pro quo. “Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” he testified—contradicting claims made by Trump and the GOP that there was never an explicit threat to withhold aid or a promised White House visit for Zelensky. The standards for impeachment don’t require the offering of any specific quid pro quo, but Sondland’s testimony destroyed the oft-repeated Republican talking point all the same.

Sondland stuck to the tactic of pinning blame on Giuliani throughout his testimony. Repeating the storyline of a poor, noble Ukraine in dire need of military assistance crafted by previous witnesses, Sondland said he “was adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid, as the Ukrainians needed those funds to fight against Russian aggression.” Despite his own personal qualms with the extortion campaign, Sondland went ahead with the scheme anyway because Trump, he said, left him with no choice. “We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the President directed us to do so.” The testimony confirmed once more that the whole affair was directed from the top by Trump himself—“President Trump directed us to ‘talk with Rudy.’”

Sondland also demolished another defense repeatedly pushed by Trump and the GOP lately, that there couldn’t have been an extortion effort if the Ukrainians never knew they were being extorted. Republicans have claimed that Zelensky and his government were never told security aid was being withheld until they would announce a Burisma/Biden probe. Sondland testified to the contrary. He says that in a meeting with Ukrainian officials on July 10—two weeks before the July 25 Trump-Zelensky phone call exposed by the whistleblower report—he himself specifically mentioned the pre-requisite of there being an investigation before Trump would meet Zelensky.

Again, just before the call, Sondland confirmed that Zelensky and the Ukrainians knew what Trump was demanding of them. He detailed a July 19 email showing that all the key actors in the Trump administration also knew what was up. Quoting from his email, which went to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Perry, the latter’s chief of staff,  White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and a senior advisor, Sondland recounted his words: “I talked to Zelensky just now… He is prepared to receive [Trump’s] call. Will assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation….”

Multiple text exchanges between Sondland, Volker, and others further confirmed that every aspect of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship depended on “Burisma and election meddling” being probed by Zelensky. Another exchange with Pompeo’s staff showed that a statement for the Ukrainian president to publicly read was even drafted by Sondland and Volker. Sondland wrote that the contents of the Zelensky statement “will hopefully make the boss happy enough.” The boss—interesting language to refer to the president of the United States.

Any actual investigation of alleged Hunter Biden corruption was, in reality, secondary; the most important thing for Trump was to get an announcement that there would be an investigation. It was an effort to get political ammunition for Trump’s own 2020 re-election effort; he wanted to secure a weapon to attack Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. A Ukrainian investigation would also serve to lessen the severity of the Mueller Report conclusions that Russia interfered in 2016 on behalf of Trump. If everyone’s corrupt, so the narrative would go, then nothing Trump did was out of the ordinary.

The Trump-Giuliani bribery of Zelensky—aided and abetted by numerous officials in the administration—is nothing less than the solicitation of interference in the functioning of U.S. democracy. It is an international component of the larger GOP campaign to rig elections—a campaign that includes racist purges of the voter rolls, gerrymandered electoral districts, and mass disinformation to sow confusion and division among voters.

There is no getting around the facts emerging from this impeachment inquiry. This was a widespread extortion conspiracy directed from the top—by Trump himself in the White House. Furthermore, all those involved knew exactly what was happening before Trump even spoke with Zelensky. “Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland testified. “It was no secret.”

Every person who has testified before this committee, one after another, has confirmed everything that emerged in the whistleblower report. The testimony of Gordon Sondland—even if he’s just out to absolve himself of responsibility—offers even more proof of the crimes of Donald Trump. It shows that he has abused the office of president and manipulated foreign policy for his own personal benefit. The case for impeachment is even stronger after today.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.