Sondland to impeachment panel: ‘We followed the president’s orders’

Updated

By any fair measure, yesterday’s double-header impeachment hearings were brutal for Donald Trump and his allies. An NBC News analysis said plainly that it was “a bad day” for the president and Republicans. Vox added, “Tuesday’s impeachment hearings were a disaster for Republicans.”

Today’s proceedings are just now getting underway, but I think it’s safe to say they’re going to be quite a bit worse for the president and his partisan defenders.

Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the E.U., is pointing the finger at President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former national security adviser John Bolton in explosive public testimony on Wednesday in which he says explicitly that there was a “quid quo pro” linking a White House visit by Ukraine’s president to investigations into a political opponent of the president.

Under fire from all sides after multiple witnesses contradicted his earlier deposition, Sondland blames everyone but himself for the pressure campaign on Ukraine now driving impeachment proceedings against Trump. He showed up for his televised hearing with reams of new text messages and emails he said prove the highest levels of the White House and the State Department were in on it.

Though Sondland still appears to be using some ambiguous language, the bigger picture is clearly going to be a problem for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who appears to have been far more involved in the extortion scheme than was previously understood.

This is also another sign of trouble for Rudy Giuliani, who the ambassador is now saying was responsible for delivering a quid-pro-quo message to Ukraine. “Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president,” Sondland’s opening statement reads.

But it’s Donald Trump who has reason to be the most concerned this morning.

Sondland’s opening statement includes a simple five-word phrase Americans will likely hear many times in the near future. “We followed the president’s orders,” the ambassador concluded, referring to Trump’s instruction to work with Giuliani.

Sondland’s statement includes related phrases such as, “At the express direction of the president of the United States,” and “I followed the directions of the president.”

What’s more, the same opening statement reads, “I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Ouch.

If recent history is any guide, Republicans will soon try to destroy Sondland as an unreliable “Never Trumper” out to get the president. With this in mind, let’s not forget that it was just last month when Trump described Sondland as “a really good man and great American.”

The ambassador is also a generous Republican donor who reportedly gave $1 million to the president’s inaugural committee, and who’s been one of “a small cadre of ambassadors who enjoy direct and frequent access to Trump.”

All of which makes today’s developments that much more devastating.