Ahead of Monday’s episode of the CAFE Insider podcast, catch Preet Bharara and Anne Milgram share their takeaways from Week 2 of the public impeachment hearings in a special episode of Stay Tuned that will drop later today.
Gordon Sondland is House Democrats’ star witness. He also, almost certainly, previously lied to Congress. That leaves Democrats in a tough but not an impossible situation. Their argument now must be: Sondland fudged before, and has come clean now (at least mostly), but either way Sondland’s testimony crushes Trump and others.
Sondland’s initial deposition testimony to Congress — even taking only the uncontested portions — does serious damage to Trump. Sondland testified that the Administration’s demands of Ukraine proceeded along a “continuum” that “kept getting more insidious as [the] timeline went on.” What started as an “unconditional” offer of a White House visit became “some kind of a commitment to investigate corruption generally” and then, ultimately, “demands” about “Burisma and the 2016 election.”
Sondland also confirmed during his deposition that “whatever the Ukrainians were going to promise in any context, he [Giuliani] wanted it public” — a particularly telling detail exposing that Trump’s enablers (and perhaps Trump himself) wanted the public spectacle of an investigation above all else, better to utilize as campaign ammunition. (For the record: this is decidedly not how an actual investigation works. In fact, there’s no better way to tank an investigation than to announce it publicly).
During his public testimony this week, Sondland took the gloves off. He testified that there was indeed a “quid pro quo” between security assistance and a White House visit (on one hand) and politically-motivated investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election (on the other). “We all understood that these pre- requisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements,” Sondland affirmed. And he produced emails confirming that he and others kept the leadership of the White House (including Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney), State Department (including Secretary Mike Pompeo), and National Security Council up to speed. “Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland testified.
Yet Sondland’s testimony — particularly his initial deposition — is rife with contradictions, inconsistencies, and omissions. He claimed not to have known that Burisma was associated with the Bidens until September 2019 (despite Giuliani regularly linking the two in public, and despite other witnesses testifying that Sondland was well aware of the connection). Sondland maintained that nobody expressed dismay to him about the Administration’s actions towards Ukraine, contrary to the testimony of Fiona Hill and Bill Taylor. Both Marie Yovanovitch and George Kent testified that Sondland suggested that Yovanoitch appease Trump with a friendly tweet, which Sondland unconvincingly denied.
And those are just the smaller fibs. Sondland also told two whoppers. First, he somehow neglected to mention in his initial testimony the itty-bitty fact that he had, in fact, directly proposed a this-for-that exchange of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid in return for a “public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.” Sondland had to file a “supplemental declaration” to fix that misstatement.
And we now know from David Holmes — who overheard Sondland on a July 26 phone call while they were at a restaurant in Ukraine — that Trump asked Sondland about an “investigation.” After the call, Sondland told Holmes that Trump “doesn’t give a s*** about Ukraine” and instead cares about the investigation of the Bidens. Not only did Sondland somehow omit that phone call from his initial deposition testimony, but he affirmatively stated under oath: “I recall no discussions with any State Department or White House official about former Vice President Biden or his son. Nor do I recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens.” Sondland has now adopted Holmes’s account of the July 26 phone call in nearly all respects (except Sondland maintains he did not mention the Bidens). Sondland explained his omission of the July 26 call by noting that the State Department has withheld key documents, undermining his ability to refresh his memory about key events.
Notice a pattern? Like a broken cash register that only shortchanges the customer, all of Sondland’s shading has gone one direction: in Trump’s favor. In particular, Sondland’s initial deposition — which did not concede a quid pro quo and did not mention the July 26 call — was far better for Trump than Sondland’s supplemental declaration (admitting the quid pro quo) or his public testimony this week (recalling the July 26 call).
All of which leaves House Democrats in a tricky spot, but not one entirely unknown to prosecutors. We’ve seen throughout the impeachment hearings a parade of witnesses most prosecutors could only dream of: career public servants, diplomatic leaders, military heroes, most of whose testimony has gone substantively unchallenged. But in real life, the witnesses who make or break trials often come with deep flaws. Many have participated in crime with the defendant on trial or have lied.
The argument now must be: Sondland fudged before, and has come clean now (at least mostly) but either way, Sondland’s testimony crushes Trump and others. Like Sondland’s testimony itself, it’s not the cleanest case, but it should be enough.
What will Preet and Anne be discussing on the CAFE Insider? Where to begin…
Blockbuster week of public impeachment hearings wrapped on Thursday with riveting testimony from Dr. Fiona Hill, former top Russia expert at the National Security Council, and David Holmes, a State Department foreign service officer who was stationed at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. We heard from a total of nine witnesses, including moving testimony from Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and some explosive revelations from E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Pentagon official Laura Cooper.
Denouncing the GOP’s and Trump’s embrace of the conspiracy theory about Ukraine’s interference in the 2016 election, Hill said in her opening statement on Thursday: “[S]ome of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves…I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.” Hill further testified that Sondland didn’t coordinate his efforts with the National Security Council staff because he was running a “domestic political errand.”
In a highly anticipated testimony on Wednesday, Sondland confirmed what the other witnesses have corroborated, saying in his opening statement: “Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.” He also implicated top Trump administration officials in the Ukraine pressure campaign, saying: “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret. Everyone was informed via email on July 19, days before the Presidential call.” As Sondland was testifying, many took to Twitter to draw Watergate analogies, with former Stay Tuned guest George Conway calling Sondland’s appearance “a John Dean moment” that “will live forever in American political history.” Meanwhile, in uncharacteristically brief remarks, Trump told reporters that he didn’t ask for anything from Ukraine and attempted to distance himself from Sondland: “I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well.”
Dismantling a GOP defense, Cooper testified in a Wednesday afternoon session that Ukrainian officials knew there was an issue with military aid as early as July 25, the date of Trump’s infamous call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Cooper revealed that on July 25 Ukrainians reached out to her staff inquiring about the status of congressionally appropriated funds. Speaking to the critical importance of the aid, Cooper said in her opening statement: “The United States and our allies provide Ukraine with security assistance because it is in our national security interest to deter Russian aggression around the world.”
Lt. Col. Vindman, who was on the July 25 call, said in his testimony on Tuesday that he was “concerned” by what he heard and that it was “improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent,” referring to former Vice President Joe Biden. In a moving moment, Vindman, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine as a child, and whose patriotism some Republicans have questioned, said this to his father: “Dad, my sitting here today, in the US Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
In other news:
—TIME magazine reports that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, worried that his links to Trump and the impeachment inquiry are hurting his reputation, “has told three prominent Republicans in recent weeks that he plans to resign from the Trump Administration to run for the U.S. Senate from Kansas in next year’s elections.”
— NBC News reports that the FBI is seeking an interview with the whistleblower whose complaint set off the impeachment probe. The move was reportedly approved by the FBI’s Washington field office, without involvement at the Justice Department.
— Tova Noel and Michael Thomas, two jail guards on duty the night Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide in his jail cell, were charged on Tuesday with making false records and conspiring to defraud the United States. In the indictment, SDNY prosecutors write that “the defendants, in dereliction of their duties … repeatedly failed to perform mandated counts of prisoners under their watch” and “[t]o conceal their failure…repeatedly signed false certifications.”
— CNN reports that an FBI official is under criminal investigation after allegedly altering a document related to 2016 surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide. The finding is expected to be part of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s review of the FBI’s effort to obtain warrants on Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Horowitz’s report will be released on December 9.
Preet and Anne will react to the head-spinning developments on today’s special episode of Stay Tuned and dig into the details on Monday’s episode of CAFE Insider as they look ahead to possible articles of impeachment as well as discuss the late-breaking story about the FBI’s surveillance of Carter Page. To listen, try the membership free for 2 weeks.
A New Cold War &
Lessons from Watergate
Legendary journalist Carl Bernstein joined Preet this week to discuss the differences between our current political moment and Watergate, which he famously covered alongside Bob Woodward, earning the 1973 public service in journalism Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post. Bernstein, who after half a century of investigative reporting continues to break stories about the Trump administration, argues that the United States is currently in a period of “Cold Civil War.” This stand-off, he says, began long before Trump, but that his presidency has inflamed the conflict. “Trump has exploited that ‘Cold Civil War.’ He has brought it to the point of ignition and consciously—intentionally, it would seem—has poured fuel onto the fire,” Bernstein told Preet.
Bernstein acknowledges that the Watergate era was also a time of extreme tension. “There was great upheaval during the Nixon presidency over Vietnam…we had a very divided country, bitter politics, people in the streets.” He highlights, however, that the polity was able to develop “a fact-based consensus about the misconduct of the President of the United States.”
Bernstein identifies a number of reasons for the breakdown in our ability to arrive at a political consensus—the rise of social media, the emergence of Fox News, and the rapidity of the news cycle chief among them. He also fears that we are closer to the beginning than the end of this conflict: “I think the ‘Cold Civil War’ is going to be with us for a long time.”
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—The CAFE Team: Tamara Sepper, Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, David Kurlander, and David Tatasciore