The explosions at the House impeachment hearings Wednesday were not the work of a mad bomber. The man deploying the bombshells seemed oddly to be enjoying himself.
The testimony of the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon D. Sondland, was deeply serious in substance: that he and his colleagues “followed the president’s orders” in pressuring Ukraine to investigate Donald Trump’s political rivals; that there was a “quid pro quo” expected; and that “everyone was in the loop” on the plan, including several high-level officials.
But in the Trump era, drama and farce are often inseparable. Mr. Sondland, a hotel entrepreneur who came into his position after donating a million dollars to the president’s inauguration, could have been a minor character in “Succession”: a wealthy megadonor anxious to avoid being tainted, yet somehow seeming to relish the spotlight.
In the Watergate hearings, John Dean (now serving as a commentator on CNN) played the part of the heavy-hearted insider testifying against his administration out of grim duty. Mr. Sondland showed up wearing the smirk of a man able to imagine himself the toast of any room — even if that room was investigating an international scandal that he had a major role in.
Told that Tim Morrison, a national security aide, had referred to his actions as “the Gordon problem,” he cringe-joked, “That’s what my wife calls me. Maybe they’re talking. Should I be worried?” He grinned through rounds of exasperated questioning, through recollections of a cheerfully profane phone call with the president, through the memory of buying a “V.V.I.P.” ticket to the inaugural.
Mr. Sondland was the V.V.I.P. on Wednesday. But there were serious stakes, for the country and for him personally. He had already emerged as an offscreen figure in the hearings, described in phone calls and text chains, orchestrating the efforts to muscle political favors out of the Ukrainians.
He showed up in person as the defendant in the legal drama who refuses to be the fall guy. Beyond the bombshell explosions, if you listened closely, you also heard a series of clicks: Mr. Sondland handcuffing himself, one by one, to a list of officials attempting to stay out of the scandal.
More than any statement, the faces on the screen seemed to tell the story on Wednesday. Adam Schiff, given copious material to work with by Mr. Sondland, kept an intent headlight stare throughout. After the first round of Democratic questioning, the ranking minority member, Devin Nunes, appeared to be digesting a bad clam. And Mr. Sondland seemed to take the high-pressure appearance with a look of enjoyment, even impishness:
It all felt disorienting, partly because Mr. Sondland wasn’t plainly as friendly or hostile a witness to the opposing parties as his predecessors. On Tuesday, for instance, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman was hailed by Democrats, while Republicans insinuated that he was disloyal.
Mr. Sondland, on the other hand, came into the session with a statement devastating to the White House, but his answers grew cagier as the day went on.
Democratic representatives praised him as a successful child of immigrants, then pushed him for more clarity. Republicans commended him for his service, then laid into him for relying on his presumptions of the president’s motives. Under blistering questioning from Jim Jordan, a Republican, and Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat, his grin melted to a grimace.
Perhaps being the V.V.I.P. was less than entirely fun.
Even President Trump, who has not hesitated to assail others for testifying against him, went back and forth on Mr. Sondland. Early Wednesday, he dismissed him as “not a man I know well.” (“Easy come, easy go,” the ambassador said when he heard about the remark.)
Then, after the ambassador related a phone call in which a “cranky” Mr. Trump had said “I want nothing” from Ukraine, the president met reporters to give a dramatic, self-exonerating reading of his own secondhand testimony, scrawled in Sharpie:
The president’s performance omitted a lot of context: that he had made those comments the day the whistle-blower’s complaint came to the intelligence committee’s attention; that Mr. Sondland himself had said that the quid pro quo was widely understood among his colleagues; and that, in a hearing earlier this year — a sort of prequel to today — Mr. Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen testified that he had a practice of giving orders “in a code.”
But Mr. Trump knows the value of a dramatic televised statement. In fact, that value was central to Wednesday’s testimony. Mr. Sondland testified how important it was to Mr. Trump that the president of Ukraine publicly announce an investigation involving Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter: “He had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them.”
As we now know, the whistle-blower’s charges came out, the aid to Ukraine was released and the Ukrainian president never gave that statement to CNN. Instead, the spectacle is playing out on every news channel.
And by the end of the day, it had even wiped the smile off Mr. Sondland’s face.