After the call, Holmes testified, Sondland told him that Trump “did not give a [expletive] about Ukraine,” and cared only about what Sondland called “big stuff” that benefits the president. About that call, Sondland testified, “I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani.”
Further, Sondland testified that Trump didn’t necessarily care about investigations per se, only the public announcement of investigations. Zelensky “had to announce the investigations, he didn’t actually have to do them,” he said. The public announcement, of course, would be sufficient to give Trump material to defame Biden and muddy the waters about Russia’s help in getting Trump elected in the first place.
Speaking of Russia’s role in 2016: A few Republicans have tried to massage Trump’s claims of Ukrainian election interference to make them sound marginally less insane. At Wednesday’s hearing, Nunes accused Ukraine of meddling in America’s election largely through public statements by Ukrainian officials. Among these statements was a 2016 op-ed essay by Valeriy Chaly, then the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, objecting to Trump’s statement that as president he’d consider recognizing Russian-occupied Crimea as Russian, rather than Ukrainian, territory.
Leave aside that there is nothing illicit about public officials expressing their opinions about matters of urgent concern to their own countries. Sondland’s testimony made it plain that such public comments are not what Trump had in mind in calling for investigations into what Ukraine did in 2016. Trump wanted an inquiry into the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the D.N.C., which is why Sondland repeatedly spoke about proposed investigations involving the “D.N.C. server.” He wanted Ukraine’s help exonerating Russia for its attack on America.
Sondland is not a wholly reliable witness; his insistence that he was ignorant of the connection between Burisma and the Bidens when he pressed Ukraine for investigations is hardly credible. (Volker made the same preposterous claim on Tuesday — both men were likely trying to distance themselves from one of the ugliest aspects of Trump’s shakedown.) Republicans will likely cling to the fact that Sondland said he never heard directly from Trump about a linkage between security aid to Ukraine and investigations; Sondland said he put it together because, as he repeated several times, “two plus two equals four.”
Unfortunately for Republicans, Mick Mulvaney, who was reportedly directed by Trump to put the hold on Ukraine aid, has already said, on television, that the aid was frozen as part of a quid pro quo for investigations. (Mulvaney, the White House’s acting chief of staff and head of the Office of Management and Budget, later denied that he said this, despite the clear public record.) Much of the Republican case, going forward, is likely to depend on pretending that this confession doesn’t exist.