Testimony from GOP diplomat complicates Trump defense

House Democrats seized on Thursday’s testimony from a top U.S. diplomat as evidence that President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE and his personal lawyer Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiBiden: Impeachment hearings show 'Trump doesn't want me to be the nominee' Sondland brings impeachment inquiry to White House doorstep FBI sought interview with whistleblower at heart of impeachment probe MORE acted inappropriately in their contacts with Ukraine.

But there’s a hitch: Some Democrats say they found Gordon Sondland to be a less than credible witness. 

Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a major Trump donor, was deposed for roughly nine hours behind closed doors in the Capitol basement, where he delivered damning testimony that criticized Trump for allowing Giuliani to guide Ukrainian policy, even as State Department veterans grew ever more concerned with Giuliani’s political motives. 

“Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine,” Sondland said in his widely disseminated opening statement that was released shortly after he entered the closed-door space.

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Democrats pounced, saying Sondland corroborated previous allegations that Trump, through Giuliani, had pressured foreign officials to find dirt on domestic political opponents — in particular, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE and his son, Hunter. 

“Sondland’s opening statement throws Giuliani and the president under the bus, absolutely, basically saying he was directed by the president to talk to Giuliani to get anything done on Ukraine,” said Rep. Ted LieuTed W. LieuWyden urges FCC to secure 5G networks against cyber threats Democrat hits White House spokeswoman after Trump appointee changes testimony PETA asks DOJ to stop conducting training that harms animals MORE (D-Calif.).

“Giuliani very clearly asked for two things,” Lieu continued. “That Ukraine investigate the Bidens; and that Ukraine look at this crazy DNC conspiracy theory” — a reference to the debunked conservative conspiracy that a cyber firm fabricated records to create the false appearance that Russia hacked Democrats in the 2016 election. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Moscow was behind the interference. 

But Democrats also questioned Sondland’s motives. Text messages released to Congress earlier in the month revealed that the hotel magnate-turned-diplomat was central to the administration’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, and Democrats suggested that “gaps” in his testimony may have been strategically designed to protect his reputation.

Democratic Rep. Harley RoudaHarley Edwin RoudaClub for Growth extends advertising against House Dems over impeachment Overnight Energy: Jerry Brown testifies on emissions fight | Brown presses climate action: 'Impeachment is important, but the climate is even more important' | Dems look to protect Grand Canyon from drilling Jerry Brown: 'Impeachment is important, but the climate is even more important' MORE (D-Calif.) said Sondland displayed a “severe case of selective amnesia.”

“I don’t what to get into it because then I will be divulging the stuff that was said, but generally speaking, no, I do not find him to be credible,” added Rep. Adriano EspaillatAdriano de Jesus Espaillat CabralOvernight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Bipartisan House members call on Trump to rescind Erdoğan invitation Testimony from GOP diplomat complicates Trump defense MORE (D-N.Y.).

Still, the opinions varied.

“Very credible,” said Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelMaloney wins House Oversight gavel Maloney wins vote for Oversight chairwoman Overnight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite MORE (D-N.Y.) leaving the closed-door gathering.

On the substance, however, Democrats were united. Sondland, they asserted, had supported the underlying narrative that Trump had sought foreign help to boost his 2020 reelection chances. 

"All of the evidence that we've received is consistent," said Rep. Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiDiplomat ties Trump closer to Ukraine furor Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Warren doubles down — to Democrats' chagrin, and Trump's delight MORE (D-N.J.), who served as an assistant secretary of State under former President Obama. 

Republicans held a decidedly different view, arguing that Sondland’s testimony — despite his expressed concerns with Giuliani’s role in Ukraine — buttressed the president’s defense that there was nothing nefarious in the administration’s approach to foreign policy there.

“He says exactly what President Zelensky said, exactly what President Trump said: No quid pro quo whatsoever,” Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanWill Republicans continue to engage in willful blindness? How Democrats can avoid fatal flaws of their impeachment inquiry Live coverage: Schiff closes with speech highlighting claims of Trump's corruption MORE (Ohio), the senior Republican on the Oversight Committee, said afterwards, referring to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Republicans, however, after the deposition dodged answering whether it was appropriate for Giuliani to be conducting business in Ukraine while leading other diplomats in conducting foreign policy in the country. 

“Really, at this particular point, what I'm trying to do is withhold judgment on the whole Rudy Giuliani scenario until I've heard from all the witnesses,” said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMichelle Obama presents Lin-Manuel Miranda with National Portrait Award Sondland testimony looms over impeachment hearings this week Democrats seize on new evidence in first public impeachment hearing MORE (R-N.C.). 

“The fact that he was there looking at 2016 election information was certainly what I would think a private attorney would do,” he added. “To the extent it went beyond that, that's the question that I think a lot of us are trying to grapple with right now.”

And Democrats say Giuliani links back to Trump — the two, they argue, are inextricably tied.

“I think it is important that the American people know Rudy Giuliani is Donald Trump and Donald Trump is Rudy Giuliani. If Rudy Giuliani is doing something, it is because he is the lawyer for Donald Trump. And lawyers don’t take actions that are not authorized by their clients,” said Intelligence Committee member Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellLive coverage: Schiff closes with speech highlighting claims of Trump's corruption The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Vindman defends witnesses from 'cowardly' attacks at third day of hearings Swalwell on flatulence allegation: Total exoneration MORE (D-Calif.), calling it “a straight sharp line.” 

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Sondland was the sixth witness to appear before the three House committees leading the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into Trump since Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiKlobuchar shuts down idea a woman can't beat Trump: 'Pelosi does it every day' Budowsky: Trump destroying GOP in 2018, '19, '20 On The Money: Senate scraps plan to force second shutdown vote | Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny | McConnell rips House Dems for holding up trade deal MORE (D-Calif.) launched the process a little more than three weeks ago.

While Sondland did not explicitly say Trump pressed for an investigation into Ukraine, he described Giuliani as a middleman who was “expressing the concerns of the president” and conducting foreign policy in lieu of senior State Department officials, according to his 18-page opening remarks.

Sondland also sought to distance himself from allegations Trump and Giuliani were ordering an investigation for political purposes.

“Although Mr. Giuliani did mention the name ‘Burisma’ in August 2019, I understood that Burisma was one of many examples of Ukrainian companies run by oligarchs and lacking the type of corporate governance structures found in Western companies. I did not know until more recent press reports that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma,” Sondland said. 

“Again, 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,” his opening remarks continue.

Democrats say they also believe Sondland was trying to offer his version of events, amid growing scrutiny of his involvement in the Ukraine affair, with some suggesting he was downplaying his role.

“A lot of CYA,” said Intelligence member Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierLaughter erupts at hearing after Democrat fires back: Trump 'has 5 Pinocchios on a daily basis' Live coverage: Schiff closes with speech highlighting claims of Trump's corruption Maloney wins vote for Oversight chairwoman MORE (D-Calif.), an acronym to mean “cover your ass.”

Sondland also testified, as Republicans highlighted, that he called Trump after hearing several different rumors about the reasons of the withheld aid and that Trump insisted there was no quid pro quo. Sondland recalled that the phone call was short and Trump was in a bad mood, according to his opening remarks.

But outside the halls of Congress, versions of events about whether a quid pro quo existed got muddled when acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyDefense official testifies Ukraine was aware of issues with aid in July Sondland brings impeachment inquiry to White House doorstep Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Senate eyes sending stopgap spending bill back to House | Sondland delivers bombshell impeachment testimony | Pentagon deputy says he didn't try to block official's testimony MORE led a White House press briefing Thursday afternoon.

Mulvaney first indicated that the Trump administration had stalled nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine in part because the president wanted Zelensky to investigate the unproven conspiracy theory that Ukraine was involved in the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) server.

“Did [Trump] also mention to me in the past that the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that. But that was it. That’s why we held up the money,” Mulvaney said at the briefing.

“The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the things that he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate,” Mulvaney continued. 

Mulvaney later issued a statement accusing the media of “misconstruing” his earlier remarks “to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump,” while stating that there “was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election.”

“The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server,” said Mulvaney, who instead stating the holdup was to review concerns about corruption and review the funding other countries were giving to the cause. 

Democrats, though, saw Mulvaney’s remarks as a kind of smoking gun.

“Mick Mulvaney today, on national TV, says, 'Yes, there was a quid pro quo, essentially, on the DNC conspiracy theory investigation,'” said Lieu. 

“That is all very damning for the president of the United States."