In Depth

Sondland drops ‘bombshell’ at Trump impeachment inquiry

Ambassador implicates president in a ‘quid pro quo’ scheme to pressure Ukraine

The US ambassador to the EU has stunned Washington with a testimony claiming that Donald Trump demanded favours from Ukraine’s leader in exchange for US military aid and an invitation to the White House.

Giving evidence before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, Gordon Sondland “wrote his name in history” and “triggered a turning point” in the impeachment inquiry into the president, says CNN.

In his opening statement on Wednesday, Sondland - a Republican, a Trump donor and a high-profile ambassador unanimously confirmed by the Republican Senate - stepped on nearly all of GOP’s primary defences for the president, says the Washington Post.

The ambassador declared: “I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously... the answer is yes.”

In effect, says CNN, “one of President Donald Trump’s political appointees confirmed the core allegation of the entire scandal: that he conditioned aid and recognition for Ukraine on personal favors that could help him in his 2020 re-election campaign”.

The president is accused of twisting the arm of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky - threatening to withhold a significant tranche of military aid and to block White House visits - in an alleged bid to get the European country to dig up dirt on Democrat rival Joe Biden.

Sondland also broadened the scope of the conspiracy, telling the lawmakers that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Vice President Mike Pence and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney were all “in the loop”.

As jaws dropped, Sondland said Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, pushed the demand that Ukraine publicly announce an investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter. “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 testified.

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The significance of this testimony has not been lost on the media.

The BBC said that Sondland had “fired a torpedo that has blown a hole in the White House’s defences”, while several newspapers called it a “bombshell”.

George Conway, a lawyer, drew comparison with a pivotal figure in the Watergate hearings that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. “This is a John Dean moment,” he wrote on Twitter. “It will live forever in American political history.”

Democrat Adam Schiff, the Committee chairman, told Sondland: “This is a seminal moment in our investigation and the evidence you have brought forward is deeply significant and troubling.”

However, Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House intelligence committee, has shrugged off the “supposed bombshells” in the testimony, adding: “In their mania to attack the president, no conspiracy theory is too outlandish for the Democrats.”

Speaking to the press, Trump later “ignored the bulk of the testimony offered by Mr. Sondland” and focused on a phonecall he had shared with Sondland in which denied wanting a quid pro quo, says The New York Times. Speaking in third person, he claimed that this part of the evidence in fact vindicated him. “I think it was fantastic,” he said. “They have to end it now. There was no quid pro quo. The president did absolutely nothing wrong.”

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