WASHINGTON — The hearing room on Capitol Hill was packed and abuzz with speculation about what Gordon Sondland might say. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, staffers in the West Wing were glued to televisions, since the ambassador to the European Union had refused to share his testimony in advance. President Donald Trump grabbed a pad and a Sharpie to take notes, unsure whether Sondland would turn out to be his presidency’s biggest danger — or best defense.
The towering hotelier walked in, raised his right hand and began by stressing that he was appearing before the impeachment hearing against the advice of the White House: “I agreed to testify because I respect the gravity of the moment and believe I have an obligation to account fully for my role in these events.”
But as Sondland warmed up, sometimes smirking, joking and announcing casually that, “yes,” there had been a quid pro quo, it soon wasn’t clear what gravity he saw in the moment.
The political megadonor-turned-ambassador was almost nonchalant as he implicated the president and his top advisers in a scheme to pressure Ukraine. He agreed amiably with Democrats that it was wrong for Trump to use his office to go after political opponents and shrugged off denials from Cabinet officials he named as they were read into the record by fuming Republican lawmakers.
There was no somber rhetoric, no cancer on the presidency in his eyes — but rather a businessman for a president who had a transactional issue to solve: Trump wanted certain things from Ukraine, and vice versa.
“Look,” Sondland said, “we tried to fix the problem.”
He recounted — without a hint of remorse — using his perch as U.S. ambassador to the European Union to pressure a foreign government to pursue investigations sought by his boss, the sitting U.S. president.
Sondland also acknowledged reversing the testimony he’d given under oath to Congress a month earlier, chalking it up to a busy schedule. He’d simply forgotten that he told a top Ukrainian official in September that the country needed to announce the investigations to see U.S. security assistance flow again, Sondland said.
Still, since he had and was having to answer for it, there was nothing wrong with doing so. Sondland saw his actions as “driving down the center lane” of U.S. foreign policy.
By the end of his seven-hour testimony, Sondland had emerged as a provocative but bewildering witness for the Democrats — someone who affirmed their assertion that Ukraine policy was driven by Trump’s insistence that the country launch investigations into his political rivals but who expressed none of their outrage.
At some points, he even appeared to be having a good time. Asked about a phone call in which he was overheard giving Trump an encouraging report about the pressure campaign, Sondland seemed amused when read back an account of having told Trump that the president of Ukraine “loves your a–.”
“Sounds like something I would say,” Sondland quipped. “That’s how President Trump and I communicate, a lot of four-letter words.”
Told by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., that other impeachment witnesses had dubbed his work “the Gordon problem,” the hearing room roared with laughter when Sondland responded: “That’s what my wife calls me.”
Sondland’s confident, matter-of-fact delivery of some of the most dramatic testimony yet in an inquiry that could force just the third impeachment of a president in U.S. history caught many assembled members of Congress off guard.
His opening statement surprised Democrats, who were not expecting him to embrace the quid pro quo phrase or to implicate other Cabinet members.
And Republicans appeared not to know what to make of a top political appointee — one who had contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration — flatly undercutting the president’s repeated defense that there was “no quid pro quo.”
Devin Nunes of California, the House Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, started his opening statement, suggesting Sondland was in for a rough day from Democrats.
“You are here today to be smeared,” Nunes predicted. But it ended up being Republicans who challenged Sondland most forcefully, calling into question his character, memory and logic.
Their outrage grew as Sondland repeatedly said that when actions didn’t add up — such as when a freeze was placed on U.S. military assistance without explanation — he “presumed” the White House was leveraging the funds to get the investigations Trump wanted.
Republicans began using their time to try to poke holes in Sondland’s claim. “The president never told you about any preconditions for a White House meeting?” asked GOP lawyer Steve Castor.
Sondland answered: “Personally, no.”
“But a lot of it’s speculation, a lot of it is your guess, and we’re talking about a, you know, an impeachment of the president, United States, so the evidence here ought to be pretty darn good.”
Under the pounding, Sondland conceded some ground.
While he said it was “abundantly clear to everyone that there was a link” between the aid and the investigations, Sondland acknowledged that “President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditions on the meetings.”
More often, the questioning added up for Democrats.
“Is this kind of 2 + 2 = 4 conclusion that you reached? Pretty much the only logical conclusion to you that given all of these factors, that the aid was also a part of this quid pro quo?” asked Daniel Goldman, the attorney for the Democrats.
“Yep,” Sondland replied.
Trump, who watched the testimony from Air Force One en route to Texas, argued that beneath the pizazz and bluster, Sondland had not proven he did anything wrong, according to a senior administration official. While some aides wanted to hit Sondland harder, Trump thought he affirmed the president’s “no quid pro quo” argument and could be spun as a positive witness.
But Democrats saw Sondland confirming a quid pro quo that occurred at the direction of the president, implicating not only Trump but Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said. “It was no secret.”
He offered limited documentation to back up his sweeping assertions, telling lawmakers that he doesn’t take or keep notes. And he said the State Department refused to allow him to access his emails, calenders and text messages to help him re-create his meetings.
On the topic of his conversations with Trump — which numbered about 20, he said at one point — Sondland was vague.
“We put together a list of all the times you said you ‘don’t recall’; it’s like two pages long,” said Castor, the GOP attorney.
The ambassador remained unchastised. “Is that all?” he said, breaking into a smile.
For many Democrats, what Sondland did share was welcome.
“He moved toward the light today,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill. “He moved in the right direction today.”
Others were less forgiving. Audience members applauded when Rep. Sean Maloney, D-N.Y., scolded Sondland for repeatedly being coy with his answers.
Maloney was trying to pin down Sondland on how he could claim he never knew that a thrust of Trump’s interest in Ukraine was to get the country to announce an investigation into the Bidens, something he asked for in a July call, according to a since-released White House memorandum.
Maloney asked who would benefit from an investigation of the Bidens. When Sondland finally allowed “the president” after dodging for several minutes, Maloney threw his hands up: “There we have it! Didn’t hurt a bit, did it?”
Sondland grew angry and chided Maloney back, momentarily becoming almost a hostile witness: “Mr. Maloney, I’ve been very forthright and I really resent what you’re doing,” he said.
Maloney reminded him how many times he’d “amended” his previous testimony: “Very forthright? . . We’re here third time and we got a doozy of a statement from you this morning. There’s a whole bunch of stuff you ‘don’t recall.’ So all due respect, sir, we appreciate your candor, but let’s be really clear on what it took to get it out of you.”
Republicans took turns reading statements issued by Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Pence challenging Sondland’s testimony in near-real time.
The ambassador sat still, smiling slightly, seemingly unfazed.
At one point earlier this fall, Trump had praised Sondland as “a great American.” On Wednesday, a lawmaker read Sondland the latest presidential comment: “This is not a man I know well.”
Sondland seemed unperturbed, chuckling: “Easy come, easy go.”