Watergate echoes as Trump lieutenant's testimony refocuses impeachment

Peter Baker, The New York Times

Posted at Nov 21 2019 12:32 PM

US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, US, Nov. 20, 2019. Tom Brenner, Reuters

WASHINGTON — Gordon Sondland had not even finished his testimony Wednesday before it was being called the “John Dean moment” of the President Donald Trump impeachment drama. With the presidency on the line, a once-trusted lieutenant pointed the finger at Trump in a proceeding that could lead to Watergate-style charges of high crimes and misdemeanors.

For the first time, Trump’s critics got the sort of viral moments they have craved, crisp accusatory cancer-on-the-presidency lines uttered on camera that can now be played over and over on social media and cable television, making clear just who was in charge of the campaign to pressure a foreign power to help bring down the president’s domestic political rivals.

“We followed the president’s orders.”

“The president directed us to do so.”

“At the express direction of the president of the United States.”

Even John Dean thought it was a bit of a John Dean moment for Sondland, the million-dollar Trump donor turned ambassador to the European Union. “He decided to put the truth over party and president, because the president really can’t be pleased with it,” Dean said in an interview after the hearing. “It’s going to change the dynamics of the proceedings.”

The testimony before the House Intelligence Committee energized Democrats, who called it their smoking gun, and seemed to take back Republicans, who struggled at first to undercut his account. Sondland made a point of stressing that he was no rogue operator but in fact at key moments had kept everyone “in the loop,” including the vice president, secretary of state, acting White House chief of staff and national security adviser.

But Sondland was more of a flawed witness than Dean, who was the former White House counsel when he testified against President Richard Nixon in 1973. While Dean described many meetings about the Watergate cover-up with Nixon, Sondland could recall the details of only one conversation in which Trump made his wishes clear and even then the words uttered by the president were somewhat elliptical.

Sondland recounted an Oval Office meeting May 23 when Trump told him and other advisers who aspired to improve relations with Ukraine to “talk with Rudy,” passing them off to Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, who was busy trying to extract damaging information about Democrats from the former Soviet republic. What the president meant was clear, Sondland said: They had to help Giuliani press Ukraine for political help. Giuliani was the president’s proxy.

Republicans on the committee eventually rallied to press Sondland about his direct communications with Trump. Under questioning, Sondland acknowledged that the president never explicitly told him that $391 million in suspended security aid was tied to Ukraine’s publicly committing to investigate Democrats; that was a connection he “presumed.”

Likewise, Republicans prompted Sondland to recall a Sept. 9 telephone conversation when he asked the president what he wanted from Ukraine and Trump responded: “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo.”

Democrats pointed out that the phone conversation came after the White House had been notified about a whistleblower complaint, meaning the president had reason to deny any quid pro quo whether it was true or not. Nonetheless, it was a useful line for Republicans that they quickly turned into their own viral moment played over and over on television and social media.

The president then stepped out onto the White House lawn with notes in large, thick block letters on Air Force One stationery to remember the points he wanted to make to reporters as he headed to a waiting helicopter: “I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO.”

Still, Sondland thought he did and he was the witness Democrats had hoped he would be. In their quest to impeach Trump, Democrats have been looking for a John Dean figure all year without success. Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer who turned on him before heading to prison on charges stemming from a hush money scheme, was too damaged. Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the Russia investigation, would not play along.

Sondland seemed perfectly happy to play the role. “Sondland was supposed to be Trump’s guy, the one Trump had repeatedly pointed to in the past to exonerate him,” said Neal Katyal, a former acting solicitor general under President Barack Obama who will publish a book next week advocating Trump’s impeachment. “Yet today, Sondland testified that there was a quid pro quo. Indeed, a whole section of his testimony was devoted to it.”

John Barrett, a former associate independent counsel who investigated the Iran-Contra scandal, said Sondland’s conclusion that there was in fact a quid pro quo “was powerful and shocking testimony — yes, very reminiscent of John Dean’s testimony.”

That gave renewed energy to Democrats, who predicted a burst of momentum that may make it harder for Senate Republicans to look away if it gets to a trial. “Biggest day ever,” said Rahm Emanuel, a former congressman, mayor of Chicago and senior aide to President Bill Clinton and Obama. “It changes everything. There is no line of defense left.”

Republicans dismissed that as wishful thinking. In the end, they argued, Sondland was at least as damaging to the Democrats’ case as he was helpful to it. Other officials like Vice President Mike Pence and Energy Secretary Rick Perry rushed out statements through aides disputing portions of his testimony.

“They have yet to point to a shred of evidence when it comes to impeachable offenses,” Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., told reporters outside the hearing room. Asked the most important piece of exculpatory evidence that lawmakers had heard, she said, “the president’s own words.”

In some ways, Sondland’s testimony reoriented the debate. He noted that when it came to a quid pro quo, there were two separate questions — whether a White House meeting coveted by President Voldymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine was conditioned on his willingness to announce that he would investigate Democrats and whether the security aid was.

Sondland confirmed text messages released weeks ago that made clear that a White House visit was certainly contingent on the investigations. No linkage with the security aid has been definitively outlined in documents released so far, and other officials have testified that they did not know if the two matters were directly connected, although some thought so. Sondland said he originally did not think they were but could come up with no other explanation for the aid freeze.

He also put his finger on a distinction often overlooked: For the president, it seemed more important that Ukrainian officials announce that they were investigating Democrats than for them to actually follow through on doing it.

“I never heard, Mr. Goldman, anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed,” Sondland told Daniel Goldman, the top Democratic counsel who questioned him. “The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise was that they had to be announced in some form.”

Jill Wine-Banks, a Watergate prosecutor, said Sondland reminded her less of Dean than of Jeb Magruder, a top Nixon campaign official who was convicted of perjury and spent seven months in prison. “Jeb was always sort of weaseling out of full admissions,” said Wines-Banks, who worked on Magruder’s case. “John, when he came clean, he really came clean.”

Dean created a sensation when he told a Senate committee in June 1973 that Nixon was directly involved in the Watergate cover-up, one of the most important moments leading to the president’s resignation in August 1974 rather than face impeachment by the House and a trial in the Senate. Dean pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and served four months in a former Army base.

Dean, who spent much of Wednesday watching Sondland from a CNN studio, said afterward that there was indeed a limit to the comparison. Sondland implicated his president and many other top officials too but still said he could not remember many specific moments, perhaps resisting the fullest possible account.

“I’d call it a modified limited hangout,” Dean said, recalling a phrase made famous during Watergate, “which means he protected himself, nailed a few other people and gave limited insights into what’s really going on.”

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