The case for Trump’s impeachment is strengthening, but the political equation in Washington remains at a stalemate.
By Steve Coll-Illustration by João Fazenda – The New Yorker
On July 29, 1986, at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Vice-President George H. W. Bush met with Amiram Nir, a counterterrorism adviser to the Israeli government. Nir briefed Bush in detail about the latest doings in a shadow foreign-policy scheme authorized by President Ronald Reagan. With Israel’s help, the United States had secretly sent arms to Iran, in the expectation that American hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon would be released. Reagan had pledged never to negotiate with terrorists, yet Bush had endorsed the operation and, according to a retired Air Force general who was involved in it, was “very attentive, very interested” in Nir’s update. That November, news broke about what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, which eventually led to the indictments of fourteen Administration officials. Early on, Bush spoke about his role in a manner that was “at best misleading and at worst a lie,” in the judgment of Jon Meacham, his authorized biographer. Secretary of State George Shultz remarked privately that Bush was getting drawn into a “web of lies. Blows his integrity. He’s finished, then.”
In the unravelling of White House malfeasance, there comes a time when the bonds of omertà dissolve and the reckonings of high-level conspirators begin. In the case of Donald Trump’s attempt to bully Ukraine into investigating Democrats for his political gain, that juncture seemed to arrive last week, with the testimony of Gordon Sondland, Trump’s Ambassador to the European Union. Sondland had earlier given a closed-door deposition to the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting the impeachment inquiry into Trump. Last week, in public, he set out to clarify the “bigger picture” on Ukraine. He explained, “We followed the President’s orders” while carrying out a wide-ranging effort to strong-arm Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, into aiding Trump’s reëlection. Was there a quid pro quo? “The answer is yes,” Sondland declared. His remarks were replete with such lines for the ages. One in particular seemed certain to jolt Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “Everyone was in the loop.”
Pence and Pompeo have sought to evade accountability in the Ukraine affair. Pompeo is reportedly considering a Senate run in Kansas next year; both men are seen as eventual contenders for a Republican Presidential nomination. Since September, as sundry rats on Trump’s foundering ship of state have scurried for dry ground, Pompeo and Pence have addressed the Ukraine matter tersely, protected in part by White House stonewalling of House subpoenas for documents and testimony. Sondland’s appearance has made their attempts at political finesse considerably more difficult.
Sondland is a Trump-lite figure who made a fortune in hotels and donated a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee before the President appointed him to the ambassadorship. In that role, he joined the Administration’s attempt, earlier this year, to persuade Zelensky to announce investigations into former Vice-President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, and also into supposed coöperation between the Democrats and Ukraine during the 2016 campaign. Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, when his father was Vice-President; both Bidens deny any wrongdoing. Fiona Hill, who, until earlier this year, served as the Trump Administration’s top N.S.C. expert on Russia, forcefully testified on Thursday that claims of Ukrainian electoral interference are a “fictional narrative.”
To undermine the Democrats, Trump asked Sondland to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and Sondland duly attended meetings with Zelensky, while coördinating with the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and the White House. Throughout, his boss at the State Department, Pompeo, “knew what we were doing and why,” Sonderland testified. It was already clear that, as the campaign to pressure Ukraine intensified, Pompeo had failed to stand by the U.S. Ambassador there, Marie Yovanovitch, whom Trump fired in May. (Pompeo has said that she was not fired for “a nefarious purpose.”) Sondland provided new evidence—excerpts from four e-mails that he wrote to Pompeo and others between July and September—which showed that he kept Pompeo updated on the back-channel operation. Beginning in July, the Administration withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine. Several diplomats and N.S.C. officials have testified in the inquiry that the suspension was designed to coerce Zelensky; Sondland’s e-mail excerpts suggest that Pompeo may have been briefed on this part of the pressure campaign. (A State Department spokesperson said that it was “flat-out false” to suggest that Sondland had told Pompeo that Trump had linked the aid to investigations.)
Sondland also testified about Pence’s role—in particular, about a meeting that he and Pence had with Zelensky on September 1st, in Warsaw. At the time, Pence told reporters that the aid was being held up because of “great concerns” that he and Trump had about “issues of corruption,” but he offered no specifics. Pence had denied publicly that the delay had anything to do with Trump’s reëlection bid. Sondland’s testimony undercuts that assertion; he recalled that he “mentioned” to Pence in Warsaw that he “had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations” into Trump’s domestic opponents. Pence’s chief of staff has denied that this conversation took place.
Pence and Pompeo are hardly alone in having forged Faustian bargains with Donald Trump, or in having gambled that they will somehow survive his heedlessness and serial disloyalty. Clever and ambitious politicians do occasionally outlast complicity in Presidential scandals. In late 1986, George Shultz warned George H. W. Bush to stop misleading the public about Iran-Contra before he destroyed his chance to succeed Reagan as President. Bush bristled, but took the advice and lay low; he won the White House in 1988. These are darker times. The Republican Party, because of its capitulation to Trump, is headed for a moral and political accounting. The President’s racketeering scheme in Ukraine is likely to inflict lasting damage on the reputations of all those at high levels of his Administration who have participated or stood by mutely.
Witness by witness, the case for Trump’s impeachment is strengthening. Yet the political equation in Washington remains at a stalemate. If the Democratic-controlled House does impeach the President, the Republican-controlled Senate still looks set to acquit him. The Ukraine dossier—and all that it continues to reveal about Trump’s indifference to the Constitution—seems headed for the voters. A year from now, we’ll know their verdict. ♦
Published in the print edition of the December 2, 2019, issue, with the headline “In the Loop.”
- Steve Coll, a staff writer, is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. His latest book is “Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”