PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — If Wednesday’s open hearing of the congressional impeachment inquiry of President Trump comes off as planned, it will include a potentially history-making role for Portland hotelier-turned-diplomat Gordon Sondland.
The longtime player in Portland and Oregon politics could be key to proving, or disproving, the claim that Trump withheld military aid and a meeting with the new Ukrainian president to extract an investigation that would damage the Democratic frontrunner in the 2020 presidential election.
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Thus far in the impeachment inquiry, the rookie diplomat’s recollections of significant events this summer have differed from that of other participants, and have changed over time. He’s also faced a series of protests in Portland.
Meanwhile, Trump has directed many federal employees not to testify, especially his closest aides, thus giving new importance to what Sondland says, noted Portland political analyst Len Bergstein.
“Increasingly, Gordon Sondland has become a figure in the center of the drama involved in this impeachment inquiry,” Bergstein said.
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With a well-known Portland businessman now under the impeachment microscope, interviews and news reports suggest five things to watch for on Wednesday.
1. How does Sondland thread the needle?
Sondland’s every word will be subject to analysis and second-guessing. What he divulges of the events earlier this year, and how he frames things, will be dissected and critiqued.
“I think he’s got his work cut out for him on his testimony,” Bergstein said. “The risks are much higher now than they were at the beginning.”
Risks? There are political risks for Sondland’s party, and risks to the job as ambassador to the European Union, which his lawyer and wife have said he wants to keep. On top of that, House Democrats have openly talked about their desire to pursue perjury charges against Sondland, citing inconsistencies between his initial testimony, his Nov. 4 revision of it, and testimony from other people involved in the matter.
2. What will Sondland say about the events of July 26?
Sondland has publicly said he was personally tasked by Trump with managing the U.S. relationship with Ukraine — even though Ukraine is not in the European Union, for which Sondland serves as this nation’s ambassador.
Other diplomats have said he privately told them the same thing, spoke of his back channel conversations with Trump, and felt free to breach security and diplomatic protocols repeatedly.
To Congress, Sondland has minimized the extent of his interactions with Trump, claimed that it was a “presumption” on his part that the U.S. government was “likely” withholding aid from Ukraine — locked in a deadly conflict with neighboring Russia — to extract an investigation of the son of 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden.
He has said Trump essentially had told him to satisfy Rudy Giuliani — the president’s personal attorney and political operative — who’d been pushing Ukraine publicly to investigate the Biden family.
But then, Thursday, Nov. 14, it was revealed that on July 26, one of Sondland’s subordinates heard him talking in graphic terms on a cell phone in a restaurant in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, with Trump about the “investigation.”
That strengthens the appearance that Trump personally directed the Ukraine pressure campaign.
That Sondland was thinking of preconditions for U.S. support at the time he allegedly was talking to Trump is substantiated by his July 26 appearance on state-supported Ukraine TV station UATV, where news anchor and reporter Kari Odermann invited him to comment on Ukraine officials’ specific requests for support from the Trump administration.
“There are certain things that (Ukraine officials) have to do that are preconditions to anything,” Sondland told Odermann.
Some things about the interview stood out at the time, Odermann told the Portland Tribune last week. “His escort from the embassy seemed very tense. Three women and one local staff who was the advance man,” she said.
“I heard the words uttered rather sharply ‘off the record’ at least three times while I made what I thought was friendly chatter with Sondland before and after,” Odermann said. “Pure speculation on my part, again with hindsight, is that his press escort was worried what he might say if he had already demonstrated being unorthodox.”
She added that Sondland “was relaxed … (he) was an extremely nice person to speak with (but) Sondland took his business mindset to diplomacy and it doesn’t translate.”
3. When will Sondland say the aid linkage began?
Sondland has claimed he was unclear on when the linkage began between $400 million in congressionally approved military assistance to Ukraine and the investigation of the Biden family and Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas producer. The Democratic frontrunner’s son, Hunter Biden, served on the board of Burisma.
Other witnesses have said it happened by July 10.
With potential perjury charges looming — and longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone being convicted of false statements by a federal jury on Friday, Nov. 15 — will Sondland’s memory improve?
4. Will Sondland say more about Giuliani?
The Wall Street Journal on Friday, Nov. 15, reported that an FBI investigation of Giuliani is looking into whether the former federal prosecutor stood to benefit financially from two associates’ pursuit of a natural gas deal with Ukraine — even as Sondland and Energy Secretary Rick Perry had been pushing Ukraine to increase its share of energy from non-Russian sources. The two Giuliani associates have been charged with a variety of election violations, including funneling $325,000 to a Trump super PAC through a limited liability company.
The involvement of federal criminal agents raises the stakes on what Sondland recalls about any interactions with Giuliani about natural gas.
Sondland’s Portland lawyer, Jim McDermott, did not respond to Tribune questions about whether Sondland would cooperate with the FBI probe of Giuliani.
5. Will Sondland be the fall guy?
Sondland’s vagueness about his interactions with Trump have caused some to say he’s being set up as the “fall guy,” to take the blame. At the same time, some Republicans have suggested he might have acted on his own while pressuring for the investigation of Biden — without Trump’s knowledge.
“The Republicans seem to have found him as the likely person to take the rap or take the fall so they can … keep (Trump) away from being culpable,” Bergstein said.
Portland businessman Gordon Sondland is set to testify in an open session of the House impeachment hearing on Wednesday, Nov. 20. The hearing is expected to begin at 6 a.m. Pacific time and is being carried live by several media, including Oregon Public Broadcasting radio, a news partner of the Tribune.
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