Gordon Sondland’s impeachment testimony on Trump and Ukraine adds up to bribery

Barbara McQuade, Opinion columnist

Gordon Sondland is not a note taker, but it appears that he can do math.

Appearing Wednesday before House impeachment investigators, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union said he communicated to the president of Ukraine that before Ukraine would receive military aid and a White House meeting, he needed to announce certain investigations.

Sondland testified that “it was abundantly clear that there was a link” between the actions Ukraine desired and an announcement about the two investigations. “Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland asked rhetorically. “The answer is yes.”

In addition to confirming the quid pro quo, Sondland — a major donor to Donald Trump's inauguration — unequivocally tied it to Trump: “We all understood that these prerequisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements.”

Sondland should have taken notes

After his election last spring on a reform agenda, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sought a meeting with Trump at the White House to signal U.S. support for Ukraine as it resists Russian aggression. Congress had approved nearly $400 in military aid to help Ukraine fight Russia, which invaded Ukraine in 2014 and continues to occupy its eastern region.

In exchange, the United States was seeking an announcement about two investigations. One investigation would explore possible interference by Ukraine in the 2016 election, a debunked conspiracy theory that contradicts findings by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the election. The other investigation was into Burisma, an energy company in Ukraine that counted Joe Biden’s son as a board member from 2014 to earlier this year.

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 20, 2019.

Unlike other witnesses who have testified that they took meticulous notes about their work, Sondland said that he is “not a note taker” nor “a memo writer," and that he never has been. If Sondland had been a note taker, perhaps he would have remembered before this third try that there was a quid pro quo between Trump and Zelensky.

During his October deposition, Sondland testified that there was never any precondition to the release of the military aid. But after other witnesses contradicted this testimony, Sondland submitted supplemental written testimony to explain that his recollection had been refreshed by their testimony, and that he now remembered the meeting and aid were conditioned on anti-corruption investigations. If only he had taken notes.

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And even the written correction wasn’t complete. On Friday, State Department official David Holmes testified about a phone call between Sondland and Trump regarding the investigations, after which Sondland told Holmes that Trump does not care about Ukraine, only about “big stuff” like investigating the Bidens.

On Wednesday, Sondland admitted to the phone call with Trump, though he persisted in his claim that he did not know until recently that Burisma was code for “Biden.

Quid pro quo is an element of bribery

Sondland blamed his lapses of memory on the State Department’s refusal to permit him to access any documents that might refresh his recollection, as well as his own habit of not taking notes.

When it comes to math, however, Sondland is apparently an excellent student.

The ambassador to the EU testified that Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, told him the investigations were conditions for the White House meeting, and Sondland assumed that the military aid was a condition as well. Sondland said that though Trump never specifically told him the delay in releasing the military aid was directly tied to the announcement of investigations, he assumed the link because “two plus two equals four.”

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Quid pro quo is an element of bribery, which is specified in the Constitution as an impeachable act. While it is not necessary in the impeachment context to prove the elements of a crime as defined by statute, such proof certainly makes for a compelling case. Bribery is defined by statute as demanding a thing of value in exchange for the performance of an official act. 

An announcement of investigations against Trump’s political rivals was a thing of value for Trump. He could have used the announcement to attack former Vice President Biden, a top rival in the 2020 presidential election. On the other side of the equation, an official White House visit and the release of military aid could each constitute the performance of an official act. In other words, a quid pro quo.

It all adds up. 

Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow her on Twitter: @barbmcquade 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump impeachment: Sondland quid pro quo testimony adds up to bribery