From impeachment testimony to Democratic debate, Wednesday could be wild

Susan Page, USA TODAY

Buckle up: Wednesday could be wild.

A wealthy hotelier from Portland, Oregon, seems an unlikely figure to be at the center of a shadowy foreign policy operation aimed at pressuring the new leader of Ukraine to do a “favor” that just might help President Trump’s reelection. But Gordon Sondland, who was appointed ambassador to the European Union after donating $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, could well turn out to be the single most crucial witness in his impeachment.

In the morning on Capitol Hill, Sondland is scheduled to take the stand before the House Intelligence Committee amid speculation about whether he will reiterate his closed-door testimony, revise it in the face of conflicting testimony from other witnesses, or even plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to talk altogether.

Regardless of what happens then, hours later attention will shift from him to a stage in Atlanta, where the 10 leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination will face off in their fifth debate. It will be less than three months before the opening Iowa caucuses begin the process of determining who will take on Trump in 2020, and just weeks before the House of Representatives is expected to vote on articles of impeachment.

The repercussions of the full day could help evict Trump from the White House through impeachment, or defeat him through the ballot box, or even contribute to a backlash that boosts his reelection. (That seemed to be Trump's own view. Democrats are using "the impeachment hoax" for political gain, he told reporters Tuesday, "but it's had the opposite effect.")

The first impeachment in U.S. history of a president in the process of running for reelection has created a complicated melodrama that has dominated the news and exhausted much of the electorate.

More: How to stay updated on USA TODAY's impeachment coverage

In a poll released last week, sponsored by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, most Americans said they hear conflicting information, and nearly half said they find it hard to know what they should believe.

That's one reason Sondland's testimony looms as so important.

Sondland's call, changing testimony

As a Trump donor and appointee, he's hard to dismiss as a never-Trumper, the charge the president has made against other witnesses. 

But Sondland's testimony could undercut some of the arguments the president's defenders have relied on – that the accounts of questionable actions by Trump are secondhand and hearsay, for one. For another, that he was trying, appropriately, to combat corruption in Ukraine, not to dirty up a domestic political rival. And that he didn't demand an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter as a prerequisite for releasing U.S. military aid Congress had appropriated.

Sondland reportedly talked directly to Trump, and about the military aid, in an extraordinary conversation on July 26, the day after Trump had talked with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and asked for a "favor." A White House summary of that call shows Trump urging Zelensky to investigate the business dealings of Hunter Biden and an unfounded conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had been behind meddling in the 2016 election.

In this file photo taken on October 17, 2019, US Ambassador Gordon Sondland (C) arrives at the US Capitol in Washington, DC.

Over a bottle of wine at an outdoor restaurant in Kyiv, Sondland called Trump on his cellphone, according to closed-door testimony by David Holmes, the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, who was there. Holmes is scheduled to testify before the committee Thursday.

"So he's going to do the investigation?" Trump could be overheard saying. (He was speaking so loudly that Sondland held the phone away from his ear.)

"Oh yeah, he's going to do it," Sondland responded. After hanging up, Sondland told Holmes Trump didn't care about Ukraine – he repeated a vulgarity to make that point – but instead cared only about "big stuff that benefits the president, like the Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.'"

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is now Trump's personal attorney, had been running a rogue foreign policy operation on Ukraine.

Secretary of State: Mike Pompeo 'on shifting sand' as impeachment probe reveals his Ukraine role

In his initial, closed-door testimony, Sondland didn't disclose the conversation with Trump, and he denied knowing until later that the president wanted Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. News of the July 26 phone call was a bombshell from the first day of the public impeachment hearings last week, relayed by Ambassador Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv.

Now Sondland will be asked to explain why he hadn't revealed it before.

There was a day of testimony on Tuesday, including from Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top White House Ukraine expert. He had been listening to the July 25 phone call and immediately registered concerns up the chain of command that Trump's request to Zelensky had been improper.

"Frankly, I couldn't believe what I was hearing," he told the committee. 

The committee also heard from Jennifer Williams, a State Department staffer who was assigned to Vice President Mike Pence, former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and former National Security Council aide Tim Morrison.

On to the debate, and articles

Once the public hearings are concluded, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to be charged with the task of drawing up articles of impeachment, which the full House would then consider. While there's no firm timetable, Democratic leaders would like to have the issue settled by the end of the year – just weeks away.

Then the Senate would hold an impeachment trial. Among the jurors: six Democratic senators who are also running for president and all of whom have endorsed the formal impeachment inquiry.

What did they think of the morning's testimony?

Watch Wednesday's debate. They are almost sure to be asked.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Impeachment hearings analysis: Gordon Sondland takes center stage