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Larry Donnelly: Sondland's impeachment testimony was explosive, but don't expect it to change the outcome for Trump

Is this week’s explosive impeachment testimony simply water that will drip smoothly off Trump’s back?

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THERE ARE TWO narratives about what transpired on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Either the lengthy testimony of Gordon Sondland, United States Ambassador to the European Union, is the iceberg that will ultimately topple Donald Trump’s presidency and lead to his removal from office.

Or is merely a shower that will swiftly drip off this proverbial duck’s back.

It bears reiterating that one of the numerous unfortunate consequences of the Trump presidency is that otherwise intelligent and sensible people can now witness the exact same events and perceive them so differently.

Simultaneously, it is worth noting that the atmosphere in Washington, DC that Americans and increasingly aghast onlookers around the world have grown accustomed to wasn’t always so toxic and hyper-partisan.

There used to be a healthy contingent of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans.

These moderates could see beyond the prism of ideology and recognise truth.

Sadly, they have been all but driven from politics in the US by a potent mixture of big money, powerful special interests and gerrymandering.

Explosive testimony

With that as prologue, elements of what Sondland said were explosive.

In sum, he came to believe that President Volodymyr Zelensky wasn’t getting badly needed aid for his country unless and until he committed to an investigation of Burisma, the natural gas company which appointed Hunter Biden, son of the former vice president and current Democratic presidential primary contender Joe Biden, to a very well-paid position on its board of directors.

Sondland stated that he and others were working on Ukraine matters with the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, at the commander-in-chief’s behest.

Moreover, “everyone was in the loop; it was no secret.”

This included Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and others in the upper echelon of the Trump administration.

He also commented that, despite the president’s multiple denials, he understood there to be a “quid pro quo” here because it was as obvious as “two plus two equals four.”

This is objectively damning testimony. President Trump, according to Sondland, held up foreign aid – taxpayers’ money – in an effort to achieve personal political advantage in his bid for re-election.

This is precisely what Democrats have alleged and Republicans have denied.

Son of Jewish immigrants

It is worth evaluating the biography of anyone who gives evidence in a legal or quasi-legal proceeding.

Gordon Sondland is a wealthy hotelier and Republican fundraiser who did not initially support Donald Trump (he opted for Jeb Bush instead), but subsequently raised a million dollars for him and was then given a plum ambassadorial post.

For Sondland, a son of Jews who fled Nazi Germany, this was a singular honour.

And there are no other reasons for believing that he had an axe to grind or any animus toward the man who appointed him, though it has been mooted that he was eager to clear up discrepancies in his answers in a closed-door deposition. He was credible.

As Sondland read his 24-page opening statement to the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives, crestfallen expressions on the faces of Republican congressman, such as ranking member Devin Nunes, were shared widely on social media. But they fought back.

In particular, they stressed a phone conversation Sondland had with the president. In response to his question, Trump exclaimed “I want nothing (from Ukraine). I want no quid pro quo.”

Sondland was forced to admit that no one had told him that the president was tying aid to the Ukraine to an investigation into Burisma being announced and that it was solely his presumption that Trump had done so.

In one memorable comment that turned his prior testimony on its head, committee member Brad Wenstrup opined that “two presumptions plus two presumptions does not equal one fact”.

Lawyerly defence

This may seem like an exceedingly lawyerly line of defence, yet it was seized upon by President Trump’s allies.

It is especially significant insofar as it shows how resolute and unified, at least on the surface, congressional Republicans are in supporting their embattled de facto leader.

Their robust and sometimes combative questioning is aimed as much at their conservative constituents – who are firmly in the president’s corner and regard these impeachment hearings as just another episode in a witch hunt that started on inauguration day – as it is at getting to the truth.

So will this undeniably momentous day move the dial? Probably not.

It has nearly guaranteed that Donald Trump will be the fourth president to be impeached by the Democrat-controlled House, but remains quite unlikely to be the first ever removed from office by the Senate.

That means his opponents will have to defeat President Trump the old-fashioned way: at the ballot box.

Democratic challengers debate

To this end, ten of the Democratic challengers gathered in Atlanta last night for another debate.

While lacking the drama and intensity of the earlier impeachment hearing, it was an interesting affair. Three of the most compelling subplots in advance were as follows.

How would the surging mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, do under pressure? Would the sinking Elizabeth Warren right the ship? And what type of performance would the newly 77-year-old front-runner Joe Biden put in?

Buttigieg offered in abundance the qualities that have catapulted him into the lead in some polls in early voting Iowa and New Hampshire.

He was articulate and thoughtful in his contributions and spoke with conviction about his commitment to racial justice – a crucial matter for him given his present poor standing with African American voters.

He also spoke directly to the concerns of Middle America and dealt effectively with criticism of his lack of experience in national politics.

Warren figures slump

Since Warren announced her advocacy of ‘Medicare for all’ in reforming health care, her poll numbers have dropped considerably.

The reality is that an awful lot of Americans, including millions of union workers, are very happy with the health care they receive from their employers and do not wish to be enrolled in a public system, which they are also uncomfortable with paying higher taxes for.

Warren was compelling and demonstrated her comprehensive command of the issues.

Some prominent commentators took issue with her delivery, however, and ‘Medicare for all’ is a political liability in the short and longer term.

Biden was very poor. His answers were alternatively too rambling or perfunctory.

And his choice of phraseology with respect to eliminating sexual violence – “No man has a right to raise a hand to a woman in anger other than in self-defence, and that rarely ever occurs. So we have to just change the culture, period… And keep punching at it and punching it and punching at it.” – was both bizarre and inappropriate.

Similarly weak outings thus far haven’t hurt his standing. This one might.

Leftward lurch

Lastly, in a month where President Trump is the subject of impeachment hearings but is still polling very well in the crucial battleground states, the Democrats’ hard leftward lurch was on prominent display last night.

When asked whether there was room in their party for anti-abortion Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, who last weekend managed to get re-elected in a deep red state, no man or woman on the stage had the guts or common sense to answer affirmatively and point to the benefits of having a big tent in a country comprised of 320 million diverse people and only two major political parties.

Because of the Electoral College system, the Democratic presidential nominee will need the votes of many millions of men and women who share John Bel Edwards’ cultural conservatism in order to defeat the incumbent, in what’s being described by some commentators as an effective message management strategy.

One would have thought they had learned the most important of the brutal lessons of 2016. But maybe not.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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