Ambassador Sondland blew the impeachment inquiry wide open

President Trump’s fortunes finally turned south with the bombshell testimony of the US ambassador to the EU.

Sondland Testimnony Reuters
Ambassador Sondland testifying at the impeachment inquiry into President Trump in Washington, DC [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

The pundits and talking heads keep looking at the polls and noting that the dial on Donald Trump and the impeachment has barely moved. With the implication that it is stuck unto eternity. It takes time for the change to percolate and become our morning coffee.

Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, has changed things on multiple levels.

First, his statement of fact. It included: “Was there quid pro quo? … the answer is yes.”

Republicans on the committee make much of the claim that Democrats have moved from charging quid pro quo to extortion to bribery. Just to clarify, quid pro quo simply means “this for that”. It encompasses both bribery and extortion.

It is bribery if the main aspect of the transaction is a payoff to a person in authority. It is extortion if a threat or actual force is used to coerce the payment (whether that is money, goods or services). All three apply in this case.

Trump attempted to get something of personal value (quid) in exchange for (pro) releasing money to Ukraine that they should have received anyway (quo). That is demanding a bribe. The fact that Ukraine needed these funds desperately for arms to defend itself against Russia and Russian proxies is the equivalent of “do me a favour or I’ll let the gangsters shoot you,” and that makes it extortion.

The reason “quid pro quo” became the term of choice is because the US Supreme Court in its efforts to decriminalise – indeed to normalise classy corruption – said that to prove corruption there had to be an explicit “quid pro quo”.

It is not corruption if Tony Soprano gives the money to the City Councilman’s campaign fund, hosts his daughter’s graduation party, and gets the Councilman’s wife diamonds at wholesale and Tony happens to get the garbage contract. Tony has to say, “give me the garbage contract and I’ll give you a kickback,” to meet the Court’s “quid pro quo” criteria.

Trump saying “no quid pro quo” does not demonstrate that there was not one. It demonstrates that he is wise in the ways of crime and paid close attention when the Supreme Court moved the goalposts, quite recently, in 2016.

Second, Sondland was a first-hand witness. He was part of it, live and in person. Until he testified, the primary defence was that it was all second-hand and hearsay.

Third, Sondland connected it directly to the president. He spoke directly to the president. He got his orders from the president. He let others become witnesses to his discussions – both first-hand and second-hand – of his conversations with the president.

Trump was also playing another Godfather game by having Rudi Giuliani be the buffer – or at least one of the buffers – between himself and the extortionate demands for his bribe before he would release aid to Ukraine.

There, you have all three, extortion, bribery, quid pro quo in one description of the events. If Trump told Sondland to do what Giuliani told him to, and Trump’s other efforts are in synch with what Giuliani did demand, Trump is still connected directly to the scheme. Indeed, he is still in command of it.

Fourth, Sondland established that there were many players and lots of people who knew. In addition to Giuliani, he named Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, as participants or at least as people in the know. That makes their refusals to testify, to even acknowledge subpoenas, to turn over documents (electronic and paper), probative, “adding proof”.

Fifth, Sondland established that it is possible to testify.

This is hugely important. One of the mainstays of the Trump game is the refusal to acknowledge any other authorities. To claim they have no jurisdiction. That they are not legitimate. To order everyone in the executive branch to toe that line. Sondland was the first “player” to break that Trumpian version of “omerta”.

Admittedly, that happened in part because he got himself caught in a perjury trap. His first testimony was not “accurate.” He was informed that there was other testimony and documents that contradicted it. His lawyer advised him how to “remember” in order to revise. That takes us to Part B of the fifth item. Once you are under oath before Congress, the Senate, or a court, it is necessary to testify truthfully.

This part of the impeachment inquiry may have ended on Thursday, November 21. 

There may be more hearings. If there are, they will be in private first and in public second.

The next known step is that the information goes to the Judiciary Committee to draw up the Articles of Impeachment.

There are other investigations and prosecutions already taking place simultaneously. There may be more. Sondland’s testimony will likely affect those. He has demonstrated that if you keep trying, there are people who will come forward to testify.

He – and Lt Col Vindman, Marie Yovanovitch, Fiona Hill, and the others – have set an example. Others will almost certainly come forward to deliver information and to speak up.

A lot of these issues have gone or will go to courts. Sondland’s testimony has proved that there are secrets behind the wall of silence, they are likely to be important, and it is of public value to have them revealed.

Just as the whistle-blower’s complaint launched the process, Ambassador Sondland has blown it open. It is not the final event, but after it, the process must go forward.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.