Between the impeachment hearings and the run up to the Democratic presidential primaries, I feel like a dog in a field full of squirrels: excited, distracted, anxious. What will happen? When will it happen? How will it affect my supper?
I cannot watch much of the impeachment inquiry. I have deadlines and meetings to attend, but I did listen to much of Gordon Sondland’s testimony on Wednesday. Republicans keep trying to paint Sondland as some sort of rogue outsider. I think they imagined he would be a good fall guy for this whole Ukraine mess, but he isn’t having it. One thing he made abundantly clear is that he never acted alone. Everyone knew, he said, and no one told him there was a problem. Everyone was “in the loop,” to quote his oft-used phrase. That loop is looking more and more like a noose, and it is getting tighter. (Note: that narrative is a bit shaky today given that Russian expert Fiona Hill says she did raise an alarm with Sondland and warned him the whole thing was sure to “blow up.”)
Sondland might be able to plead ignorance and incompetence, but Trump cannot. Neither can Mike Pence, Mick Mulvaney, Rick Perry, Mike Pompeo, or Kurt Volker. These guys are not witless hotel magnates who flopped back-asswards into a position of power (well, most of them aren’t); these guys are expected to know and follow the law. And how about Rudy Giuliani? It seems increasingly likely that Giuliani will be disbarred and may face prison time. Can you imagine the dirt he’ll spill in an effort to avoid that? Giuliani is like a rabid raccoon on a good day. Back that man into a corner and he will bite.
But back to Sondland. What strikes me most is how cheerful he is about this whole mess. He cracks jokes. He laughs. He seems proud to be the guy who never takes notes, has a terrible memory, and trades profanities with the president. It’s weird.
I think Sondland is cheerful for two reasons. First, he’s decided that losing his cushy access to the Oval Office is better than spending the next few years in federal prison. He may lose his ambassadorship, but he’s a multi-millionaire whose career does not rise and fall with the political winds. As he said in his testimony, “easy come, easy go.” Second, he has always been able to buy his way into and out of every situation. I suspect he’s already hired a ghostwriter to pen his story. He’ll be making the rounds at the cable news channels soon. That may have been Sondland’s end goal all along. He just wanted to be part of the inner circle. Now he is. Unless he is charged with perjury for his shifting testimony, it’s a win-win for Sondland.
But the rest of these guys have political careers and reputations to worry about. Trump will surely be impeached, but I think other officials may be in legal peril, as well. William Barr better have a good lawyer. Ditto, Mick Mulvaney. Both Mikes—Pompeo and Pence—should be worried. They knew too much; they did too little.
One of the core issues here is that Gordon Sondland is wildly unqualified to be an ambassador to anything. He has no business playing in the political sandbox. When you allow someone who doesn’t know the rules to play the game, you have to be prepared for them to make mistakes. In this case, it looks like the president and his gang of hoodlums thought they could exploit Sondland’s ineptitude and eagerness for their own nefarious plans. It worked for a while, but Sondland may not be as big a fool as they’d hoped.
On the Democratic debate stage Wednesday night, Elizabeth Warren addressed the longstanding practice of awarding ambassadorships to big donors. Sondland, she noted, got his position after dumping a ton of money into Trump’s campaign coffers. Warren pledged to never appoint an ambassador who is also a large donor to her campaign. That’s the right thing to do. We’re currently embroiled in a quid pro quo scandal. We ought to avoid quid pro quo hiring.
It’s hard to know what to take away from a day like Wednesday. There are so many possibilities, but I can’t focus. Like that dog in a field full of squirrels, I’m already barking up the next tree. More witnesses are testifying today. The Democratic candidates will keep trying to win the nomination. Devin Nunes will surely continue to spit into his microphone. Jim Jordan will refuse to put on a jacket. But here is the thing I’m holding on to from Wednesday: Elizabeth Warren is, yet again, the smartest person in the room. That’s worth our attention.