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Trump’s relationships and other takeaways after Gordon Sondland’s testimony

‘The Gordon problem’: Ambassador quips ‘that’s what my wife calls me’ during an odd day in Washington

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testifies during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testifies during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — Donald Trump stuck to the script Wednesday, one he personally wrote on an Air Force One notepad in black marker.

As the president gestured with his hands as he spoke to reporters, the pad in his left hand tilted toward journalists assembled on the White House’s South Lawn. His movements revealed the notes, writing in large letters with what appeared to be a thick black marker. (A White House official confirmed it was the president’s handwriting on the white page.)

“You have the cameras rolling?” said the former reality television host and voracious cable news consumer.

The notepad, with “Aboard Air Force One” printed on the top, acted much like his teleprompter at a political rally. He both read the prepared words and ad-libbed his own defense.

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“Here’s my answer: I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy to do the right thing,” the president said he told U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland. “This is the final word … from the president of the United States.”

Here are three takeaways as Trump and Co. follow the public impeachment hearings.

Trump is watching

White House aides have tried to portray the president as far too busy to watch much — if any — of House Democrats’ public impeachment hearings. But, yet again, their boss has personally foiled their efforts. The president himself even tried to stick to his staff’s message. For one day, anyway.

“I’m too busy to watch it. It’s a witch hunt, it’s a hoax, I’m too busy to watch it. So, I’m sure I’ll get a report. There’s nothing — I have not been briefed,” he said alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Nov. 13. “There’s nothing there.”

But he made no bones that he watched some of Tuesday’s first session with Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who oversees European matters at the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence. The same was true on Wednesday as Sondland was still at the witness table and the president popped out of the White House around 11:35 a.m., about 50 minutes behind his schedule, for a trip to an Apple facility in Texas.

Trump recounted parts of a Sept. 9 telephone conversation he said he had with Sondland, prefacing it with: “Just happened. To which I turned off the television.”

Relationship status

Trump often boasts about having a good or solid “relationship” with other world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Emmanuel Macron,  Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Erdogan.

His aides have noticed. Here’s Sondland on Wednesday, describing his and other diplomatic officials’ strategy for improving U.S.-Ukraine relations: “We advised the president of the strategic importance of Ukraine and the value of strengthening the relationship with President Zelenskiy.”

“I think that based on the May 23 [Oval Office] meeting, the president was down on Ukraine for the reasons mentioned and would need a lot of convincing,” Sondland said, explaining his desire to play global matchmaker.

“And that is why we were pushing so hard for the meeting between the president and President Zelenskiy because we thought once the two of them might meet, his impression of Ukraine, his stock about Ukraine would go up.”

It never happened, and the ambassador made clear Wednesday that was because “because more conditions are being placed on the White House meeting.”

Another relationship was covered as well.

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“It really depends on what you mean by know well,” Sondland said of his relationship with the president. “We are not close friends, no. We have a professional, cordial working relationship.”

A weird day

Trump’s marker script wasn’t the only weird or awkward moment of the day.

Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee that he came to understand a Trump-Zelenskiy meeting at the White House was conditioned on the Ukrainian president announcing investigations of U.S. Democrats. He added: “Everyone was in the loop,” adding: “I was following the direction of the president.”

Minutes later, a White House official described this CQ Roll Call reporter’s email asking for a response “premature.”

A mile down Pennsylvania Avenue, there were even more weirdness.

After Sondland mentioned a “bad phone call” during which there was “talk about a drug cocktail or something,” Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff felt it necessary to note this: “No one thinks they’re talking about a literal drug deal here, or a drug cocktail.”

California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell dropped a hard-to-follow metaphor about raindrops and umbrellas.

And as the hearing neared its sixth hour, Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi reminded Sondland that NSC staffer Tim Morrison called him “The Gordon Problem.”

Sondland then delivered one of the day’s most memorable punchlines: “That’s what my wife calls me.”

Patrick Kelley contributed to this report.

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