|DOUG MILLS/ THE NEW YORK TIMES|
One by one the officials, notably including those called by Republicans as they flail and splutter in trying to save Donald Trump, have approached the witness table in the ornate made-for-television committee room in the Longworth Office Building across Independence Avenue from the Capitol to be sworn in. And one by one they have methodically blown the doors off the White House in the second week of explosive public impeachment hearings that by all rights should be the beginning of the end of Trump's presidency. But we are bitterly aware of the perils of irrational exuberance in these perilous times, so let's keep the champagne on ice a while longer.
The show-stopping moment -- a John Dean moment, if you will -- came Wednesday morning during Gordon Sondland's stunning testimony detailing the scheme to extort Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden and son before nearly $400 million in desperately needed military aid to fight Russian aggression was released.
"I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?" Sondland said with the clarity of a man who bought his EU ambassadorship for a $1 million contribution to Trump's inaugural events but has now decided that going to prison for perjury is not worth his continuing allegiance to the Chosen One.
"The answer is yes."
Sondland, in hammering the last nail into Trump's coffin, directly connected him to the scheme, testifying that the president had personally ordered that the aid and a coveted White House meeting for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky be put on ice, and for good measure dragged in Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Vice President Mike Pence as being players in the extortion campaign.
Then there is the omnipresent Rudy Giuliani, who Sondland further confirmed not only orchestrated the scheme, but that he and others "followed the president's orders" to talk to Trump's oleaginous lawyer-fixer about anything to do with putting the heat on Zelensky. There was not a "back channel" on Ukraine policy, he said, there was only one channel.
"We followed the president's orders. Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret," Sondland said.
The Democrats' star witness then marched on, further undermining the ridiculous idea pushed by Republicans that Trump truly cared about corruption in Ukraine, testifying that there never was a desire for investigations -- just announcements of them.
"I never heard anyone say that the investigations had to start, or had to be completed," Sondland said. "The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise, was that they had to be announced [publicly] in some form and that form kept changing."
Inconsistencies remained between Sondland's lengthy testimony on Wednesday and on October 17 when he repeatedly said he could not recall if there was a quid pro quo.
Republicans hammered on these inconsistencies in trying to undercut Sondland's credibility and portray him as a rogue actor and Trump as an innocent, while a House Republican staff lawyer made the opening move in an effort to pin the Ukraine pressure campaign solely on Giuliani.
Republicans clearly were stunned by Sondland's opening remarks implicating Trump.
Devin Nunes, ranking House Intelligence Committee Republican and custodian of the most outrageous of the right-wing "deep state" conspiracy theories, was so surprised he failed to alter his prepared testimony in which he treated Sondland as a friendly witness.
"You are here today to be smeared," he said, even after Sondland had distributed his opening remarks.
Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who has kept a tight rein on the hearings, thus far keeping them from devolving into the Republican circus some had feared, called Sondland's testimony "among the most significant evidence to date. . . . It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery, as well as other potential high crimes and misdemeanors."
Schiff, rebutting the claims of Trump's Republican defenders, who sought to wear down Sondland during a long afternoon of questioning, said “My colleagues seem to be under the impression that unless the president spoke the words, 'Ambassador Sondland, I am bribing the Ukrainian president,' that there is no evidence of bribery. If he didn’t say, 'Ambassador Sondland, I'm telling you, I'm not going to give the aid unless they do this,' that there's no evidence of a quid pro quo on military aid."
"They got caught," Schiff added. "They got caught."
In brief remarks to reporters outside the White House, Trump predictably sought to distance himself from Sondland, saying, "This is not a man I know well," a walkback from having previously called him "highly respected . . . a great American."
We should be elated that one of Trump's top henchmen has turned on him in giving such incredibly damning testimony. Sondland all but assured that the House will approve articles of impeachment, possibly including bribery and obstruction of justice in addition to abuse of power and contempt of Congress.
But there still is no indication that Senate Republicans will be moved to convict the hands-down most corrupt president in history despite growing public approval for his removal, so hold the bubbly.