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U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019.Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

Used to be, there was a quintessential character on network TV comedies: The breezy-but-lovable guy. He was the neighbour or the guy in the workplace who seemed insubstantial, but delivered a wicked punchline every now and then. He was the go-to character when the main storylines were getting jaded and going nowhere.

Such is Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. He turned up at the impeachment hearing on Wednesday morning and cheerfully threw bombs at the Republican defence of President Donald Trump’s alleged manipulation of aid to Ukraine in return for announcing an investigation into the Bidens.

Consider this exchange. Steve Castor (counsel for the Republicans): “You testified that [Rudy] Giuliani was expressing the desires of POTUS, correct?” Sondland: “Yup.” Castor: “But how did you know that?” Sondland: “Well, when POTUS says, ‘Talk to my personal attorney,’ we assume it’s coming from the President.”

It’s the “yup” that gets your attention. The guy might as well be nicknamed Chuckles. Sondland was grinning away, sitting relaxed in his seat, before he even made his opening statement. Meanwhile, the text of that statement had been released and the TV anchors and pundits were near berserk, reaching for electrifying words to describe the bombshell that was about to be dropped. “Devastating!” said CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. On Fox News they really struggled to find the right words to shape their pro-Trump narrative. The upshot was Bret Baier suggesting carefully that Sondland’s testimony might be ”very damaging” to Republican arguments.

By the time the first recess came, Kenneth Starr, on Fox News, was solemnly pronouncing, “It doesn’t look good for the President, substantively.” His specific point was that Sondland’s testimony that the Trump administration had withheld documents from him could form the basis for an article of impeachment. He referenced Watergate and Richard Nixon.

What Chuckles actually did, according to CNN’s onscreen summary, was: “Sondland directly ties Trump, Pence & Pompeo to Ukraine Quid Pro Quo.” This was a bit of a stretch, to be honest, since Sondland was clear that he didn’t get direct orders from Trump, but was told to talk to Giuliani. He got the drift, not direct orders. And he said that on the phone, a cranky Trump had said, “I want no quid pro quo.” Soon after, Trump himself spoke briefly to reporters and claimed he’d been absolved of any wrong-doing and the impeachment inquiry should be shut down. This was bewildering, because everyone, including Fox News, was saying Sondland had thrown a bomb that blew a hole in Trump’s explanations.

Then it got more bewildering. If you watched several channels during the testimony, you were made aware by one or two that Vice-President Mike Pence issued a statement denying a conversation with Sondland that Sondland had described. It was, however, carefully parsed into the type of statement that might be walked back later.

By the lunchtime recess, Starr was changing his tune and walking back his earlier gloom. Pressed to find something positive for the Republicans, he noted that Sondland’s opening statement had omitted Trump’s actual language to him on Ukraine. Like magic, this became a talking point for Republican members of Congress asking questions of Sondland. Representative Jim Jordan, with his usual ostentatious bellowing, demanded – outright demanded with prosecutorial hysteria – to know why Sondland hadn’t included direct quotations from Trump in his statement. Sondland smiled broadly. His lawyer had already requested a short lunch recess so that his client could catch a flight back to Brussels to resume his work as an ambassador. You had to wonder if this was an elaborate joke. He’s still on the payroll?

Time passed and Fox News engaged in tomfoolery, saying onscreen, “Sondland says Hunter Biden’s role clearly looks like conflict of interest.” What? The man was hoping to catch a plane and would say, “yup” to any sort of convoluted question to get out of there.

If he didn’t make his flight, he was probably stuck in the airport for hours, able to watch CNN call him heroic, honest and the deliverer of devastating news for the Trump administration or Fox News calling him unreliable and dangerous. He would have chuckled throughout, having thrown some bombs that set these hearings on fire; the go-to guy when the plot was getting jaded and going nowhere.

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