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Ambassador Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, center, appears before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.The Associated Press

This was the moment, the topic, the witness, the set of four words and the dramatic change in dynamics that the Trump White House most feared.

With Gordon Sondland’s defiant sworn testimony Wednesday morning, the principal defences of the White House were suddenly – and from the Trump team’s viewpoint, dangerously – ripped away.

The U.S. ambassador to the European Union, known more as a Trump loyalist than as a seasoned diplomat, tore out of the White House script the twin notions that Donald Trump’s request for an investigation into the activities of the Bidens did not amount to a presidential order and that there was no quid pro quo.

The four damning words, spoken by Mr. Sondland on the quid pro quo question, echoed throughout the American capital and perhaps will ring through American history:

“The answer is yes.”

A White House visit and meeting with Mr. Trump depended on an investigation into the Ukrainian energy company Burisma (which had the son of former vice-president Joe Biden on its board), according to Mr. Sondland. And, ultimately, the envoy came to believe that the US$400-million American military aid to Ukraine that had been inexplicably held up was part of the quid pro quo.

What’s more: ‘’Everyone was in the loop,” said Mr. Sondland, implicating senior members of the Trump administration.

That combination of words provides the evidence Democrats have sought for weeks to prove that Mr. Trump’s conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky was an impeachable breach of custom, law and presidential responsibility. It remains uncertain, however, whether those words will sway 20 Republicans who, in the Senate trial required to convict Mr. Trump, would have to side with the Democrats to remove the President from office.

Those words have the power to broaden the inquiry beyond the established cast of characters in the impeachment drama to include Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top Trump administration officials.

The trajectory of the impeachment hearings, and of the Trump presidency, have been altered several times, almost always with little effect on the President’s sway over fellow Republicans or on the steadfastness of his political base outside the capital. The Republican response to the Sondland testimony suggested that it had the potential of breaking that pattern.

Indeed, by morning’s end, the trajectory of the Trump team’s defence had discernibly changed as well.

The Trump defence – once built principally on the foundation that there was no quid pro quo – now can be distilled into three remaining principal themes. One, is that the President indeed may have set up a quid pro quo, but the military aid eventually was granted even though no investigation was initiated. Two, is that this singular episode is not sufficient to impeach a president and, in turn, to convict him and thus overturn a legally conducted election. And three, is that in any case, the damaging testimony against the President is based on assumptions, interpretations and second-hand accounts.

Republican counsel Stephen Castor homed in on the latter, arguing that the Sondland testimony amounted to a “trifecta of unreliability.”

The Sondland testimony inevitably raised comparisons with blockbuster 1973 Watergate testimony, including that of John Dean (the White House counsel for president Richard Nixon whose remarks broadened the focus of the Watergate scandal) and Alexander Butterfield (the deputy assistant to Mr. Nixon who revealed the existence of the White House taping system).

It was apparent that the Republicans were toppled off balance by Mr. Sondland, the EU ambassador pressed into service in Ukraine because there was no sitting ambassador in the country at a time when Mr. Zelensky was assuming the presidency. A hotelier and political novice, Mr. Sondland had contributed US$1-million to the Trump inauguration committee and initially was regarded as a reliable Trump partisan.

The events Wednesday in a Capitol Hill hearing room occurred as Mr. Biden, one of the central figures in this episode, was preparing to join the evening’s 10-candidate Democratic presidential debate and as new poll data showed that seven out of eight Americans said they believed the Washington hearings altered their view of the impeaching proceedings.

The new survey, conducted for NPR and PBS by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, found that 47 per cent said the information made them more likely to support impeachment while 41 per cent said it made them less likely to. These opinions reflect party divisions, with the clear implication that Americans have intensified rather than changed their views.

To senators who next year will hold the trial that will determine the survival of Mr. Trump, Mr. Sondland’s testimony that he knew “resumption of security aid would not occur” until the Ukrainian President announced the opening of a Burisma-and-Biden investigation may be difficult to dismiss.

Shortly after Mr. Sondland said that he and other American diplomats pressed the Ukrainian President “at the express direction of the President of the United States,” Mr. Trump spoke to reporters before leaving for Texas. He referred to a Sondland statement that he wanted nothing from Ukraine, asserting that that “is the final word from the President of the United States.” The peril for Mr. Trump, however, is that those were not the most powerful words issued in Washington Wednesday.

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