His interrogators didn’t laugh. As they sifted through papers and dissected text messages, the committee’s lawyers and lawmakers wore furrowed brows, frustrated stares and outright scowls. And Sondland? Through it all, the ambassador had a resting happy face: bright eyes surrounded by devilish crinkles, a slightly turned up mouth, subtly raised brows and rosy cheeks. It was an impenetrable mask.
When Sondland arrived for the hearing at the Longworth House Office Building, he stepped from his black car wearing a dark suit but no topcoat. He buttoned his jacket, gave a smile to the waiting cameras and made his way through the metal detectors with a jaunty stride. He did not move like a man who was especially burdened. He looked like a man who leads a comfortable life and expects to continue doing so.
As he took his place at the witnesses’ wooden desk, Sondland appeared mildly entertained by the entire spectacle and not at all fretful about what awaited him after he’d “refreshed” his earlier, closed-door testimony, in a fairly earthshaking way: He’d said the president had not engaged in quid pro quo, then corrected that to say the president had. Others might have been grim-faced in the midst of such serious proceedings, but Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and banker who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, had the easy demeanor of a businessman accustomed to triumphing over adversity with the favorite tools of the wealthy and aggrieved: a power handshake, a good lawyer and a little crude language to take the edge off.
As the questioning got underway, Sondland sometimes sat with his head resting on his right hand as if he was a tad bored. He conferred with his lawyer, but he maintained his calm — as well as his pleasant expression — as Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) flailed his hands and demanded that the witness declare that a real-time CNN headline was incorrect. He shifted in his seat as Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the committee, marched him through Trump’s alleged wrongdoing like a father aiming to extract an admission of complicity from a recalcitrant child. When another member wanted to know whether he or his family had been threatened because of his testimony, Sondland said yes and mentioned intimidating emails and pickets at his hotels. But his face did not cloud over with worry. When Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who remains under the mistaken impression that his microphone doesn’t work, yelled at him about a meeting that didn’t happen, Sondland looked practically regaled.
For almost the entire hearing, Sondland was wrapped in the warm certainty of an elusive form of privilege. This smiling man in the crisp shirt and a businessman’s tie was in possession of the most priceless accessory of all: the belief that everything was going to be fine.
The only time his smile turned upside down was when Schiff called for a 30-minute lunch break. Sondland was not happy. He didn’t exactly scowl, but he looked displeased. A long delay would mean that he wouldn’t be able to make his evening flight back to Brussels. Back to his ambassadorship. Back to his comfortable life.
Schiff regrouped to accommodate the witness. In return, Sondland smiled.
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