During an 11:00 a.m. ET hour break in Wednesday’s impeachment hearing, all three broadcast networks eagerly proclaimed the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, was “directly implicating” President Trump in a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine. However, just minutes later, those same networks admitted that Sondland never heard any such thing directly from the President.
“Well, Gordon Sondland, clearly the man of the hour there, as we are halfway through the questioning,” Nightly News anchor Lester Holt declared during NBC’s special coverage. He further claimed that Sondland “dropped a lot of bombshells” and “Is now implicating the President directly.” He emphasized that Sondland “had direct communications with the President.”
In almost identical fashion, during CBS’s special coverage, Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell gushed over the “stunning testimony” from “life-long Republican” Sondland “essentially directly implicating the President of the United States, his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and also saying that the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others...” She added that he “essentially said this was done at the direct expression of the President.”
“There you have it. The most consequential testimony yet in this impeachment investigation....and you can count the headlines,” Good Morning America co-host George Stephanopoulos announced during ABC’s special coverage. He told viewers Sondland was “implicating not only the President, at his direction, not only Rudy Giuliani, the President’s lawyer, but also the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Vice President Mike Pence, the National Security Advisor John Bolton, and others on the National Security Council.”
The only problem with those pronouncements? They weren’t true.
Less than five minutes after Holt claimed Sondland was “directly implicating” the President, NBC News legal analyst and former Obama administration official Neal Katyal quietly acknowledged: “Sondland never said that Trump directly ordered him to withhold the aid or to withhold the White House meeting. It was done through someone, a conduit, Giuliani.”
That prompted Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd to remind viewers:
Do you remember the Michael Cohen testimony? Michael Cohen had to – “Well, he doesn’t direct you to say anything.” Right? It was an implication. And I remember – and that was – that was actually something that helped the President’s defense, in that there was never – it was an assumed order.
On CBS, after O’Donnell asked what the Republican strategy would be in questioning Sondland, congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes offered a long explanation of how the star impeachment witness actually “frustrated Democrats” throughout the hearing:
Sondland frustrated the Republican – the Democrats this morning in a very key way. Democrats tried again and again to get Sondland to concede that he got directions directly from the President to pressure the Ukrainians in the many phone calls he had with the President. But he, again and again, insisted that the President never directly told him that, that he inferred it, that he came to understand it, that he connected the dots, but what Democrats have really been hoping to nail down is that the President himself was directly involved in crafting and executing this quid pro quo, and Sondland continues to dispute the accounts of many other witnesses who say that Sondland spoke to the President and then conveyed to them that is what President wanted, investigations in exchange for releasing the aid and securing a White House meeting. So that, no doubt, is going to be top of mind for Republicans.
Later in the ABC coverage, legal analyst Dan Abrams similarly pointed out the likely Republican questions to Sondland: “But you’re going to hear Republicans now questioning him again and again, ‘The President never told you, did he, that it was conditioned? That’s your assessment.’”
The media often scream misleading headlines, only to later whisper important context that undermines those headlines.