Over the first three days of testimony in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, Republicans have tried out a number of defenses. After the Wednesday testimony of Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, almost all of them have been incinerated.
Throughout the proceedings, Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has glowered, sneered and repeated some of the same conspiracy theories that Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, wanted Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to substantiate.
Rep. Jim Jordan, the Republican recently added to the Intelligence Committee because he’s seen as an effective advocate for Trump, has argued that Trump was genuinely concerned about corruption in Ukraine, and was induced to release frozen aid after Ukraine’s Parliament passed reform measures.
Others have repeated the refrain of “no quid pro quo.” Some have tried to dismiss the claims against Trump as mere hearsay. A few have suggested that Sondland and Giuliani were working on their own.
Nunes’ already phantasmagorical case was further undermined Tuesday, when Republicans called Kurt Volker, Trump’s former special envoy for Ukraine, to testify. Volker called allegations that as vice president Joe Biden pressured Ukraine for personal reasons “self-serving and not credible” and accused Giuliani of spreading a “conspiracy theory.”
Most other defenses of Trump were demolished by Sondland’s explosive testimony Wednesday. In recent days, there have been signs that Sondland was being set up as a fall guy in the Ukraine scandal. Testifying Tuesday, another Republican witness, Tim Morrison, until recently the top Russia expert on the National Security Council, referred to the “Gordon problem,” suggesting he was an oft-ignored nuisance. But Sondland seems to have decided that he would not go easily under the proverbial bus.
In his opening statement, Sondland described how Giuliani wanted the Ukrainians to investigate an imagined Ukrainian role in hacking the Democratic National Committee in 2016, and Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company on whose board Biden’s son served. “Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelenskiy,” he said. “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president.” With that, Sondland confirmed the heart of the Democrats’ case for impeachment.
Sondland said he communicated to a leading Ukrainian official that “the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on the public statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.” He testified that he told Vice President Mike Pence that he believed the aid was being held up pending investigations, and Pence just nodded. (Pence’s chief of staff denied this.) Sondland didn’t substantially dispute the closed-door testimony of David Holmes, a senior U.S. Embassy official in Ukraine, who said he overheard a call to Trump that Sondland made on his cellphone. According to Holmes, on the call, made the day after the July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Zelenskiy for a “favor,” Trump asked Sondland if the Ukrainians were in fact going to pursue investigations. Sondland replied that they’d do whatever the president wanted.
After the call, Holmes testified, Sondland told him that Trump “did not give a [expletive] about Ukraine,” and cared only about what Sondland called “big stuff” that benefits the president. About that call, Sondland testified, “I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani.”
Further, Sondland testified that Trump didn’t necessarily care about investigations per se, only the public announcement of investigations. Zelenskiy “had to announce the investigations, he didn’t actually have to do them,” he said. The public announcement, of course, would be sufficient to give Trump material to defame Biden and muddy the waters about Russia’s help in getting Trump elected in the first place.
Speaking of Russia’s role in 2016: A few Republicans have tried to massage Trump’s claims of Ukrainian election interference to make them sound marginally less insane. At Wednesday’s hearing, Nunes accused Ukraine of meddling in America’s election largely through public statements by Ukrainian officials. Among these statements was a 2016 op-ed essay by Valeriy Chaly, then the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, objecting to Trump’s statement that as president he’d consider recognizing Russian-occupied Crimea as Russian, rather than Ukrainian, territory.
Leave aside that there is nothing illicit about public officials expressing their opinions about matters of urgent concern to their own countries. Sondland’s testimony made it plain that such public comments are not what Trump had in mind in calling for investigations into what Ukraine did in 2016. Trump wanted an inquiry into the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the DNC, which is why Sondland repeatedly spoke about proposed investigations involving the “DNC server.” He wanted Ukraine’s help exonerating Russia for its attack on America.
Sondland is not a wholly reliable witness; his insistence that he was ignorant of the connection between Burisma and the Bidens when he pressed Ukraine for investigations is hardly credible. (Volker made the same preposterous claim on Tuesday — both men were likely trying to distance themselves from one of the ugliest aspects of Trump’s shakedown.) Republicans will likely cling to the fact that Sondland said he never heard directly from Trump about a linkage between security aid to Ukraine and investigations; Sondland said he put it together because, as he repeated several times, “two plus two equals four.”
Unfortunately for Republicans, Mick Mulvaney, who was reportedly directed by Trump to put the hold on Ukraine aid, has already said, on television, that the aid was frozen as part of a quid pro quo for investigations. (Mulvaney, the White House’s acting chief of staff and head of the Office of Management and Budget, later denied that he said this, despite the clear public record.) Much of the Republican case, going forward, is likely to depend on pretending that this confession doesn’t exist.
“This obviously has been one of those bombshell days,” Ken Starr, the former special prosecutor who investigated Bill Clinton, said on Fox News after Sondland’s morning testimony. I suspect that by the time anyone reads this, Republicans will have cooked up talking points pretending that nothing Sondland said actually matters.
But at this point, all they can do is obfuscate. About the push for investigations, Sondland said, “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.” This administration is rotten to the core and fundamentally disloyal to the country it purports to serve. So is every politician who still tries to explain its corruption away.