What do you do when your whole world falls apart? That is, what do you do when you say there was no quid pro quo, but a credible witness declares there was?
That was the bombshell testimony delivered by Gordon Sondland, the Republican hotelier who earned himself a US ambassadorship by donating $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee. In a dramatic appearance before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, Sondland made it clear that Trump had set up a pay-to-play-ish foreign policy operation. It’s not complicated: When Sondland and other US officials encouraged Trump to work with the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump expressed contempt for Ukrainians and said, “Talk to Rudy.” When they talked to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, Giuliani told them that before the Ukrainians could get a much-desired phone call and sit-down with Trump, Kyiv had to announce the opening of political investigations that Trump wanted. And Sondland and his colleagues, trying to salvage the US-Ukraine relationship, then spent months working with the Ukrainians to try to make this deal happen.
“Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland said. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.” Sondland went on to say that as the process continued, he came to conclude that the nearly $400 million in security assistance funds Trump was withholding from Ukraine was also part of this deal.
Boom. Sondland confirmed the basics of the Democrats’ case for impeachment. Sondland did say he does not believe he was engaged in any wrongdoing. He pointed out that he and other US officials were not “happy” to be forced to work with Giuliani. But he passionately declared, “Everybody was in the loop. It was no secret.” He meant that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and then-National Security Adviser John Bolton knew what was going on. The bottom line: Trump used official actions—or the withholding of official actions—in an effort to force the Ukrainian government to announce investigations that would potentially harm former Vice President Joe Biden and absolve Russian President Vladimir Putin and Moscow of responsibility for the hack-attack on the 2016 election. Sondland also did not dispute the account of another foreign service official who told the committee that during a July 26 lunch in Kyiv, Sondland, after getting off the phone with Trump, said that Trump didn’t care about Ukraine and only was concerned with the “big stuff,” meaning matters that directly affected Trump, such as these investigations Trump craved.
Listen to Washington, DC Bureau Chief David Corn describe the outrageous partisan theatrics in the impeachment room, and the mounting evidence against Donald Trump, in the latest episode of the Mother Jones Podcast:
For weeks, Republicans have brayed that there was no quid pro quo. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) has frequently shouted that there is “no linkage.” So now what? Given that there is no longer a question of whether Trump, through Giuliani, tried to engineer an underhanded quid pro quo with Ukraine, will there now be a reasonable debate of whether this is impeachable conduct? Nah. The Republicans remained unmoved and stuck to their strategy of divert and deny.
When it was time for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the intelligence committee, to question Sondland, he ranted about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election. (His evidence? Mainly that several Ukrainian officials did denigrate Trump in public—but this was partly in response to Trump’s public declaration that he might support Russia holding onto Crimea, a piece of Ukraine Putin had occupied and annexed.) Nunes raved about Ukrainians who tried “to dirty up” Trump in 2016—as if this justified Trump’s effort to muscle Zelensky. (Side note: In Nunes’ bizarro world, it seems, there was no Russian attack. Or, at least, it doesn’t matter much.)
And the Republicans’ top lawyer on the committee, Steve Castor, tried somewhat valiantly to protect Trump. He called Sondland’s account into question, noting that Sondland had no records or documents that tie Trump to the preconditions for the Ukrainians. Trump, Castor pointed out, never directly told Sondland that a White House visit would not happen and military aid would not be released unless Zelensky came through with these investigations. Yes, Sondland said, but he noted that when the president’s personal attorney makes certain demands, “you assume it’s coming from the president.” Castor also focused on Sondland’s claim that he did not initially know that the Trump-requested investigation of Burisma—the Ukrainian energy company that had placed Hunter Biden, the son of the vice president, on its board—involved Joe Biden. Castor appeared to be suggesting that the investigation Trump sought was not focused on Biden. This was a silly move, for Trump himself in his July 25 call with Zelensky mentioned Biden when pushing for these investigations. Castor also noted that Trump has long been concerned about foreign aid—as if that was his reason for withholding the funding for Ukraine.
The Republicans just could not bring themselves to accept reality. Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) declared that the hearing was based on “speculation, presumption, and opinion.” He noted that Sondland had no evidence that Trump blocked the security assistance to pressure Zelensky. (Sondland testified that his direct knowledge of a quid pro quo related only to that possible White House visit for Zelensky.) Jordan did not repeat his no-linkages mantra. Perhaps that would be a denial too far. But he reprised another favorite refrain: The military aid was eventually released, so there was no quid pro quo. Jordan did not mention that the assistance was released after the White House learned of the whistleblower’s complaint and Congress began an investigation. “Yes, they got caught,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said at the hearing in response to Jordan.
Overall, the Republican effort was sad. True, Trump, Fox News, and other conservative media highlighted Sondland’s testimony that he had received no direct quid-pro-quo order from Trump. But one key feature of this scandal is that Sondland did not have to receive such instruction from the guy at the top. Trump had set up a situation in which he did not need to explicitly command his underlings to squeeze the Ukrainians. That was Giuliani’s job. The Republicans may be inching toward a throw-Rudy-under-the-bus position. But before they arrive there, they are kicking up the-Ukrainians-did-it dust, sticking with their absurd claims that Trump was motivated by a concern for corruption and the possible misuse of US assistance, obsessing over the whistleblower who started the Ukraine scandal, and insisting the real scandal is about the Bidens.
“I want to get back to the facts,” Nunes said after Sondland was questioned by the Democrats. The facts, though, are not on his side—or Trump’s. Sondland drew a damning big-picture portrait that corroborated what’s already known: Trump exploited his office in an attempt to gather political ammo that could influence the 2020 election and that could clear him of the Russia taint. During a break in the hearing, I asked Nunes, “What do you think so far? You said there was no quid pro quo. Sondland said there was.” Nunes glowered at me and said nothing.
Update: Shortly after I filed this story, Jordan walked past me in the committee room. “Do you still think there was no quid pro quo?” I asked. Without pause, he shot back: “No quid pro quo.” And he kept on walking.