WASHINGTON ― Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union and the man at the center of the Ukraine controversy, testified before Congress on Wednesday that President Donald Trump conditioned security aid and a meeting with the Ukrainian president at the White House upon on Ukraine investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, giving Democrats their most potent sound bite yet.
“Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland asked himself. “The answer is yes.”
But for Republicans, somehow, Sondland’s testimony exonerated Trump.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called Sondland’s testimony “a nothing-burger.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), while admitting he didn’t see any of Sondland’s testimony, said it was “all hearsay.”
And House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) described Sondland’s testimony as “scrambled eggs.”
“A yolk for them, a yolk for us,” Biggs said.
Like many Republicans Wednesday night, Biggs disregarded Sondland’s claim that aid and a White House meeting were conditional on the Ukrainian president announcing an investigation into Biden, because Sondland also testified that Trump never directly said that it was a quid pro quo — the existence of one was Sondland’s impression.
“There’s no evidence anywhere else around,” Biggs said of the quid pro quo.
That, of course, ignores a lot of evidence. For starters, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky didn’t get his White House meeting, and the U.S. security aid for Ukraine was held up. Even if you believe the GOP line that Trump delayed the aid because he was doing due diligence, that doesn’t explain why he wouldn’t agree to meeting Zelensky at the White House. And, even more damning, the aid was only released after the existence of a whistleblower complaint about the situation became public.
In the words of former Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan ― now an Independent ― Republicans are relying on simply confusing the public.
“They talk about it like we’re all stupid, like we can’t see what’s going on,” Amash told HuffPost, in an elevator full of his former Republican colleagues. “Sondland testified to a quid pro quo. He testified to significant details and facts. He testified that he thought it was wrong. So the inference is obvious that the president was withholding security assistance.”
When we pressed Amash on what he would say to GOP legislators ― like the ones standing beside him in the elevator ― who say it’s not obvious, Amash was not sympathetic.
“It just is,” he said. “If this were any grand jury proceeding, it would be obvious to everyone.”
Predictably, that is not how Republicans see it. Despite Trump freezing the aid and not acquiescing to a White House meeting, Republicans are focused on the fact that the aid was eventually released.
“My biggest problem with the whole thing is that it’s like an armed robbery without a weapon, without a product that’s been stolen and without a victim that’s been robbed,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said Wednesday. “All of this planning that was apparently going on that didn’t come to pass.”
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who was in the elevator during Amash’s interview, suggested the comparisons to a grand jury aren’t apt because the federal standards of evidence weren’t being used for the impeachment hearings.
“If it were, almost all of this information, almost every single shred of it, would be inadmissible,” he said.
Generally, Republicans were all over the place in their defense of Trump Wednesday night.
Some of it was muted and general ― Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) told HuffPost that “nothing stands out to me that’s troubling,” before insisting we get in touch with his communications director ― while other defenses were animated and extremely specific.
Diaz-Balart said foreign aid gets tied up all the time. He offered the defense that everyone was misinterpreting the president. He went on an extended rant about how the press wasn’t adequately arguing for transparency in the Intelligence Committee’s investigation. (While the Intelligence Committee did initially depose witnesses behind closed doors, it has been releasing transcripts of those depositions and holding public hearings for the last week.)
Other Republicans offered a smorgasbord of defenses. Perry was particularly concerned that Democrats were blocking an investigation into Hunter Biden.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said even the “worst interpretation” was still acceptable. “There’s nothing impeachable,” King said. “[Trump] has a constitutional right to ask that corruption be eliminated.”
And Biggs complained about the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert, Alexander Vindman, deviating from the chain of command to report his concerns about Trump’s call with Zelensky.
“Now see, here’s the problem, you get me going on this stuff,” Biggs said.
But if there was one consistent part of Sondland’s testimony Wednesday that Republicans homed in on, it was the president saying “no quid pro quo.”
In his deposition last month, Sondland described a September 9 phone call with the president during which he asked Trump what he wanted from Zelensky.
“I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo,” Trump said, according to Sondland. “I want Zelensky to do the right thing.”
Trump is so convinced that the September call vindicates him that he held an impromptu press conference on the White House lawn on Wednesday with notes that mirrored those quotes from the call.
Intelligence Committee member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) ― perhaps the president’s biggest defender in Congress ― castigated Sondland for omitting the September call from his Wednesday testimony, calling the call “the best direct evidence” about the president’s involvement in the Ukraine scandal.
The entire thrust of Sondland’s testimony was that the president had, in fact, demanded a quid pro quo. At the time of the call, Sondland said Wednesday, he still believed that, contrary to what the president said, Trump still wanted Zelensky to announce investigations in order to get the military assistance and the White House visit that had been promised.
After the hearing, HuffPost asked Jordan if he was just insisting that everyone take the president at his word.
“The president said ‘no quid pro quo,’” Jordan said. “He wants Zelensky to do what he campaigned on, plain and simple, speaks for itself. And oh, by the way, that matches the facts, because he never announced that there was going to be an investigation.”
Republicans ― who initially settled on the defense that, as long as there was no quid pro quo, there was nothing improper about wanting a foreign government to investigate the Bidens ― have now moved to a new stage: As long as Trump denied the quid pro or didn’t make it explicit, it’s fine.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham issued a statement Wednesday where she clung to the idea that President Trump “clearly stated that he ‘wanted nothing’ from Ukraine and repeated ‘no quid pro quo’ over and over again.”
“The U.S. aid to Ukraine flowed, no investigation was launched, and President Trump has met and spoken with President Zelensky,” Grisham continued. “Democrats are chasing ghosts.”
That statement ignores a number of facts. For one, as Trump was saying he “wanted nothing,” he was also saying he wanted Ukraine to “do the right thing.” According to the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call, Trump told Zelensky to do him a “favor” and investigate Ukraine’s role in 2016 election interference. He also brought up “the other thing:” investigating the Bidens. Sondland said that a White House meeting and the security aid were conditioned on Ukraine announcing an investigation. Explaining his deductive reasoning on determining that it was a quid pro quo, Sondland said it was simply “2+2.”
The aid only “flowed” to Ukraine after the existence of whistleblower’s complaint was made public. (You can read all about the timeline of when the aid was released here.) Furthermore, with questions about a quid pro quo already cropping up in the media, and the aid now headed to Ukraine, Zelensky canceled an interview with CNN where he planned to announce the investigations.
Once there were reports of a whistleblower complaint, CNN host Fareed Zakaria said, “it became clear to us that the interview was off.”
And finally, while Trump has met and spoken with Zelensky, the Ukrainian president didn’t get the meeting at the White House that he desired.
Still, Republicans continue to pretend there could not have been a quid pro quo because the aid was eventually released, Zelensky met with Trump, and there have been no investigations.
“It’s not 2+2,” Jordan said during the hearing. “It’s 0 for 3.”