WASHINGTON ― Republicans continued to insist this week that President Donald Trump did nothing wrong even after several top diplomats in his administration confirmed that he did, in fact, attempt a quid pro quo by withholding aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into a political opponent.
“This type of diplomacy is sometimes not fun to watch, but nonetheless, it has existed. It hardly rises to an impeachable offense,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Wednesday.
House impeachment investigators this week released bombshell testimony from two witnesses underscoring the lengths Trump went to in urging Ukraine to open an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, while his father was in office.
“That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the [Ukrainian] President committed to pursue the investigation,” Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said in his deposition transcript that was released Wednesday.
Gordon Sondland, the Trump donor who was appointed ambassador to the European Union, on Monday revised the testimony he gave last month, acknowledging that he was involved in Trump’s attempted quid pro quo with Ukraine’s government after previously claiming he could not recall the details. In his updated statement, Sondland said he now recalled telling an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sept. 1 that “resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur” until Ukraine issued a public statement announcing an investigation into Burisma.
But Senate Republicans waived off the revelations by expressing deep skepticism and even outright denial, characterizing the testimony from the two officials as much ado about nothing.
“Regardless of how many people you bring out to make the point, I don’t think that’s going to do the job for most of us to change our opinion,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), adding that he preferred to rely instead on the summary of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, which he argued showed no quid pro quo.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) also said he doubted the existence of a quid pro quo because Trump had personally told him in a conversation in late August that there was none.
“I think the question that still needs to be asked — OK, Sondland was doing these things, he’s talking to different people — was the president aware of any of these things? ... When I talked to him Aug. 31, he vehemently denied it,” Johnson said, referring to Trump.
Johnson, who serves as the vice chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, also took issue with the media, accusing it of mischaracterizing Trump’s requests to Ukraine that it investigate the 2016 presidential election and the origins of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation.
“The news media is always saying, ‘He’s trying to dig up dirt on this 2020 opponent,’” Johnson said. “No, he’s trying to figure out what happened in 2016.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a top Trump ally, has veered in his response to the controversy from saying he would not read any of the House impeachment transcripts because they are “a bunch of B.S,” to throwing out yet another argument on Wednesday: that Trump’s administration was simply too incompetent to carry out the quid pro quo.
“What I can tell you about the Trump policy toward the Ukraine, it was incoherent, it depends on who you talk to. They seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo,” Graham said.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who is a lawyer, approached the matter a wholly different way. He argued that Trump may have engaged in a quid pro quo but that it could have been appropriate if the president had a legitimate motive.
“The quid pro quo is a red herring unless you make a distinction between a legal quid pro quo and an illegal quid pro quo,” Kennedy said. “All you’re talking about is the president’s motive; whether he had a good faith basis to do what he did.”