With the impeachment inquiry heading into its public phase, Republicans are road-testing yet another deeply absurd defense of President Trump: They are conceding that, yes, there may have been a quid pro quo, but there’s no proof Trump himself was behind it.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a slavish loyalist, puts it this way: “When I get to ask questions, and when you see all of the transcripts, you will understand that there is no direct linkage to the president of the United States.”

This echoes the White House’s latest line. After Ambassador Gordon Sondland admitted in a new statement to informing Ukraine that hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid were indeed conditioned on Ukraine undertaking the “investigations” Trump wanted, the White House press secretary claimed Sondland had failed to “identify any solid source for that assumption.”

This new pushback is based on the fact that in that statement, Sondland claimed in lawyered language that he had “presumed” the military aid was being withheld to pressure Ukraine to do Trump’s bidding, and that he “does not know” who suspended the aid.

In other words, defenders will stress that no one can conclusively show Trump personally ordering the full extortion plot. Trump never directly said: You’re not getting the military aid you desperately need to protect your country from Russian aggression until you help me absolve Russia of its role in sabotaging the 2016 election on my behalf and help me rig the next one by smearing potential rival Joe Biden.

Here are four facts revealing this new line to be epic nonsense.

Trump himself suspended the military aid.

Trump personally ordered acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to inform budget officials that the aid that had already been appropriated by Congress was being frozen, officials told The Post.

Trump did this one week before his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump demanded the investigations he wanted, explicitly mentioning Biden and the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic emails to set up Russia and Trump.

Notably, officials were instructed not to share information about the freeze with lawmakers. What’s more, CNN reported that as late as Aug. 30, Trump was seriously considering freezing the aid permanently, even though the Pentagon had recommended against it.

So Sondland can perhaps claim in some philosophical sense not to “know” who suspended the aid. But we do know who did it. Trump did.

Giuliani publicly confirmed the whole plot, and that he was acting at Trump’s direction.

Trump froze the aid to Ukraine at a time when Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani had already said publicly for months that he was pressuring Ukraine to carry out these investigations. As far back as early May, Giuliani explicitly said he wanted those investigations to target both the conspiracy theory and Biden specifically.

Giuliani confirmed this would be “very helpful to my client" — that he was doing it to personally benefit Trump. Giuliani subsequently confirmed that Trump was directing the whole scheme, saying: “I don’t do anything that involves my client without speaking with my client.”

So, to recap thus far: We know Trump both froze the military aid that Ukraine desperately sought and was working directly with Giuliani to pressure Ukraine to pursue the “investigations” Trump wanted.

Those texts demonstrate the meaning of Sondland’s confession.

In Sondland’s statement, he concedes that on Sept. 1, he directly informed a top aide to Zelensky that “resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”

Those texts between Sondland and other ambassadors and Ukrainian officials show him negotiating, at the direction of Giuliani and the White House, for Ukraine’s “anti-corruption statement” to mention both the 2016 Ukraine-hack conspiracy theory and Burisma, the company where Biden’s son worked that’s central to a fabricated tale of Biden corruption.

In other words, it had to be a public statement specifically absolving Russia of electoral sabotage and implicating Biden in fake corruption. As noted, Giuliani, acting at Trump’s direction, publicly said this for months.

So, to recap thus far: We know Sondland directly informed Ukraine that the military aid would not resume until Ukraine produced the statement Trump and Giuliani wanted and that this statement had to explicitly absolve Russia and target Biden and that Ukraine knew this.

Pence directly delivered the message about suspended aid to Ukraine.

On Sept. 1, the same day Sondland informed a top Zelensky aide that the military aid was conditional, Vice President Pence met with Zelensky.

Zelensky raised the withheld aid with Pence. And as The Post reports, Pence informed Zelensky that the administration was “still looking at” the aid, i.e., it was on hold. Pence also told Zelensky he needed to do more to fight “corruption.”

But we now know from the revelations cited above that what Trump and Giuliani actually wanted on the “corruption” front was a statement directly implicating the 2016 conspiracy theory and Biden.

So, to recap thus far: We know Pence told Zelensky that the aid was being withheld and that Ukraine had to do more to fight corruption and that Ukraine had already been informed by Sondland and Giuliani this really meant absolving Russia and targeting Biden. This was the administration’s message.

The bottom line

Trump suspended the military aid. Trump’s vice president delivered the message about that suspended aid directly to Zelensky. Giuliani and Trump spent months pressuring Ukraine to carry out Trump’s sordid political scheme to absolve Russia and target Biden. Trump’s key ringleader Sondland, acting at the direction of Trump and Giuliani throughout, directly told Ukraine that getting the aid was conditional on bringing that scheme to fruition.

Incredibly, Trump’s spinners are now trying to argue that Sondland suddenly freelanced that last piece of the plot — the extortion piece — entirely on his own.

Read more: