Yet fresh developments — including newly revealed emails that show Ambassador Gordon Sondland closely apprised the White House of the scheme throughout — reveal just how untenable that position truly is.
The latest GOP defense of Trump is that the extortion plot never came to fruition, which means that nothing untoward took place. Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) pointed out on “Face the Nation” that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky never announced the investigations Trump demanded, and that Ukraine ultimately got its military aid from the United States.
“So there was never this quid pro quo that the Democrats all promise existed before President Trump released the phone call,” Jordan said.
Rep. Steve Scalise (La.) also underscored on “Fox News Sunday” that Zelensky never launched the investigations, adding: “The real bottom line is he got the money. Ukraine got the money.”
We’ve heard this before, but as Sheryl Gay Stolberg notes, the coordination suggests it will be a core defense. Indeed, Trump tweeted about both interviews, signaling he wants Republicans to fight harder in this vein.
But the argument is utter nonsense on every level.
New revelations about Sondland’s coordination
First, the Wall Street Journal reports new details demonstrating the degree to which Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union who helped implement the scheme, kept the White House informed of its developments.
On July 19, Sondland emailed White House officials — including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — to tell them he had spoken to Zelensky, and that Zelensky had agreed to assure Trump he’d launch the investigations.
This came as officials were coordinating a call between Trump and Zelensky. Sondland told the officials Zelensky “will assure” Trump that he’ll “turn over every stone” in carrying out those investigations.
What this shows is that Mulvaney both froze the military aid and was kept closely apprised of whether Ukraine would give Trump what he demanded.
Do you think maybe, just maybe, Mulvaney might have known Trump intended a connection between the two? Remember, Sondland ultimately confirmed that he communicated to Ukraine that the aid was indeed conditioned in that fashion.
And do you think maybe the White House has blocked Mulvaney from testifying precisely because he can shed light on that link? Mulvaney, of course, actually did confirm that connection to reporters before hastily taking it back.
In sum, the new defense from Republicans — that Ukraine got its money and Trump didn’t get his investigations, so nothing bad happened — relies on continuing public silence from the two officials who likely have the most direct knowledge of anybody of Trump’s efforts to use the former to extort the latter.
If nothing untoward happened, then why the need to keep the full extent of Trump’s corrupt intent from seeing the light of day?
Time to call it ‘bribery’
Which brings us to another blow to the new GOP argument.
Randall Eliason, a professor of white-collar criminal law at George Washington University, has persuasively argued that Trump’s scheme is best described as “bribery," that is, the solicitation of a bribe:
The federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. 201, makes it a crime for a public official to corruptly demand, seek, receive, accept, or agree to receive or accept anything of value in exchange for being influenced in the performance of an official act.
Sondland has confirmed he told Ukraine that the investigations Trump demanded or sought (the thing “of value,” which the statute defines broadly) were the condition for unfreezing the military aid (the performance of the official act).
I’ve already shown why it’s impossible to believe Sondland communicated this without Trump’s direction. But that aside, the muzzled Mulvaney or Bolton could very likely confirm Trump’s intent.
As sitting president, of course, Trump is immune to prosecution. But as Eliason explains, criminal law can be helpful as a guide in defining presidential misconduct.
Indeed, it also can be used to evaluate the latest GOP defense. I asked Eliason whether the fact that the transaction was never consummated would be a defense in a bribery case. He emailed:
As a matter of criminal law, it is not a defense that the U.S. ultimately sent the aid or that Ukraine did not begin the investigations. Bribery law does not require that the quid pro quo be successfully consummated. The crime is the corrupt deal or demand itself -- the offer to exercise the power of your office in exchange for some personal benefit.
This is what this whole scandal has always been all about: Trump’s subversion of foreign policy to serve his own corrupt personal and political ends. He has demonstrated corrupt intent all throughout. And no amount of GOP spin can make that corrupt intent disappear.