Hundreds of pages of deposition testimony, hours of hearings and plenty of media reports all point in one direction.
Yet if you venture deep enough into the weeds, there are strands that can be pulled to obfuscate the unmistakable picture. One such strand emerged in the Wednesday testimony of U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland. He noted that in a September call, Trump had said, “no quid pro quo.” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) seized on the moment: “Sondland, in fact, confirmed that there was no quid pro quo by the president,” said Scalise. “He said it multiple times in his testimony today. Then, of course, you had the foreign minister of Ukraine last week acknowledging that there was never a link between money and investigations. When you combine all that, it makes it clear there was no quid pro quo, there was no link to the money being released.”
Except! Sondland made clear in his testimony that the no-quid-pro-quo line from Trump met with an immediate contradiction: “On the same call, Trump both said that Zelensky must do his bidding and that Zelensky must do it of his own accord. That’s how crime bosses communicate corrupt directives while maintaining plausible deniability for it," writes The Post’s Greg Sargent about the integrity of the no-quid-pro-quo posturing.
Consider, too, this testimony from acting ambassador William B. Taylor Jr., who recounted a discussion with former National Security Council official Tim Morrison regarding Sondland’s September phone call with the president, as flagged by Sargent:
According to Mr. Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a “quid pro quo.” But President Trump did insist that President Zelenskyy go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelenskyy should want to do this himself.
The evidence pummels doubt. As Sondland himself said on Wednesday: “I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
So what? That, at least, is the response of the House GOP, as well as its soul mates on Fox News. BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick wrote: “Each round of GOP questioning is not meant to interrogate the witnesses, which today included Sondland, but instead to create moments that can be flipped into Fox News segments, shared as bite-size Facebook posts, or dropped into 4chan threads.”
Don’t believe Broderick? Well, then, try Fox News. In this story breaking down the testimony of Morrison and former U.S. special representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker, the network noted that “Republicans sounded a celebratory note” over the day of testimony. The story highlighted these interactions with the committee:
“Did anyone ever ask you to bribe or extort anyone at any time during your time in the White House?" House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., asked at one point in Tuesday's afternoon hearing.Former National Security Council (NSC) aide Tim Morrison: "No."Former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker: “No."Later, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., covered similar ground in asking the witnesses about Trump's fateful July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: "Mr. Morrison, you were on that call, and there was no quid pro quo, correct? No bribery? No extortion?""Correct," Morrison replied in response to each question."And, Ambassador Volker, I presume you got a readout of the call. ... Was there any reference to withholding aid? Any reference to bribery? Any reference to quid pro quo? Any reference to extortion?"“No, there was not,” Volker replied, again and again.
The upshot of all that? Again, the Fox News story: “The answers underscored a problem facing House Democrats as their impeachment inquiry continued into its second week of public hearings,” it reads. “With more witnesses testifying, more soundbites have emerged that may help Republicans and the Trump campaign argue that the proceedings were politically motivated theater, long in the works and foreshadowed openly by Democrats for months, if not years.”
Of course sound bites emerge in hearings. That’s what happens when people talk. Nor is this the first time that political actors have cherry-picked testimony to advance their cause. What is different now is that the obfuscation brigade has Fox News’s opinion people standing at the ready to pick the same nits in front of millions of viewers. Last night, Fox News’s prime-time spinners Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham “continued to deny reality (Ingraham actually claimed the fact-based truth was an alternative reality), and spin for the President. In the Fox world: The sun continued to shine on Trump,” noted CNN’s Oliver Darcy in Brian Stelter’s newsletter.
The obvious result of this national sickness has received much attention — a fractured country, no agreed-upon set of facts and so on. The body politic can no longer digest an issue of minimal complication.
As the Ukraine case makes plain, however, the corrosion could extend even deeper: Why bother making a case, why bother marshaling evidence, when the other side can’t be trusted to acknowledge the implications? Why not just give up?