In so doing, they echoed Trump himself, who said this to Ambassador Gordon Sondland, a ringleader of Trump’s corrupt scheme to extort Ukraine into doing his political bidding. This is of course supposed to be exonerating.
Yet just before this rally took place, the New York Times put out a new report that effectively demolished that line of defense. No doubt Trump’s followers were blissfully unaware of what the rest of us were learning.
The Times report indicates that Trump knew that a whistleblower complaint had been filed against him when he released his hold on hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine.
This actually undercuts two of Trump’s remaining defenses. First, it refutes the absurd notion that, because Trump ultimately released the aid, this somehow shows the plot to pressure Ukraine into announcing investigations to help his reelection was never corrupt. We now know Trump knew it had been exposed before the aid was released.
In short: They got caught.
But this new revelation also undercuts the “I want nothing — no quid pro quo” defense as well. It sheds light on another key subplot: the manner in which Trump appears to have corruptly directed Sondland to convey the extortion demand to Ukraine, while preserving plausible deniability for doing so.
The Times reports that White House lawyers told Trump in late August about the whistleblower complaint, while trying to determine whether the White House was legally required to release the aid Trump had frozen, which had been appropriated by Congress. (As Sam Berger demonstrates, it probably was.)
The whistleblower complaint, which was first submitted on Aug. 12, raised alarms not just about Trump’s corrupt pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the July 25 call, but also about Trump’s decision to freeze the aid earlier in July.
Sondland, however, did ultimately draw this direct link — and testified that he discussed it with the president himself. And that’s why the revelation that Trump knew of the whistleblower complaint fills in a crucial piece of the puzzle.
Trump’s conversation with Sondland
Trump released the aid in mid-September, under bipartisan pressure. As the Times notes, we now know Trump “was also aware at the time that the whistle-blower had accused him of wrongdoing in withholding the aid.”
But that’s not all. Just as important, we now know that Trump was aware of this when he and Sondland discussed it in early September.
Sondland has admitted he told Zelensky’s top aide that the military aid was conditioned on Ukraine announcing the investigations Trump wanted. But Sondland claims he merely “presumed” this — which Trump’s propagandists have relentlessly hyped as exonerating.
But the fact that Trump knew of the whistleblower complaint at the time badly undercuts this defense as well.
I asked him one open-ended question: What do you want from Ukraine? And as I recall, he was in a very bad mood. It was a very quick conversation. He said: I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing.
And I said: What does that mean? And he said: I want him to do what he ran on. And that was the end of the conversation. I wouldn’t say he hung up on me, but it was almost like he hung up on me.
In this conversation, Trump didn’t merely say “no quid pro quo,” as some have credulously claimed. He also directed Sondland to tell Zelensky that he had to carry out Trump’s demand.
In other words, Trump told Sondland both that Zelensky must carry out his bidding at a time when Zelensky badly wanted something Trump had withheld and that Sondland must simultaneously understand that the two were not linked. Zelensky had to do Trump’s bidding, but of his “own” volition.
Crucially, we now have a very good indication of why Trump communicated in this odd, inexplicable way at this point: He had been caught in his extortion plot but still wanted to get his way.
It’s true that we may never have a recording of Trump explicitly conveying the extortion plot to Sondland: I want you to tell Zelensky that he isn’t getting the money until he carries out my dirty deeds.
But nonetheless, the “I want nothing — no quid pro quo” defense now lies in ruins. Trump instructed Sondland to continue demanding Zelensky do his bidding — at a time when Zelensky badly craved the very thing Trump controlled — while preserving plausible deniability for any link between the two. We now know Trump had an overwhelmingly good reason for going out of his way to do this.
Sondland read Trump’s intentions correctly. If Sondland “presumed” the two were linked, Sondland was right to do so.
This new piece of the puzzle also confirms yet again that we know perfectly well what happened here. It’s highly illuminating when it comes to Trump’s corrupt way of operating all throughout, which included both his effort to condition official acts on getting a foreign leader to help him rig our next election on his behalf and his means of covering it up.