“Was there a ‘quid pro quo’?” Sondland said under oath. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.” The sound you hear is Republican denials of a quid pro quo exploding. Sondland went on to say he was acting on “the president’s orders” in demanding that Ukraine announce an investigation of the company that employed Hunter Biden — although not to actually carry out the investigation. The distinction is significant because it undercuts the Republican conceit that Trump was genuinely interested in fighting corruption. In fact, he was only interested in damaging a potential political foe.
Sondland also destroyed the Republican cover story that he, former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry (the so-called three amigos), were acting on their own to blackmail Ukraine. “Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said, and he made clear that by “everyone” he meant not only the president but also Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton.
If this were a movie, the next scene would be Trump resigning the presidency in disgrace. But real life doesn’t work like reel life. There was no sign of Republicans abandoning the president after Sondland’s blockbuster revelations.
Instead, the Republicans took great comfort in Sondland’s admission that “Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on meetings,” even though he also said “it was abundantly clear there was a link” and no other credible explanation for the aid holdup has ever emerged. Republicans also continued to pretend that Trump did nothing wrong because, after the whistleblower came forward, Trump said, “I want nothing” and the aid to Ukraine — though not a White House meeting — was finally delivered. Republicans are convinced that 2+2=22.
It was as though Republicans had demanded of Dean: Did you hear Nixon order the Watergate break-in? Did Nixon ever explicitly say that he wanted you to commit “obstruction of justice”? Did Nixon succeed in stopping the investigation? And then used Dean’s negative answers to exonerate Nixon. What we are learning is that it’s much easier to document a president’s crimes than to get his party to give a damn.
In fact, it wasn’t easy even during Watergate. Dean’s revelations were met with blanket denials from the White House (which claimed that Dean was the “mastermind” of the coverup without Nixon’s knowledge) and skepticism from Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress.“What makes you think that your credibility is greater than that of the president, who denies what you have said?” Sen. Herman E. Talmadge, a segregationist Democrat from Georgia, asked Dean.
Nixon did not resign for more than a year after Dean’s testimony because it took that long to prove the president was lying. In the meantime, Republican support for Nixon remained robust: Although GOP approval fell from 76 percent before Dean’s testimony to 58 percent by early August 1973, it rebounded to 65 percent by September. Republican leaders finally told Nixon to resign in August 1974 only after the release of the “smoking gun” tape on which Nixon could be heard directing the coverup. This was an indirect result of Dean’s testimony: Dean had told lawmakers that Nixon might have tapes of his conversations and White House aide Alexander Butterfield had subsequently confirmed the existence of the taping system.
Trump is almost entirely ignorant of history but knows enough not to tape his incriminating conversations — and he is wily enough not to flat-out tell his aides “I want you to break the law.” As Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen told Congress, Trump communicates in “code” like a mob boss to make his criminal intent clear.
In a sane world, Sondland’s testimony would have ended the Trump presidency. But Republicans have made clear that their devotion to Trump is irrational and, like other religious faiths, not subject to rational refutation. Without an actual tape of Trump ordering a shakedown of Ukraine — and maybe even with one — Republicans will not be shaken in their cultlike devotion to the president.