The big news Tuesday was that European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland clarified his testimony to indicate he had communicated a quid pro quo to a top Ukrainian official. Sondland said he told Ukraine that the release of military aid was, in fact, conditioned on the Ukrainian government launching specific investigations that Trump wanted.
As Philip Bump notes, though, he was careful to insulate both Trump and himself from the fallout. He said the existence of that particular quid pro quo was merely his “presumption” because of the lack of a “credible” alternative. In other words, he was indicating, as Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker did, that Trump didn’t explicitly tell them there was a quid pro quo. Sondland also emphasized that despite his own role in pushing for an investigation of a company tied to the son of former vice president Joe Biden, he did not actually know the requested probe was related to the Bidens (even though that’s really difficult to swallow).
The cumulative effect of it all: We have moved from the GOP’s initial defense of “no quid pro quo” to an “okay, maybe quid pro quo, but not an explicit one involving Trump.”
Something else Sondland said, though, is key. It came when he was asked why he decided to draw the line between him knowing the investigation involved the Bidens and not.
“Because I believe I testified that it would be improper to do that,” Sondland said. He was asked twice whether he thought pushing for an investigation of your political opponent was illegal, and he ventured that it was. “I’m not a lawyer, but I assume so,” he said.
So here is a central figure in all of this saying that all of this business is shady, at best, and possibly illegal. But Trump didn’t explicitly ask for it, he says, and Sondland didn’t really know what Trump was asking for.
But who did arguably tie all these pieces together? Giuliani. Sondland is effectively saying that what Giuliani was pushing for rather publicly and in their private interactions was improper and possibly illegal. Volker added in his testimony that he tried to talk Giuliani out of the conspiracy theories being whispered in his ear by the former Ukrainian prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko.
“Lutsenko is not credible,” Volker said he told Giuliani. “Don’t listen to what he is saying.”
Volker also testified that Giuliani had explicitly pushed for references to Burisma, the company that employed Hunter Biden, and the 2016 election in a statement that Ukraine was going to put out announcing the probes.
“Rudy says: ‘Well, if it doesn’t say Burisma and if it doesn’t say 2016, what does it mean? You know, it’s not credible. You know, they’re hiding something,’ " Volker testified. “And so we talked and I said: ‘So what you’re saying is just at the end of the — same statement, just insert Burisma and 2016, you think that would be more credible?’ And he said: Yes.”
What we have now, in Sondland, is the sixth confirmation of something Trump and his defenders initially sought so strenuously to deny: that there was a quid pro quo. Someone needs to take the hit for that, and Sondland seems to be angling to make sure it’s not him or Trump. But his and Volker’s testimonies suggest that Giuliani was up to no good and might have even broken the law.
And that’s actually an argument that Republicans — the base that will determine whether the Senate would ever remove Trump in an impeachment trial — might be happy to swallow. A Monmouth poll released Tuesday showed just 26 percent of Republicans believe Giuliani was representing Trump’s wishes in Ukraine, while 41 percent believe he was acting “more on his own.” If Republicans internalize that, they can convince themselves that maybe this was just the president’s ne’er-do-well lawyer freelancing in Ukraine.
And there is perhaps an argument that, if this is really all laid at Giuliani’s feet, everyone could skate. He’s not a government official, after all, so what authority does he even have to execute a corrupt quid pro quo? Unless we know this was coming from Trump, the argument goes, how do you label it corruption?
But that also requires believing that all the while Giuliani was doing all this, people were raising concerns and that Trump decided not to rein him in. This is too big an effort over too many months for there not to have been at least a wink and a nod from Trump. And we also have Trump implicated in two huge events: the withholding of military aid and the explicit request for the two investigations on that July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Sondland would like us to believe people were just inferring that those things were tied together and that Trump never actually said it. But the combination of that and Giuliani’s efforts would have made the picture pretty clear to anybody in Ukraine.
Whether Giuliani can or will absorb the blow for Trump on this one remains to be seen, especially given the situation he finds himself in with his two business associates indicted. What’s clear is that the evidence is pointing increasingly in that direction, and it could be the most attractive strategy for the GOP.