The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Trump allies and Republicans said about quid pro quo before the Bolton news

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) spoke to reporters as he arrived at the Capitol on Monday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

President Trump has few more loyal allies than Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). A contentious relationship during the 2016 presidential primaries evolved into a close bond, with Graham frequently serving as one of Trump’s most vocal defenders and most frequent golf partners.

It was therefore not surprising when, after the White House released a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Graham was one of the first to celebrate how that document seemed to undercut criticisms just beginning to swirl around the president.

“From a quid pro quo aspect of the phone call,” Graham said in a statement released by his office, “there’s nothing there.”

Leaked Bolton book threatens to upend Senate impeachment trial

Speaking to Axios a month later, though, Graham suggested his exoneration of Trump didn’t extend much further than that call.

“If you could show me that Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call,” Graham said, “that would be very disturbing.”

On Sunday, news broke that such evidence existed, in the form of a revelation from a book by former national security adviser John Bolton. In the unreleased book, Bolton alleges he was told by Trump in August that aid to Ukraine would be held until Ukraine began investigations sought by Trump that would benefit the president politically. In other words, Trump wanted a this-for-that, what the ancient Romans would call a “quid pro quo.” U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland made that explicit in a conversation with a senior aide to Zelensky on Sept. 1, telling the aide that movement on the investigations would free up the aid.

Impeachment trial live updates

The Bolton revelation has shaken up the impeachment trial underway in the Senate. Not too much, mind you; there is still only a chance Bolton will be asked to offer testimony and only the most remote of chances the Senate will vote to remove Trump from office. But the Bolton news did offer an uncomfortable contrast for a number of Trump allies between what they said about quid pro quo last year and what they should now understand about the situation.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), for example, was explicit after the rough transcript came out. “There was no quid pro quo,” he said to reporters. “You’d have to have that if there was going to be anything wrong.”

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said something similar: “It would be troubling if any president did a quid pro quo with tax dollars … but so far we don’t have evidence that’s happened.”

“[W]hat’s apparent,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in a statement, “is there is no quid pro quo that the president asked for anything in return for U.S. aid to Ukraine. It was a fairly straightforward, diplomatic conversation.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) suggested the Democrats had moved too quickly on impeachment. “Democrats started an impeachment process before they knew the facts,” he said in a statement. “Nothing in the transcript supports Democrats’ accusation that there was a quid pro quo.”

Others similarly set “quid pro quo” as the line beyond which Trump’s behavior would be considered unacceptable.

“I don’t see a quid pro quo in here,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told a local news station. “I see a conversation between two leaders that is pretty broad-ranging. I just don’t think this rises to impeachable on the conversations I’ve read.”

“If you read the transcript closely there is no quid pro quo,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said in a statement. “I looked at it, and I thought surely there had to be more in there to invest this much time and energy.”

Others were slightly more moderated but ended up in the same place.

“The memorandum released by the White House today reveals no quid pro quo,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said in a statement. “While the conversation reported in the memorandum relating to alleged Ukrainian corruption and Vice President Biden’s son was inappropriate, it does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.” Note the through line: There’s no quid pro quo and does not rise to being impeachable.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) made a similar distinction.

“I don’t see the quid pro quo that the Democrats are claiming,” he said in an interview on Fox News. “In fact, I actually believe that if Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats had taken another 24 hours to make their decision and actually looked at the facts, which is the transcript itself, they might not have moved forward, because there is no quid pro quo.”

“I just don’t understand,” he added later, “how they can say it’s because there’s a quid pro quo and then we find out there’s not a quid pro quo that they are still proceeding.”

“So just a few days ago the Democrats were breathlessly on TV saying, ‘You’re going to see an illegal quid pro quo. It’s going to prove that,' ” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said in a separate interview on Fox. “Well, you look at the transcript — there’s no illegal quid pro quo in that transcript.”

If you weren’t counting, that’s 10 Republican senators who expressed at least some concern about a quid pro quo in relation to Ukraine before the revelation that Bolton alleges precisely that. While those senators are of particular interest at the moment, of course, they aren’t the only allies of Trump’s whose position on quid pro quo has been somewhat undermined.

“You can’t have been in [the closed-door hearings] with 10 different witnesses and come out with any credible belief that there was a quid pro quo for aid,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a fervent Trump defender, said as the impeachment process was underway. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Well even if he did it, it’s fine.’ The problem with that is: I know that he didn’t do it.”

Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.), one of the Republicans who led the president’s defense during the public impeachment hearings in the House, made a similarly broad claim based on the rough transcript. “The transcript conclusively determines, despite Democratic promises to the contrary, that there was no quid pro quo,” he said.

That “conclusiveness” has faded a bit over time.

Fox News’s Steve Doocy, one of the hosts of the Trump-enthusiastic morning show “Fox and Friends,” came close to pre-indicting Trump with comments he made before the rough transcript was released.

“If the president said, ‘I will give you the money, but you have got to investigate Joe Biden,’ ” Doocy said, “that is really off-the-rails wrong. But if it’s something else, you know, it would be nice to know what it is.”

On Tuesday morning, Doocy’s co-host Ainsley Earhardt offered a more evolved position.

“I didn’t want witnesses. I wanted this thing to be over,” she said, “but now, if he is saying there was a tie — the money in exchange for an investigation — if he is saying that, then some of these senators that have grappled with whether or not to call witnesses, this might be the tip of the iceberg for them.”

Particularly given what they said last year.