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Sondland’s bombshell testimony leaves Trump’s Republican allies scrambling

U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland undercut at least nine different Republican defenses of President Trump’s actions on Ukraine on Nov. 20. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

The White House and President Trump’s allies scrambled on Wednesday to contain the damage from new allegations from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, whose testimony in front of impeachment investigators detailed an explicit “quid pro quo” with Ukraine at Trump’s ultimate directive.

The bombshell testimony from Sondland alleging that the president attempted to leverage an invite for Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky in exchange for an investigation into his political opponents forced the White House, which was not aware of his testimony in advance, to quickly recalibrate its defense of the president’s actions.

Administration officials immediately sought to emphasize that Sondland was relying in part on his own presumptions based on conversations with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani — an argument echoed by GOP lawmakers later Wednesday — and that Trump himself never personally told Sondland about preconditioning $400 million in military aid to Ukraine or a coveted White House visit on the probes.

U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland said there was a quid pro quo “with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

As he traveled on Air Force One to Texas, Trump called members of the House to argue that the testimony was good for him, according to an aide familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks. Trump also professed to reporters that he had little familiarity with Sondland, a major donor to his inauguration who testified that he had spoken with the president about 20 times.

“President Donald J. Trump said, ‘I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing.’ Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified to this in his deposition and repeatedly affirmed it today,” White House press secretary Stephanie ­Grisham said after Sondland’s seven-hour testimony concluded. “That should be the only takeaway from today’s sham hearing, and it was stated under oath by the only person in these hearings who has ever spoken directly to President Trump.”

Late Wednesday, Republicans faced another round of problematic testimony when Pentagon official Laura Cooper told the House Intelligence Committee that Ukraine asked about the hold on security money on July 25, the day of a pivotal phone call in which Trump asked Zelensky to pursue investigations into his opponents.

Republicans have repeatedly emphasized the idea that Ukrainian officials either never knew the aid was being withheld or knew only for a short time. The White House dismissed Cooper’s revelation as “just an assumption,” arguing that Ukraine asking about the aid “in no way means they knew it was being withheld.”

Indeed, Wednesday’s testimony appeared to have little immediate effect on the perspective of Senate Republicans, who will be responsible for deciding Trump’s fate if he is impeached by the House.

On Sondland, key Republican allies sought to undermine the ambassador’s credibility, while insisting that the basic facts had not changed as to whether Trump had committed an impeachable offense by pressuring Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

“I say that he’s changed his story several times and one needs to be suspicious of that. But having said that, take what he says, compare it to the facts,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Wednesday of Sondland. “I just know this: That [Ukraine] got the money, and Hunter Biden and Joe Biden weren’t investigated. That’s what I do know.”

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said he heard Sondland’s “interpretation and his presumption, and to me, that kind of makes it a little bit confusing in and of itself.”

Central to the Republicans’ case was testimony from Sondland in which he recounted a Sept. 9 conversation during which Trump, according to the ambassador, said: “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo.” The White House and its allies argued that those remarks were exculpatory, and Trump read them to reporters as he departed from the South Lawn of the White House for Texas.

Republicans also highlighted an exchange from later in the hearing when Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, pressed Sondland on whether anyone “on this planet” told him that Trump was tying any investigation to the military assistance to Ukraine, which was meant to help the Eastern European nation fend off Russian aggression.

Sondland responded that no one had, and that his perception of any move to withhold military aid in exchange for a political investigation was based primarily on his “own presumption.”

“Mike Turner’s ability to get Ambassador Sondland to say that he had not heard from anyone in the administration that would suggest that aid was tied to any investigations was really powerful and compelling,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of Trump’s most ardent defenders in the House. “And certainly if this were a jury trial of peers, there's no way that the president would be convicted.”

That may explain why, despite his characterization of Sondland as “not a man I know well,” Trump has determined that Sondland still offers him a good defense, two advisers said.

Some longtime Trump aides said they expected the disclosures to be worse based on Sondland’s opening statement and believed the cross-examination by Republicans in the afternoon was effective. The most effective defense, two White House aides said, was that he could not specify who told him that aid was linked to investigations.

“Too many in the media rushed to go make this a great discovery when it is less revealing than Al Capone’s vault,” said Jason Miller, a former campaign aide now leading informal pushback efforts. “The greatest debate going on today was in Gordon Sondland’s head.”

The White House sent 14 different sections of talking points to congressional Republicans, coming in at more than 3,300 words, an official said. Included was a list of 10 times Sondland said he believed or presumed information to be true but could not prove it.

“Sondland Could Not Be Clearer, the President Was Not Involved in a Quid Pro Quo,” one segment was headlined, even though Sondland testified in his opening remarks that there was a quid pro quo.

Other Trump allies sought to argue that, even if there was a quid pro quo as Sondland had testified, there were other factors to consider.

“I don’t think the quid pro quo is the issue. If you’re talking about an illegal quid pro quo, there are legal and illegal quid pro quos,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.). “And an illegal quid pro would be based on a president’s intent.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) also downplayed Sondland’s allegation of conditioning a White House visit for Zelensky on an investigation into the Bidens.

“The president can meet with whomever he wants to meet with, and there wasn’t any investigation, was there, of Hunter Biden?” Cornyn said. “It seems to me like they’re stringing together unrelated facts and trying to spin them into a narrative that is a whole lot more sinister than what I think the facts show.”

Added Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), another Trump loyalist in the Senate: “There continue to be this lack of Ukrainians saying they were pressured and lack of evidence that they didn’t get the money, because they did. To me, again, there’s no crime scene.”

Still, there was some trepidation inside the White House about Sondland’s testimony, which dramatically undercut previous GOP claims while also implicating Vice President Pence and others as aware of Trump’s pressure campaign.

White House aides said Sondland was the most damaging witness so far because he actually had interactions with Trump and described key issues in nefarious terms. Sondland is also wealthy, does not need the job and has no particular loyalty to the president, the officials said.

But they believe Sondland’s imprecise answers and sometimes contradictory testimony can be used to undermine him. Some White House aides said they did not understand why Sondland — who appeared under a congressional subpoena — was testifying if he wants to keep his job, though there was no immediate move to shove him out.

Trump was so caught up in the hearing that he was 45 minutes late in departing for his trip to tour an Apple factory in Texas, scribbling Sharpie notes about Sondland’s testimony that he carried with him.

“I think it was fantastic. They have to end it now,” Trump said of the impeachment inquiry at his appearance in Austin alongside Apple chief executive Tim Cook. “There was no quid pro quo. The president did absolutely nothing wrong.”