Trump’s ‘no quid pro quo’ defense crumbles
President Trump’s insistence that there was “no quid pro quo” involved in pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son was directly contradicted by one of his own allies this week, scrambling Republicans’ defenses of the president ahead of the first public impeachment hearings. In a sworn statement to Congress, European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland admitted that he told a top Ukrainian official that military aid “would likely not occur” until Ukraine publicly announced the investigations sought by Trump. The White House withheld $391 million in security aid approved by Congress ahead of the July 25 phone call, in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “do us a favor” by investigating the Bidens and a conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not the Russians, hacked the 2016 election. The aid was released in September, two days after Congress was informed that a whistleblower had complained about what Trump said during the call.
Sondland had previously stated that there were “never” any preconditions for aid. But he updated his testimony, saying that reading the subsequent testimony from U.S. diplomat Bill Taylor had “refreshed” his memory. Democrats began to release transcripts of closed-door testimony from witnesses, including Sondland and Taylor, who told lawmakers he’d been given a “clear understanding” that U.S. military aid depended on Ukraine investigating Biden. Several witnesses sought by the House, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry and former National Security Adviser John Bolton, have refused to testify.
The House of Representatives plans to hold the first public hearings on Wednesday, after voting 232 to 196 along party lines to authorize formal impeachment hearings. No Republicans voted for the measure, and only two Democrats voted against it. Republicans said the vote proved that the impeachment inquiry is hopelessly partisan. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who previously said evidence of an explicit quid pro quo would be “very disturbing,” angrily told reporters that he would not even read transcripts of Sondland’s testimony. “I’ve written the whole process off,” Graham said. “I think this is a bunch of BS.”
What the editorials said
So much for “no quid pro quo,” said the New York Daily News. Sondland’s updated testimony “demolishes any remaining doubt” that the Trump administration withheld congressionally approved military aid from Ukraine in order to extort political favors to boost Trump’s reelection. Republicans can’t write off Sondland as a hostile whistleblower or Deep State apparatchik. He’s a Trump loyalist and GOP megadonor who got his ambassador’s job by writing a $1 million check. “The gun, which we can all see smoking, is in fact smoking.”
Yes, Trump’s behavior with Ukraine was “self-serving and reckless,” said The Wall Street Journal. The question now is whether it justifies removing a duly elected president from office. President Clinton had clearly committed a crime when he was impeached for lying under oath. But the Senate ultimately decided his offense wasn’t serious enough for removal. The investigations Trump asked for never materialized, and aid to Ukraine was ultimately released. “The impeachers have the burden of showing why this shouldn’t all be left to the judgment of American voters in 2020.”
What the columnists said
Republicans can no longer defend Trump on the merits, so they’re “throwing up smokescreens,” said Aaron Rupar in Vox.com. Trump defenders like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have taken to attacking the anonymous CIA whistleblower who “sounded the alarm” on Ukraine as a Democratic flunky. Disgracefully, the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. publicly named someone he believes to be the whistleblower on social media, putting that person’s safety at risk. But “even if it turned out that the whistleblower was a Trump-hating Democratic partisan,” it wouldn’t matter. “Sworn testimony and evidence released by the White House have already established that his central allegations are true.”
Rather than whine about the process, Republicans should defend Trump on the merits, said Andrew McCarthy in NationalReview.com. Polls show that nearly half the country already supports impeachment and removal, and public hearings are still to come. Trump’s defenders should argue that neither Ukrainian nor U.S. interests were harmed by delaying aid to Ukraine, and that the attempted quid pro quo never happened. Therefore, Trump’s actions “do not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.” Republicans need to mount a “substantive defense” of the president.
Good luck with that, said Max Boot in The Washington Post. Republicans keep climbing out onto increasingly farther limbs to defend the president, only to watch them get sawed off. First, the whistleblower report was “hearsay.” Then, it was “no quid pro quo.” Now, Republicans are admitting that there actually was a quid pro quo, but it doesn’t matter because Trump didn’t get what he wanted. Memo to the GOP: “Attempted crimes are still against the law.” Dead-enders like Sen. Graham have stopped trying to make sense altogether, plugging their ears and shouting “blah-blah-blah and yadda-yadda-yadda.” At this point, “I almost feel sorry for President Trump’s partisans.”
Vulnerable Senate Republicans are bracing for “impeachment pain,” said T.A. Frank in VanityFair.com. Senators facing tough re-election fights, like Susan Collins of Maine and Joni Ernst of Iowa, are in a no-win situation. Independents increasingly support impeachment, with a narrow majority now in favor, a reversal from just a few weeks ago. “Staying loyal to Trump may lose them voters in the middle, while turning against him will lose them voters in the Republican base.” It’s unclear if anything could loosen “Trump’s hold on his political base,” said Stephen Collinson in CNN.com. A recent Monmouth poll showed that 62 percent of Trump supporters say they can’t think of anything the president could do to lose their support. “I’m pretty sure how it’s likely to end,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “If it were today, I don’t think there’s any question it would not lead to removal.”
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
Cover photos from AP, Alamy, Reuters ■