Gordon Sondland Has Completely Destroyed Every Trump Defense

by Ben Cohen

The testimony of Donald Trump’s top Europe envoy Gordon Sondland today was so devastating to Donald Trump that former Bill Clinton prosecutor Ken Starr declared on Fox News that "it's over.”

“We now know — this is his position — we now know that the president in fact committed the crime of bribery."

Sondland, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, dismantled Trump and the GOP’s defense piece by piece, providing conclusive evidence that the president tried to bribe the Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden and his son.

There was a quid pro quo. All orders came directly from Trump. Everyone close to Trump knew about it. The Ukrainians were aware of it.

Sondland, who decided to revise his previous closed door testimony, did not even need prompting. “Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’” he said in his opening remarks to the House Intelligence Committee. “The answer is yes.”

Sondland directly implicated Rudy Giuliani, and stated unequivocally that Giuliani was acting directly on behalf of the president:

“Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma,” Sondland stated. “Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew these investigations were important to the President.”

Sondland’s brutal testimony

Over several hours and questioning from both sides of the aisle, a telling picture emerged from Sondland’s testimony. And it was not a good picture for Trump and those closest to him.

Axios has provided a very useful list of highlights from Sonland’s testimony that is — for very good reason — creating serious panic in Republican circles:

  • He [Sondland] also confirmed that a quid pro quo preconditioning a White House meeting in exchange for an investigation into the Biden family's business dealings in Ukraine took place and "reflected President Trump's desires and requirements."

  • He said that he believed that the resumption of military aid to the country came to be conditioned on a Biden-linked investigation as well.

  • Sondland testified that other senior officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, knew about the quid pro quo for the Zelensky White House meeting.

  • Under questioning from House Intelligence Commitee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Sondland said Trump only wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to publicly announce the Biden-linked investigations: "He didn't actually have to do them, as I understood it."

  • Sondland said that he never heard directly from Trump that the military aid was conditioned on an announcement of investigations, saying that assumption was his "own personal guess." He later added, "By the 8th of September, it was abundantly clear to everyone that there was a link."

  • Sondland refused to say whether he believed Trump's assertion in a Sept. 9 phone call that there was no quid pro quo involving the military aid. While he texted Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, that there was no quid pro quo after the call, he testified: "I was just trying to convey what [the president] said on the phone.”

Given the GOP’s main lines of defense have been completely destroyed by one of Trump’s own allies, they are struggling to come up with a plausible counter narrative.

The new defense

The Republican defense of Trump now rests on the premise that because the president didn’t specifically state it was a quid pro quo, there is no evidence it was actually a quid pro quo. Adam Schiff summed up the logic as follows: “My colleagues seem to be under the impression that unless the president spoke the words, ‘I am bribing the Ukrainian president,’ that there’s no evidence of bribing.”

A weaker argument doing the rounds in right wing circles is that because Ukraine did actually receive the military aid without an explicit condition on it, then no crime was committed — a legal equivalent of exonerating an armed robber who walked into a bank and was reprehended before stealing anything.

Trump to the rescue

Trump was extremely busy defending himself on Twitter throughout the hearing, retweeting these extraordinarily illogical arguments from his defenders. Trump even took the time out of his day to deliver a rambling, bizarre statement to the press claiming total exoneration:

According to Trump, Sondland’s recollection of a phone call with him proves the impeachment case is “all over”. Why? Because in that call, Trump stated that he wanted “nothing” from the Ukrainians. Of course the call was after flags had been raised internally and Trump’s people had tried to cover up his attempt to bribe the Ukrainians. But Trump appears to believe that his own denial is by itself conclusive evidence that there was no crime committed. In other words, “I said I didn’t do it, so that must mean I didn’t”.

What this means for Republicans

It isn’t clear what Sondland’s brutal testimony means for the impeachment hearings from a broader perspective, but it is decidedly not good for the Republicans. It gives clear grounds for the Democrats to move forward with actual impeachment articles, and definitive proof that the president committed an impeachable offense. While Republican Senators might not vote to remove Trump from office, it will mean they must go on the record supporting him. A vote not to impeach means legitimizing Trump’s efforts to bribe a foreign government into interfering with a US election.

Gordon Sondland’s testimony has now put the ball squarely in the Republican Party’s court. They must either defend a clearly impeachable offense, or tell Donald Trump it is time to go.

Moments before today’s impeachment hearings went live, Ken Starr wondered whether Sondland’s testimony might be enough to prompt Republican Senators to finally put an end to this. “The real issue is the Senators are watching,” said Starr. “Are senators going to now say in light of what we hear today, it’s going to be a long day even with the ambassador alone, in light of what we have heard, ‘We need to make a trip down to the White House’?”

The answer of course, is yes.

(image via AP)

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