By Aaron Blake Aaron Blake Senior political reporter, writing for The Fix Email Bio Follow October 13 at 9:05 AM
Ever since former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker handed over those text messages, President Trump’s defenders have pointed to one of them as supposedly exonerating Trump. “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told another diplomat. “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s [sic] of any kind.”
This text has been a linchpin of the Trump Ukraine defense. But on Saturday night, the linchpin broke.
The Washington Post’s Aaron C. Davis and John Hudson reported that a person close to Sondland says the ambassador will tell Congress in a deposition this week that there was some kind of a quid pro quo, “but not a corrupt one.”
Sondland will also indicate that he was merely relaying Trump’s defense, which he had discussed with the president on a phone call before the text message:
Sondland plans to tell lawmakers he has no knowledge of whether the president was telling him the truth at that moment. “It’s only true that the president said it, not that it was the truth,” said the person familiar with Sondland’s planned testimony, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.
The person familiar with Sondland’s testimony said the ambassador “believed Trump at the time and on that basis passed along assurances” that Trump was not withholding military aid for political purposes.
But Sondland’s testimony will raise the possibility that Trump wasn’t truthful in his denial of a quid pro quo as well as an alternative scenario in which the president’s interest in the scheme soured at a time when his administration faced mounting scrutiny over why it was withholding about $400 million in security assistance to Ukraine and delaying a leader-level visit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“Whether he’s deciding it’s getting too hot to handle and he backs off whatever his position really was a month earlier, I don’t know,” the person said of Sondland’s understanding.
Sondland is expected to say that for months before the Sept. 9 message, he worked at the direction of Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, to secure what he would call in another text message the “deliverable” sought by Trump: a public statement from Ukraine that it would investigate corruption, including mentioning Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, by name. In exchange for the statement, the president would grant Ukraine’s new president a coveted White House audience.
This is remarkable stuff, especially considering that Sondland, unlike the two diplomats he was conversing with in those text messages, was a big-time Trump donor. He was also the only one of the three who hadn’t suggested there was a quid pro quo. (Volker suggested it involved a meeting with Zelensky, while the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, suggested it involved hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid that was being withheld.)
Trump and his defenders have hailed Sondland’s text as being dispositive. Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, in a column promoted by Trump on Friday, accused the mainstream media of ignoring the important text and said Sondland had “shut down” the claim of a quid pro quo. Trump himself tweeted the quote, saying “That says it ALL!”
….to see. Importantly, Ambassador Sondland’s tweet, which few report, stated, “I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” That says it ALL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2019
Of course, the idea that Trump’s defense would ever rest on that quote was folly from the beginning. As soon as the texts were released, pretty much anybody who understands how these things work viewed Sondland’s text as a very lawyered-sounding expression of the party line. It seemed to be exactly the kind of thing intended for public consumption if these texts ever became part of an investigation. And his suggestion that they take the conversation off text messages — and perhaps to a medium with no paper trail — also indicated that he knew something problematic was taking place.
It turns out that appearance didn’t lie. That’s pretty much exactly what happened.
The implosion of this particular Trump defense epitomizes the broader problem his supporters have here. The vast majority of Republicans have been unwilling to go to bat for Trump, avoiding the questions or deflecting them and talking about something else (like about how there really is corruption in Ukraine). That appears to be because they have little faith that something more incriminating won’t eventually come out, making their defenses look silly, as this one now has. Trump and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, simply don’t appear to have taken much care to avoid at least the appearance of soliciting foreign influence on an American election.
The other quote Trump and his defenders often point to is from Zelensky, who said he didn’t feel pressured in that July 25 phone call with Trump. Much like Sondland, though, Zelensky has an interest in playing down anything corrupt, because Ukraine relies on the United States. Zelensky can’t just come out and accuse Trump of doing something wrong. He also has a personal interest in not looking like Trump’s stooge, which he was at risk of after the rough transcript showed him apparently acceding to Trump’s requests to launch certain investigations.
The fact that these statements are at the core of the Trump defense shows just how little they are working with at this point. It’s simply difficult to argue that Trump didn’t, at the very least, toy with a quid pro quo, even if it might have been implicit.
In the tweet above, Trump indicated that he “would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify.”
It sounds as if that may not be the case anymore. Sondland’s impending testimony sounds like that of a man covering his own backside and knowing his apparent defense of Trump could quickly fall apart upon further examination.