The impeachment hearings descended into the twilight zone as US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland first asserted there was “quid pro quo” with Ukraine – to the glee of Democrats and media – then denied any knowledge of it.
Sondland unequivocally confirmed the existence of a quid pro quo during his opening statement before the impeachment committee on Wednesday, announcing that President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told several administration officials – and some unspecified Ukrainians – “that President Trump wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election” as a condition for meeting with the newly elected Ukrainian leader.
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The ambassador quickly abandoned his certainty under questioning, and his bold claims that “everyone was in the loop” about Trump’s conditions for releasing the aid soon gave way to weasel words.
“In the absence of any credible explanation for the hold, I came to the conclusion that the aid, like the White House visit, was jeopardized,” he said.
Sondland subsequently denied several times that Giuliani had told him the administration planned to withhold military aid until Ukraine opened a corruption probe, as members of the impeachment committee kept finding new ways to ask the question whether Trump was, perhaps, the vehicle for the elusive quid pro quo?
“Did the president ever tell you personally about any preconditions – for anything?” Republican counsel Steve Castor queried. When Sondland answered in the negative, Castor phrased the question two other ways before he was satisfied with the diplomat’s “no.”
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Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman pushed even harder to get Sondland to admit that Giuliani or Trump – rather than Sondland’s “2+2=4”-like deduction – had alerted the ambassador to the looming quid pro quo.
“I did not hear from President Trump that the aid would be held up until the statement [committing Ukraine to probes of Burisma and election interference] was made,” Sondland shot back. “I did not hear those words.”
The diplomat clarified that when swirling rumors about the frozen military aid finally pushed him to call the president, Trump clearly stated he wanted “nothing – no quid pro quo” from Ukraine. “Tell Zelensky to do the right thing,” was all he said.
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Even when Sondland did discuss Ukraine opening a corruption probe, the talk was limited to the gas company Burisma, he said – there was no mention of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden or his son Hunter, who served on Burisma’s board. Indeed, Sondland wasn’t sure he knew Biden was on the board at all, before reading the transcript of the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call that was released in September and kicked off the whole investigation.
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Democrats and media outlets sympathetic to them have pushed a quid pro quo narrative of Trump muscling Zelensky into reopening an investigation of Burisma by withholding military aid, with the intention of using information the probe digs up to harm Biden’s 2020 campaign. But Sondland admitted he had no clue as to how Ukraine even learned the military aid had been withheld – it could have been a Politico article that alerted most diplomatic staff to the existence of the alleged quid pro quo, he said – and with no knowledge that the aid was missing, no pressure could have been exerted.
Ukraine did receive every penny of the aid designated by Congress, before the statutory deadline. Its officials, from Zelensky on down, have sworn they were never pressured into anything by Trump or his aides, and never issued a public statement about the investigation into the Bidens that Trump allegedly wanted.
— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) November 20, 2019
Outside the hearing, however, intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff (D-California) refused to let the absence of evidence for the holy grail of quid pro quo get him down. Sondland’s testimony “underscores just how significant the president’s obstruction of this investigation has been,” he told an impromptu press conference he called a break to arrange.
Ranking member Devin Nunes (R-California), on the other hand, had nothing but scorn for “Watergate fantasies” of the Democrats. Slamming the committee for refusing to bring in Hunter Biden to testify, or even ask Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman about Ukrainian election interference earlier this week, he lashed out at their goalpost-moving behavior and compared it to ‘Russiagate.’
Nunes also pointed out that Congress requires a country to be certified free of corruption before the president can release foreign aid to it – a slight technicality that has the potential to tank the whole narrative.
BREAKING: Pigs are flying and it is apparently a cold day in hell. CNN’s Daniel Dale is defending Trump against fake news. pic.twitter.com/BO4zhLlsAq
— Matt Wolking (Text TRUMP to 88022) (@MattWolking) November 20, 2019
The media fell for Schiff’s narrative hook, line, and sinker, praising Sondland’s “bombshell” testimony for landing a body blow against the president. Even the AP initially claimed Trump’s reenactment of the call with Sondland in which he said “I want nothing” from Ukraine labeled “contradicting the testimony of his own ambassador.”
To their credit, they later deleted the tweet – but not before it was screenshotted for posterity.
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