WASHINGTON ― Explosive testimony from a hotelier who turned a $1 million inaugural donation into a glamorous ambassadorship has largely left the White House with a single defense of President Donald Trump: that coercing foreign leaders into investigating a political rival is completely legal and not at all impeachable.
Trump, his White House staff and his allies have for weeks been pointing to a Sept. 9 text message from Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, to his State Department colleagues, describing a phone conversation he’d had with Trump: “The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”
But in an impeachment hearing Wednesday before the House Intelligence Committee, Sondland testified that not only was there a quid pro quo with Ukraine, but virtually every top official in the Trump administration was well aware of it.
“Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously … the answer is yes,” Sondland said in his opening statement, which heavily revised what he had told lawmakers in closed-door testimony on Oct. 17. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
Sondland’s appearance Wednesday also confirmed testimony by several other witnesses that $391 million in congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine was being blocked by the White House until the new Ukrainian president announced investigations into two matters: alleged corruption by the Democrat Trump most feared in 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden, and a debunked conspiracy theory falsely claiming that Russia had not helped Trump win the 2016 election but that Ukrainian officials had planted false evidence implicating Russia.
All this material will likely make it more difficult for Trump’s defenders in the Senate, should there eventually be a trial on impeachment charges, to argue that Trump did not withhold official benefits to Ukraine in return for politically useful favors to himself, former prosecutors said.
“His best remaining argument is that what he did was wrongful but should not result in his removal from office,” said Renato Mariotti, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.
The White House has struggled to settle on a coherent defense of Trump’s actions, at first arguing that the impeachment process itself was flawed and therefore unfair to Trump. Then, the main thrust became that Trump has a legitimate interest in ensuring that U.S. taxpayer money is not wasted in countries with rampant corruption ― but that was undermined by the lack of any record of Trump criticizing corruption in instances other than the allegations about Biden’s son’s work with a Ukrainian natural gas company.
This could leave the White House pushing the most basic argument: that Trump as president has broad authority to set foreign policy, even if it benefits him personally. This argument has been made by outside White House allies as well as Republicans on Capitol Hill. “The president can meet with whoever he wants to meet for good reason or no reason at all,” said Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn.
One White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Trump has been denied the opportunity to participate in the proceedings. “We don’t have to accept as compelling evidence testimony from any witness we haven’t been able to cross-examine. The president has been denied all levels of due process,” the official said.
On Wednesday, despite all the witness testimony to the contrary, Trump personally continued repeating his claim that he did not try to coerce Ukraine to help him damage Biden. He read from handwritten notes before boarding a helicopter, repeating what he said he’d told Sondland in a September phone call: “‘I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky’ ― President Zelensky ― ‘to do the right thing.’ So here’s my answer: ‘I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo.’”
“If a mobster, caught in the act of kneecapping a victim, were to tell the cops: ‘I am definitely not committing an extortive act under Title 18, United States Code, section 1951,’ it likely would not be an overly persuasive line of defense.”
Republicans in the impeachment hearing, meanwhile, continued to make a separate argument ― that the entire question is moot because the aid was ultimately delivered.
“The fact is the aid was given to Ukraine without any announcement of new investigations,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York.
“They got the money, they got the money. God bless America, it all worked out, right?” added Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said their argument made no sense, given that the military aid was only released after the White House learned that a whistleblower complaint on the matter was about to make its way to Congress, despite White House attempts to block it.
“Getting caught is no defense,” said Schiff.
Danya Perry, a former federal prosecutor in New York City, said the Republicans’ related argument that Trump could not have committed bribery or extortion because he never used those words is similarly nonsensical.
“If a mobster, caught in the act of kneecapping a victim, were to tell the cops: ‘I am definitely not committing an extortive act under Title 18, United States Code, section 1951,’ it likely would not be an overly persuasive line of defense,” she said.
HuffPost reporter Igor Bobic contributed to this report.