The obvious Republican spin at this point, in light of Gordon Sondland’s change of heart, is to insist that the quid pro quo just doesn’t matter. There’s nothing wrong with a quid pro quo with another country. We do it all the time! Our arrangement with the Kurds, in which we provided military and logistical support in return for them leading the fight against ISIS, was itself a quid pro quo. So long as the president is acting on behalf of the public interest instead of in his personal interest, he’s behaving appropriately.
Which is what Trump did with Ukraine, GOPers will claim. There’s an allegation that Joe Biden improperly pressured the government of Ukraine not to investigate the company on whose board his son Hunter sat. Maybe there’s something to that allegation, maybe not, but it’s undeniably in the American public’s interest to know the truth. Trump was simply trying to get to the bottom of it. Not guilty.
That’s how most Republicans, including Lindsey Graham himself, will eventually dismiss the Sondland news. They’d already begun moving in that direction. Sondland’s testimony about a quid pro quo involving military aid leaves them no choice but to accelerate.
But there’s a wrinkle. In late September, as the Ukraine saga was just taking off, Graham was all-in on Trump’s assertion that the worst-case scenario — military aid for a new Biden probe — just wasn’t true:
Sen. Lindsey Graham: "If you're looking for a circumstance where the President of the United States was threatening the Ukraine with cutting off aid unless they investigated his political opponent, you'd be very disappointed. That does not exist." pic.twitter.com/io19f19725
— The Hill (@thehill) September 26, 2019
It … does appear to be true, per Sondland. Democrats haven’t forgotten Graham’s comment either. “Just wanted to check in on this,” tweeted Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz this afternoon, linking to the clip above.
That wasn’t the only time Graham made the existence of a quid pro quo the deciding factor in Trump’s guilt, however. He did it again a few weeks later in an interview with Axios:
In an interview with “Axios on HBO,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of President Trump’s most vital allies on Capitol Hill, opened the door to changing his mind on impeachment if there turns out to be what he considers a quid pro quo…
“Sure. I mean … show me something that … is a crime,” Graham told Axios’ Jonathan Swan. “If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing.”
Well, again, that’s what we have from Sondland today. He now admits that he told the Ukrainians at a meeting in Warsaw on September 1 that military aid would be contingent upon them reopening certain “anti-corruption” investigations, and the Ukrainians surely knew what he had in mind. There’s other evidence of U.S. diplomats or personal Trump cronies leaning on the Ukrainians over a span of several months too, from Rudy Giuliani admitting to the Times in May that he was lobbying Ukraine with Trump’s knowledge on Burisma and CrowdStrike to Sondland raising the issue of reopening investigations with two visiting Ukrainians at a meeting in Bolton’s office in July to Sondland and Kurt Volker going so far as to draft a statement for Zelensky committing Ukraine to restart the probes. Now, we get Sondland confessing his personal involvement in pushing a deal targeting the Bidens.
Is Lindsey now “very disturbed”?
Sort of, yeah. He’ll defend Trump to the bitter end but you get the sense reading this transcript of his comments from yesterday afternoon that he’s had enough of this worsening fiasco. He’s all over the board in trying to spin Sondland’s testimony — Ukraine got its money in the end, Zelensky insists he wasn’t pressured, the reality of a quid pro quo is just Sondland’s “opinion.” (Can trained lawyer Lindsey Graham really not think of a reason why Ukraine’s president might lie to remain on Trump’s good side?) The exasperation shines through here, though:
He went on to say that he won’t be reading the transcripts of Sondland’s and Volker’s testimony that were released today. Essentially, he’s just flipping over the table and insisting that the process is now so corrupt (never mind the corruption in the Senate that he never mentions) that it’s not worth considering the evidence. It’s the fingers-in-the-ears “la la la I can’t hear you” response, which at least has the advantage of being invulnerable to further bad news that might emerge from further testimony. No matter how bad it gets, Graham can just shrug and say “rigged system” or whatever and dismiss the newest revelations out of hand. It’s not that different in substance from the Senate GOP’s more sophisticated “bad but not impeachable” defense, as the point in both cases is not to have to engage with the actual evidence before acquitting Trump. For cripes sake, McConnell’s basically promising up front that they’re going to acquit him. Why should Graham exert any more mental energy on this clusterfark, especially when Trump let him be hung out to dry with today’s Sondland testimony?
There’s another line of defense developing too, bringing the total to at least three. One: Whether Trump had a legitimate purpose for the quid pro quo or not, it’s not a high crime or misdemeanor. Two, the Graham defense: F*** it, I’m done. Three, the Mark Meadows defense: Maybe Sondland went rogue.
Democrats and the media are seizing on paragraph five of Sondland's update, where he tells Mr. Yermak the aid may not be released without an anti-corruption statement.
Even *if* you think this is nefarious… Sondland admits in paragraph FOUR this was based on an assumption! https://t.co/OA7MRn5aGf
— Mark Meadows (@MarkMeadows) November 5, 2019
Like I said in my earlier post, Sondland’s gotten more forthcoming about the quid pro quo but he’s still being coy about certain details, apparently hoping that he can satisfy both sides of this dispute by revealing enough to make Democrats happy but not so much as to screw Trump. The flaw in that approach is that it leaves him vulnerable to becoming the fall guy for Trumpers like Meadows: It wasn’t that the president asked him to arrange a quid pro quo, it was that Sondland misunderstood — or went rogue — and tried to arrange one on his own initiative. He thought Trump wanted the military aid as part of the deal and tried to make it happen but maybe he thought wrong. Might as well try that, see how it flies. And hope that it doesn’t alienate Sondland so much that he decides to revise his testimony yet again to describe his conversations with Trump about Ukraine in detail.
Exit question: Is Graham earning any goodwill from Trumpers with this performance? He still refuses to give them what they really want.
Graham: “I have no desire to call Hunter Biden or Joe Biden on the Judiciary Committee cause I dont have any jurisdiction”
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) November 5, 2019