WASHINGTON — The White House picked a line out of Ambassador Gordon Sondland hours-long testimony to claim victory and introduce what looks to become the latest Pro-Trump Republican talking point in the impeachment saga.
During his opening statement, Sondland testified that lawyer Rudy Giuliani, under President Donald Trump's direction, requested a quid pro quo when he “demanded” Ukraine investigate Burisma Holdings and the 2016 presidential elections in exchange for arranging a White House visit from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Sondland later said he became “absolutely convinced” that military aid to Ukraine depended on the country announcing those investigations, though he said he did not hear that directly from Trump.
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Sondland, who serves as the ambassador to the European Union, also testified that after facing questions from other US officials about the Ukrainian aid, he called Trump in September. He had asked the president what exactly he needed from Ukraine, he said, and the president told him, “I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing.”
Republicans ran with it.
“Sondland, in fact, confirmed that there was no quid pro quo by the president,” said Minority Whip Steve Scalise. “He said it multiple times in his testimony today. Then, of course, you had the foreign minister of Ukraine last week acknowledging that there was never a link between money and investigations. When you combine all that, it makes it clear there was no quid pro quo, there was no link to the money being released.”
Scalise also brought up a previous Republican talking point that has resurfaced: “They ultimately got the money and never got the statement that the Democrats keep saying they were forcing him to make,” he added.
He and other Republicans didn’t focus much, however, on the fact that Sondland said repeatedly in his testimony that there was a quid pro quo. "I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” he said.
Republicans seized on the line during the hearing itself as well, but Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, pushed back.
“My colleagues seem to be under the impression that unless the president spoke the words ‘Ambassador Sondland, I am bribing the Ukrainian president’ that there is no evidence of bribery,” he said. “They also seem to say that, well, they got the money. The money may have been conditioned, but they got the money. Yes, they got caught.”
Immediately following the hearing, the White House released a statement saying that Sondland had exonerated the president.
“That should be the only takeaway from today’s sham hearing, and it was stated under oath by the only person in these hearings who has ever spoken directly to President Trump,” wrote the White House press secretary.
Trump, who did a dramatic reenactment of his conversation with Sondland for the press earlier today, told reporters that he thought Sondland’s testimony “was fantastic. They have to end it now. There was no quid pro quo. The president did absolutely nothing wrong.”
“Not only did we win today, it’s over,” he said.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, who has sat in on some of the hearings, agreed with the White House statement.
”All along I thought there’s been nothing impeachable here, and so there still isn’t,” said Lesko. “I haven’t seen anything.”
Rep. Mike Conaway did not go so far as to say Sondland’s testimony exonerated the president and appeared uncomfortable with the word.
“Exoneration is a concept that’s really not appropriate,” said Conaway, who then used an unrelated parallel to make his point: “I have not been exonerated of killing Kennedy in ’63.” He added that he didn’t think Democrats made their case.
Rep. Francis Rooney, who recently announced his retirement after criticizing the president’s pitch to hold the G7 at one of his Florida properties, was skeptical.
“But [Sondland] also testified about a lot of other stuff, from what I’ve heard,” said Rooney.
“If that were all there was to it, maybe,” he said, when asked if the president’s statement to Sondland exonerated him. “But I think there’s a lot more to it. I mean, we’ve got this ... commentary [from Ukraine Embassy staffer David Holmes]. We haven’t heard from [former national security adviser] John Bolton yet. And we have what [acting White House chief of staff Mick] Mulvaney said. So there’s a lot out there to still digest. I just want to digest it all and do that right thing.”