It is theoretically possible that the impeachment process will produce a week of testimony more damning than the one that we just witnessed. Some obscure NSC staffer could come forward with a secret recording of the president telling his Ukrainian counterpart, “I, Donald J. Trump, being of sound mind and corrupt intent, do hereby demand that your government investigate my political rivals — or else, the Donbass will run red with the blood of khokhols.” A band of meddling kids and their dimwitted dog could bust into the chambers of the House Intelligence Committee, grab the face of its ranking Republican member, then rip off a silicone mask to reveal that Old Man Nunes was Vladimir Putin all along! Trump himself could testify at a Senate trial, spend six hours shouting variations on “no quid pro quo,” then accidentally leave his microphone on during a bathroom break and get caught muttering to himself between belches, “What the hell did I do? Colluded with them all, of course.”
But none of that seems very likely.
House Republicans entered Monday with two distinct cases for Donald Trump’s innocence — one grounded in discredited but logically coherent claims, the other in psychedelic ravings about a vast deep-state conspiracy. Four days later, all the approximations of reasoned argument have been vanquished; only the irritable mental gestures remain.
The semi-factual case for Donald Trump’s innocence went something like this: The president never explicitly conditioned a White House visit or the release of military aid on an announcement of investigations into his political rivals. Perhaps his underlings came under the misimpression that he sought such a “quid pro quo” — and perhaps a biased Democrat might interpret Trump’s ambiguous request for a “favor” during his July 25 phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart as an extortion attempt — but in reality, no act of extortion was ever ordered. The president did want the Ukrainian government to pursue investigations into the energy firm Burisima, but this was not because Hunter Biden happened to work there; Trump merely had developed a heartfelt concern for ethics in Ukrainian cronyism. And anyway, Ukraine didn’t even know its aid had been frozen when Trump made his favor requests, so no extortion attempt was ever operative. If I kidnap your kid, then call you up and ask for a $5 million ransom, but forget to mention that your child is handcuffed in my basement, can you really call that request a “ransom” or say that I’ve somehow done something “wrong”?
None of these claims had any real plausibility at the start of the week (in fact, most had already been debunked in the inquiry’s initial closed-door hearings). But they have now been incinerated on national television.
Gordon Sondland did most of the kindling. During his appearance before the Intelligence Committee Wednesday, the E.U. ambassador (who somehow bears an uncanny resemblance to every bald white man in existence) earned himself a first-ballot induction into the snitching Hall of Fame. In his initial closed-door testimony, Sondland had threaded the needle between protecting his boss and covering his ass. But after several of his colleagues exposed the half-truths in Sondland’s sworn deposition, the hotelier turned diplomat decided to bravely avail himself of the Eichmann defense: Yes, he had worked with Rudy Giuliani to coerce the Ukrainian government into investigating the president’s domestic adversaries, but he was only following “the president’s orders.” Sondland personally believed that “the White House meeting and security assistance should have proceeded without preconditions of any kind,” but “at the express direction of the president of the United States,” he had taken a different tack.
Sondland proceeded to carefully tuck the entire West Wing beneath the bus he’d thrown Trump under, telling the committee that every major White House official had been “in the loop” on this scheme, a claim he corroborated with a large pile of receipts. “Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland asked in his opening statement. “The answer is yes.”
Technically, the only quid pro quo Sondland could directly tie to presidential orders was the one concerning a White House visit. Sondland said that it eventually became clear to him that both a White House visit and the release of military aid were contingent on Ukraine launching Trump’s desired investigations. But the president never articulated that explicitly. Republicans latched onto this detail like starving lions onto a stray bit of sinew in the skeletal carcass of a long-dead gazelle, and yet the former was no more exonerating than the latter would be nourishing. For one thing, Sondland’s presumption was shared by just about every other administration official who has testified. For another, the White House has produced no other credible explanation for why Ukraine’s aid was frozen, nor why it was not released upon the completion of a gratuitous security review. Regardless, leveraging an official power of the presidency — the authority to grant White House visits — to persuade a foreign government to launch baseless investigations into one’s political opponents is an abuse of power and assault on free and fair elections that would by itself merit impeachment.
“Well, all right,” a Republican advocate might reply. “The president did intend to extort Ukraine into conducting investigations into Hunter Biden’s former employer. But who’s to say that he did so to advance his personal interests, rather than America’s? Both Sondland and former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker testified that they did not realize Trump’s goal in engineering an investigation of Burisima was to damage Joe Biden. So maybe the president was just sick and tired of corruption in the Ukrainian energy industry!”
This is, of course, absurd on its face. The president who openly argues that his attorney general’s first responsibility is to “protect” him from legal problems is not an earnest anti-corruption crusader. In the White House’s readout of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, the president says “Biden” multiple times but never “corruption.” A cursory glance at the Twitter feed of Trump’s personal attorney — and special emissary in Kiev — is sufficient to demonstrate that Biden was the target of the probe (and that Sondland and Volker almost certainly knew this was the case):
But if that were somehow not enough, David Holmes, an aide at the United States Embassy in Kiev, testified Thursday that Sondland had told him Trump “doesn’t give a shit about Ukraine,” only about “big things” like investigations. Sondland himself said that Trump was less concerned with Ukraine actually carrying out investigations than he was with their announcing investigations — in other words, Trump wanted a headline that would damage Biden, not a genuine corruption probe.
The most memorable rebuttal to the notion that Donald Trump’s quid pro quo was born of good intentions, however, came from Fiona Hill, the erstwhile top Russia expert on the National Security Council. Hill’s poise, English coal-country accent, and quiet charisma made much of her testimony look and sound like a future cinematic adaptation of itself. Under questioning from the House Republicans’ attorney Steve Castor, Hill reflected on her repeated run-ins with Sondland. Throughout last summer, the E.U. ambassador had pushed diplomacy in Ukraine in directions that the NSC had never been briefed on, let alone given the opportunity to approve. At the time, Hill had been baffled and incensed by Sondland’s wildly inappropriate demands for investigations and failure to coordinate with her team. “Who put you in charge of Ukraine?” she had asked him at one point. To which Sondland replied: the president. Hill soon came to understand why the E.U. ambassador hadn’t been coordinating his actions with the NSC: “He was being involved in a domestic political errand,” Hill told the committee. “And we were being involved in national security [and] foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.”
Critically, as Hill went on to imply, the fact that the president did not ask his National Security Council to press Ukraine for investigations, but instead chose to deputize a hotelier whose sole qualification for conducting diplomacy on behalf of the U.S. was a $1 million donation to Trump’s inauguration, is indicative of the mission’s consciously corrupt and political nature.
“So, okay,” our poor, imaginary Republican counterpart sighs. “Trump ordered the quid pro quo, and his primary aim in doing so was to muddy a political rival. But maybe he’s innocent by reason of incompetence? After all, it’s not like there’s incontrovertible proof that Ukraine was aware that its aid had been held up on the very day that the president asked Zelensky to launch investigations as a ‘favor.’ Right?”
Alas, on Wednesday deputy assistant secretary of Defense Laura Cooper presented the committee with an email dated July 25, in which a State Department staffer informs her that the Ukrainian embassy is concerned about the status of its security assistance.
The facts aren’t going to get any clearer. The GOP’s semi-coherent case for Trump’s innocence can’t get more debunked. And yet, Republicans aren’t getting any closer to turning on their president.
The GOP’s attempts to persuade neutral observers of Trump’s innocence through reasoned argument may have failed. But its efforts to provide its favorite cable news channel with 60-second sound bites that appear to confirm the Fox News Cinematic Universe’s wholly fictional version of the impeachment drama have held up just fine.
The president’s approval rating is slightly higher today than it was a few weeks ago. Last month, a Marquette Law School survey found Trump trailing Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders in Wisconsin (which is widely considered the Electoral College’s “tipping point” state). This week, that pollster found Trump beating all of them. As of this writing, House Democrats do not plan to hold any further public impeachment hearings. And the show they’ve put on thus far has given Republicans no self-interested reason to do the right thing.
More remarkably, it hasn’t even won over those with no political self-interest to protect. At the close of Thursday’s final hearing, Texas congressman Will Hurd — a former intelligence officer and frequent Trump critic who represents a Democratic-leaning district and is not seeking reelection — announced that he was deeply disturbed by all that he had learned about the administration’s handling of foreign policy. Then, he decried the impeachment process as overly “partisan,” and said that he’d seen no proof that Donald Trump was guilty of an impeachable offense.
It was a week of ceaseless “bombshells.” But like a Looney Tunes character blackened by a blast of dynamite, the president’s detachment from our reality enables him to shrug off such explosions, and move on to yet another harebrained scheme.