What will the Republicans do now? The blowtorch testimony of Gordon Sondland has not only torn a deep hole in Donald Trump’s defence on the Ukraine scandal but has also ensnared his top lieutenants, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“They knew what we were doing and why,” Mr. Sondland claimed in reference to Mr. Trump’s push to make military aid to Ukraine dependent upon it opening an investigation into the Bidens. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
With that assertion, the scandal ascended the Richter scale. But it might not make it any easier for the Democrats to bring down Mr. Trump. With so much at stake now, with his top men endangered, there will be a circling of the wagons, a manning of the barricades seldom seen. Any nefarious measures will be employed for damage-control purposes.
The party will rely on Mr. Trump’s remarkable capacity to extricate himself from seemingly dire situations.
A Jeff Stahler newspaper cartoon was making the rounds on Capitol Hill with a telling message. It showed Richard Nixon claiming “I am not a crook” and Donald Trump saying “I am a crook. So what?”
It spoke to Americans’ seeming willingness to judge Mr. Trump by a different standard. For him, the bar’s so low you could barely fit a reptile under it.
The latest revelations, including the assertion Thursday by former White House Russia expert Fiona Hill that Mr. Trump has been driving a fictional narrative to protect Russia, could lead to some defections among the Republicans, that Grand Old increasingly rancid Party. A few members might have enough integrity to jump ship.
But judging from the initial reaction to the Sondland testimony, there won’t be as many as the 20 needed to turn against the President to convict him in a Senate trial, which will follow the almost certain defeat he now faces on an impeachment vote in the House of Representatives.
Party members were frantic in trying to find ways to discredit Mr. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union. Some held to the line that there was no proof that Mr. Trump ordered up the quid pro quo. It’s hearsay, they claimed, pointing to Mr. Sondland’s admission he didn’t hear the President himself say the words.
They could also point to Mr. Sondland having changed his version of events, which he had.
And they had the phone call in which, as Mr. Sondland testified, the President told him he wanted nothing from Ukraine. “No quid pro quo.” But that came just after Mr. Trump had received the news of a whistle-blower making the extortion allegations against him.
As the credibility of these alibis are peeled away, what the GOP case will likely come down to is the contention that, while what the President did was wrong, it doesn’t warrant impeachment.
The Democrats “have yet to point to a shred of evidence when it comes to impeachable offences,” argued Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican.
Republican Senator John N. Kennedy made the point that “there are legal and illegal quid pro quos,” suggesting that Mr. Trump’s was a legal one.
The party’s talking points focused on several mitigating factors. Ukraine did get the military aid; there was no investigation of the Bidens; past presidents had often made aid to countries dependent on quid pro quos of one kind or another.
As for Mr. Pence and Mr. Pompeo, they were angry and quick to challenge the Sondland testimony. Mr. Pence has maintained an unsullied reputation, not easy to do at this White House. This scandal could undercut it.
Mr. Sondland testified that he’d told Mr. Pence at a meeting in Warsaw that aid to Ukraine had become linked to investigations. Mr. Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short said that the purported conversation “never happened.” Mr. Pompeo’s team declared that it was “flat out false” that Mr. Sondland had told the Secretary of State of the President’s plotting.
The big test for the administration will come from polling numbers in the next week or two. Until the Sondland testimony, the scandal wasn’t damaging the President a bit. None of the bombshells at the hearings exploded.
The Sondland one did. But if it doesn’t move the Trump-support needle appreciably downward, it will be a further testament to what the cartoon suggested: The President is corrupt. Who cares?
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