President Donald Trump claims a call he had with US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland on September 9 proves that his dealings with the Ukrainian government didn’t stem from corrupt motives. It’s a nice talking point, but the reality is much more complicated.
Sondland offered testimony to the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that implicated pretty much all the top Trump administration officials in a scheme to use official White House acts to leverage the Ukrainian government into doing political favors for the president. Trump responded to this testimony by repeatedly citing the September 9 call — one in which Trump reportedly told Sondland, “I want nothing ... that’s what I want from Ukraine” — as smoking-gun evidence that the impeachment inquiry is nothing more than a partisan witch hunt.
Trump did so first while reading from handwritten notes just outside the White House; he emphasized it again in breathless tweets he posted a short time later.
....”I WANT NOTHING! I WANT NOTHING! I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO! TELL PRESIDENT ZELENSKY TO DO THE RIGHT THING!” Later, Ambassador Sondland said that I told him, “Good, go tell the truth!” This Witch Hunt must end NOW. So bad for our Country!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2019
But an examination of the context surrounding Trump’s September 9 call with Sondland indicates that it’s not as exonerating as Trump would like people to believe.
“Getting caught is no defense”
The timeline is key. The call happened more than a week after then Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire informed the White House counsel about the existence of a whistleblower complaint detailing how Trump abused his power by trying to leverage the Ukrainians into doing political favors for him.
So, assuming word of the whistleblower’s complaint percolated up to the president, Trump’s call with Sondland came after he knew the jig was up. Indeed, that very same day, Michael Atkinson, inspector general for the intelligence community, notified the House Intelligence Committee of the whistleblower complaint and said he found that the accusations rose to the level of “urgent concern.”
Viewed in that context, Trump’s comments to Sondland about “no quid pro quo” and wanting “nothing” from Ukraine may have just been a way to cover his behind. But during Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans — following Trump’s lead — decontextualized the call and cited it as evidence that the president did nothing wrong.
Don't be fooled by fake news headlines ⇒ A presumption is *NOT* evidence.— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) November 20, 2019
Ambassador Sondland admits that he has ZERO evidence that ties President Trump to a scheme to withhold aid from Ukraine in exchange for investigations.
Well done, @RepMikeTurner. pic.twitter.com/XuhPhh9USu
Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) forced Sondland to acknowledge the timeline of the September 9 call is consistent with the idea that Trump was merely trying to cover his tracks. And despite what Trump said on that specific call, he had already communicated to Ukrainian officials that he wanted them to investigate the Bidens and right-wing conspiracy theories as a “favor” to him.
On Wednesday, Trump and his Republican defenders also cited the fact that Ukraine ultimately received hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid that was being withheld as of September 9 as evidence the president did nothing wrong.
But as House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) pointed out, the timeline of the aid being released looks similarly suspicious. That happened on September 11, two days after leaders of three House committees announced they “launched a wide-ranging investigation into reported efforts by President Trump, the President’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and possibly others to pressure the government of Ukraine to assist the president’s reelection campaign.” So, once again, Trump and company may have been trying to cover their butts.
SCHIFF: "My colleagues seem to be under the impression that unless POTUS spoke the words, 'ambassador, I am bribing the Ukrainian president,' that there's no evidence of bribery... they also seem to say, 'well, they got the money.' Yes. They got caught. They got caught." pic.twitter.com/FUQsH7tGu9— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 20, 2019
Schiff wrapped up the hearing by making a case that “getting caught is no defense.” But during a news conference minutes later, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) found a new method of explaining away the suspicious timing: making a case that the whole thing was merely a coincidence.