The White House is doubling down on its insistence that there was no quid pro quo in President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill Interview: DNC chair calls Latinos ‘imperative’ to winning in battleground states Democrats give Warren’s ‘Medicare for All’ plan the cold shoulder Senate Republicans struggle to coalesce behind an impeachment strategy MORE‘s interactions with Ukraine in the face of a growing body of evidence that military aid to Kiev was contingent on the foreign making public statements about launching investigations sought by the president and his personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiSenate Republicans struggle to coalesce behind an impeachment strategy Sondland changes quid pro quo story Five things to know about the Sondland, Volker transcripts MORE.
White House aides have seized on select portions of testimony from officials they see as bolstering their claims, while questioning the credibility of those who have described in closed-door depositions with House investigators an alleged quid pro quo related to Ukraine.
“The transcripts that were released … show exactly what the president has been saying all along, and that is that he did nothing wrong and there was no quid pro quo,” press secretary Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamSondland changes quid pro quo story Five things to know about the Sondland, Volker transcripts White House dismisses impeachment transcripts: Trump ‘has done nothing wrong’ MORE said Tuesday night on Fox Business Network.
“These transcripts are actually … good for the president,” she added.
The refusal to concede any shred of evidence may be problematic reflects the difficulties of defending Trump, who is loathe to admit any kind of mistake.
It also comes at a time when Republicans are struggling to coalesce around an impeachment strategy, prompting some lawmakers to mull whether to acknowledge a quid pro quo took place but stress that it wouldn’t be impeachable.
The White House in recent weeks has urged congressional Republicans to defend Trump on substance rather than their grievances with the House impeachment inquiry as they seek to get GOP allies in line.
Trump met with nine GOP senators at the White House last week, when impeachment was discussed. Vice President Pence met with Senate Republicans for lunch on Tuesday and encouraged them to echo Trump’s position that he did nothing wrong.
But revised testimony from U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, released Tuesday by House Democrats, presents some of the most damaging evidence to date that there was a quid pro quo that tied military aid for Ukraine to the country’s government fulfilling Trump’s desire to see certain investigations.
“I always believed that suspending aid to Ukraine was ill-advised, although I did not know (and still do not know) when, why, or by whom the aid was suspended,” Sondland said in a written statement, noting that the testimony of other officials had “refreshed my recollection.”
“However, by the beginning of September 2019, and in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement,” Sondland said.
White House aides have zeroed in on the word “presumed” in Sondland’s testimony, suggesting that lack of certainty is enough to undermine his claim.
White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayTrump allies assail impeachment on process while House Democrats promise open hearings soon Sunday shows – Next impeachment phase dominates Conway: ‘I don’t know’ if military aid was withheld from Ukraine over request for Biden investigation MORE told reporters on Wednesday that the official administration position is still that there was no quid pro quo with Ukraine, despite Sondland’s updated testimony.
“Ladies and gentlemen, be careful because you cannot impeach a president and remove him from office in a constitutional democracy centered on the rule of law based on somebody saying they ‘presumed’ and someone else saying they ‘interpreted,’ ” Conway said.
Sondland also revealed that he told a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in September that the resumption of aid “would likely not occur” until Kiev made a public statement about launching anti-corruption investigations that had been discussed with Giuliani.
While Sondland’s testimony and his updated statement, in particular, spell trouble for Trump, the president’s allies have found a more favorable talking point in the testimony of former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt VolkerKurt VolkerSondland changes quid pro quo story Overnight Defense: Top diplomat changes testimony to indicate quid pro quo | Dem offers measure on Turkish human rights abuses in Syria | Warren offers plan to address veteran suicide rates Graham says he won’t read the Trump impeachment transcripts MORE.
Conway on Wednesday singled out one exchange in which Rep. Lee ZeldinLee ZeldinLobbying world Five takeaways from the first Trump impeachment deposition transcripts Republicans blast Pelosi following vote on impeachment resolution MORE (R-N.Y.) asked, “In no way shape or form … did you receive any indication whatsoever for anything that resembles a quid pro quo?”
“Correct,” Volker replied.
Trump also thanked Volker in an early morning tweet Wednesday, pointing to an exchange in his testimony during which the former official said he had no conversations about a quid pro quo because he wasn’t aware of one.
The White House has long argued that Trump did nothing wrong, pointing to the lack of explicit quid pro quo in the transcript of his July 25 phone call with Zelensky. But Trump did urge Zelensky on the call to “look into” former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDemocrats give Warren’s ‘Medicare for All’ plan the cold shoulder Senate Republicans struggle to coalesce behind an impeachment strategy Sanders team accuses media of ignoring ‘surge’ in polls MORE and his son Hunter, as well as a debunked allegation Ukraine was involved in the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
The Trump administration eventually released military aid to Ukraine under pressure from Congress; meanwhile the public statement from Ukraine about investigations sought by Giuliani never came to pass.
The White House’s commitment to its “no quid pro quo” mantra is likely to be tested as the impeachment inquiry moves into a more public phase and higher-ranking officials are pressed for information.
Acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, the first official to offer testimonial evidence that the aid and a White House meeting were contingent on Ukraine launching the investigations, is slated to testify publicly next week. Trump has sought to dismiss Taylor as a “Never Trumper” and also issued rare criticism of Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoFive things to know about the Sondland, Volker transcripts GOP chairman: Hearing on delayed Ukraine aid should wait until after House inquiry wraps The Hill’s 12: 30 Report: What we learned from first impeachment transcripts MORE for tapping him to lead the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine earlier this year.
Taylor, whose full testimony has not been released, in his opening statement cited conversations with other officials in describing how he learned the meeting and aid had become tied to the investigations.
Former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonFive takeaways from the first Trump impeachment deposition transcripts Trump: ‘No reason to call witnesses’ in impeachment probe The Hill’s Morning Report – Transcripts expected to heat up impeachment battle MORE is scheduled to testify on Thursday, but is unlikely to appear.
The House committees leading the investigation have also requested acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyGraham predicts controversial Trump court picks will clear panel House Democrats ask Mulvaney to testify in impeachment inquiry Overnight Defense: Dems release first impeachment probe transcripts | White House officials refuse to testify Monday | US, Iran mark 40th anniversary of hostage crisis MORE to testify in a closed-door session on Friday, though he is not expected to show.
In the meantime, Democrats are likely to release additional transcripts from the private depositions that have taken place thus far, and a few lower-level aides are still expected to testify before the process shifts to televised hearings.
Top Trump aides are projecting confidence even as the drip of information has increased and speculation even among those in the White House that impeachment is inevitable.
“This is backfiring on [Democrats], and we look forward to more coming out, and we look forward to the next few weeks,” Grisham said.
Updated at 12: 41 p.m.