GOP lawmakers backed into a corner after ambassador turns on Trump

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Gordon Sondland confirmed under oath that a quid pro quo existed, contradicting Republicans' past claims.

Republican lawmakers who previously defended Donald Trump against claims of quid pro quo were put in the hot seat this week after Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, admitted under oath that such an arrangement did exist, and that Trump himself had directed it.

Sondland on Wednesday said that a White House visit with Ukraine was conditioned on the country opening up investigations into Trump's political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee. Biden is currently a front-runner in the 2020 Democratic primary and could face off next year with Trump in the general election.

It is illegal to solicit or accept election help from a foreign national.

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"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," Sondland told the House intelligence committee on Wednesday.

Sondland said the subsequent pressure campaign to secure the investigations was carried out "at the express direction of the president of the United States."

Multiple other witnesses have testified in the House impeachment inquiry so far that Trump also conditioned critical military aid to Ukraine on the country's willingness to open investigations into Biden or the DNC. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney also confirmed the existence of a quid pro quo last month, before later attempting to walk back his statements.

Sondland specifically told the House intelligence committee on Wednesday that while Trump never explicitly told him that critical military aid had been conditioned on Ukraine's willingness to investigate Biden, "In the absence of any credible explanation for the hold, I came to the conclusion that the aid, like the White House visit, was jeopardized."

"My belief was that if Ukraine did something to demonstrate a serious intention [that it would open an investigation], then the hold on military aid would be lifted," he added.

The admission undercuts a central tenet of both Trump's defense and his congressional allies' narrative.

After news broke in September that a whistleblower had filed a complaint detailing Trump's efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Trump lashed out, repeatedly claiming there was "no quid pro quo."

Trump's Republican defenders in Congress parroted this language over and over again.

House Republican Whip Steve Scalise claimed that same month, "It's now clear: there was no quid pro quo. [Donald Trump] didn't break any laws."

Even as administration officials came forward to testify behind closed doors about the quid pro quo — and as some Republicans considered abandoning the party's earlier line of defense — others pushed forward.

After Sondland's initial closed-door testimony — much of which he has since changed, saying his memory was "refreshed" — Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) claimed that Sondland had exonerated Trump.

"Folks, if someone tells you Gordon Sondland affirmed quid pro quo, you’re being lied to. He didn’t say this," Meadows said on Nov. 7.

Meadows told the Washington Post days earlier, "You can’t have been in [the impeachment depositions] with 10 different witnesses and come out with any credible belief that there was a quid pro quo for aid."

"There is no quid pro quo," Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) tweeted earlier this month,"just a #QuidProJoe." The comment appeared to be a reference to Biden.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) claimed as recently as Tuesday that "the Democrats' 'quid pro quo' AND 'bribery and extortion' narratives have been crushed by truth."

And Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), whose antics at last week's public hearings prompted donors to pour money into her 2020 opponent's coffers, said the facts were not complicated.

"No bribery, no extortion, no withholding of aid, no quid pro quo," she tweeted.

It's unclear whether Sondland's revelation on Wednesday will matter to members of Congress who have made their fealty to Trump a way of life.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said last month that he could support an impeachment of Trump if evidence pointed to Trump committing a crime. "If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing," he said.

Graham has since admitted that he will not even read transcripts from the previous closed-door testimonies, calling the impeachment inquiry "a bunch of B.S."

One House Republican aide told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday that the party has simply shifted the goalposts.

"It has gone from: 'There is no quid pro quo,' to: 'There’s a quid and a quo but not a pro,' to 'Even if there was a quid pro quo, it's not that bad, this is just how things are done — you can say it's bad, but it’s not impeachable,'" they said.

Published with permission of the American Independent Foundation.