Newly released testimony confirming the existence of a quid pro quo with Ukraine complicates GOP messaging.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are scrambling to create a new narrative following the release of newly damning testimony this week in the House impeachment inquiry.
On Tuesday, the three House committees — Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs — overseeing the inquiry released a transcript showing a key Trump administration official admitting to asking for a quid pro quo from Ukraine.
In amended testimony last month, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told the committees that he had relayed to Ukraine's government that delayed security aid would likely be released only if the country announced investigations into Donald Trump's political opponents.
Sondland had previously testified that he did not "recall" any discussions with the White House about conditioned arrangements, but later changed his testimony after Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, told Congress under oath that such a quid pro quo existed.
Trump has repeatedly claimed there was "no quid pro quo" in his demands for dirt on political opponents.
For many Republicans who defended Trump prior to the release of Tuesday's transcripts, the new information was a bombshell.
Lawmakers like Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) attempted to spin the situation, suggesting that the witnesses only assumed there was a quid pro quo, since they did not know Trump's true motivation. "Even if you think this is nefarious," he argued, Sondland admitted that his quid pro quo allegations were "based on an assumption!"
Meadows also claimed that by Trump demanding Ukraine "clean up corruption" by investigating the Bidens and the Democratic National Committee, he was actually being fiscally responsible. Trump "wanted to clean up corruption in Ukraine, and ensure taxpayer funded aid wasn’t going to corrupt causes," he said. "Only D.C. Democrats could spin protecting taxpayer money into an impeachable offense. Blatant partisanship."
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) for his part argued that the testimony merely showed that Trump had told Sondland, "I want no quid pro quo," while demanding Ukraine's president "do the right thing."
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that several GOP senators were "ready to acknowledge that President Trump used U.S. military aid as leverage to force Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his family." But instead of continuing to parrot Trump's denials, the report noted, the senators would simply insist that his actions were legal and not impeachable.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) tried out the new tack during a private Senate GOP lunch last week, according to the Post, saying that, as long as there was no "corrupt intent," any quid pro quo demand would have been legal.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) made a similar argument on Monday.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) observed on Sunday's episode of Meet the Press, that, "If I believed everything the Democrats are saying, I would still say this isn’t an impeachable offense."
For the past several months, a wide swath of congressional Republicans have been arguing that there was no quid pro quo at all.
"If you're looking for a circumstance where the President of the United States was threatening the Ukraine with cutting off aid unless they investigated his political opponent, you'd be very disappointed," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted in September. "That does not exist."
"Just read the transcript," Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) urged last week. "No quid pro quo. No pressure."
That strategy was thrown for a loop, however, when acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney held a press conference last month and admitted that such a quid pro quo had indeed existed.
According to Mulvaney, the aid was conditioned on an investigation into a long-debunked conspiracy about the DNC servers.
"[Did] he also mention to me, in the past, that the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that," he said at the time. "But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money."
Mulvaney added that "what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that [Trump] was worried about in corruption with that nation," claiming the quid pro quo was "absolutely appropriate."
Mulvaney denied the aid hold-up was connected to any investigation into Biden.
After widespread backlash, Mulvaney tried to walk back his comments. "Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election," he said in a statement issued by the White House.
That admission and the transcripts released this week have apparently done little to stymie the White House's attempts at putting a positive spin on the matter.
"Both transcripts released today show there is even less evidence for this illegitimate impeachment sham than previously thought," White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham claimed in a statement. "Ambassador Sondland squarely states that he 'did not know, (and still does not know) when, why or by whom the aid was suspended.' He also said he 'presumed' there was a link to the aid—but cannot identify any solid source for that assumption."
Volker’s testimony too, she claimed, "confirms there could not have been a quid pro quo because the Ukrainians did not know about the military aid hold at the time."
"No amount of salacious media-biased headlines, which are clearly designed to influence the narrative, change the fact that the President has done nothing wrong," Grisham said.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.