Beyond total deception, the Republicans' main argument for defending Donald Trump at the impeachment hearings last week was that none of the witnesses – highly respected career diplomats who provided detailed accounts of the president's apparent misdeeds – spoke directly to the president about the apparent quid pro quo with Ukraine. "The ambassador is not a relevant fact witness to any of the charges being filed against the president for this impeachment inquiry," said Devin Nunes, chief Republican of the House Intelligence Committee, clinging during a testimony of former Ukrainian envoy Marie Yovanovitch on Friday. But Trump's supporters will likely have to change tactics as more witnesses, notably Gordon Sondland, appear on Capitol Hill this week.
Unlike those who have publicly testified, the European Union ambassador – one of the so-called "three friends" who helped lead the president's pressure campaign on Ukraine – spoke with Trump, and Democrats hope his testimony will directly call the president. aa racket. He has done it behind closed doors. After telling parliamentarians in October that Trump channeled Ukraine's policy through Rudy Giuliani, but that he was unaware of the measure to suspend military aid to Kiev, unless Volodymyr Zelensky started an investigation into Joe Biden, he altered his testimony to say that the president did just that. "I assumed the suspension of the aid was linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement," said Sondland. If Sondland, who is facing legal scrutiny for his involvement, can provide details of the House lobbying campaign, Trump could find himself in an even deeper hole.
But Republicans also see in Sondland an opportunity to put some daylight between Trump and the whole nasty affair. Like Axios reported Monday, the Republican Party's strategy this week is likely to involve scapegoat Sondland, suggesting that megadonor Trump was above his skis and not acting under the president's orders. When he appears before the Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, Republicans are expected to underestimate the number of interactions between Sondland and the president, who has said he "doesn't know" his handpicked EU. sent, and suggest that he was freelancing in his attempts to arm Ukraine as an effort to please Trump.
There is only one problem with this: hard evidence suggests that Sondland was not dishonest, as the Republican Party will argue, but that he coordinated the White House throughout the venture. According to the Wall Street Journal, which emails obtained Sondland sent to Trump administration officials, US Ambassador retained Trump's senior officials in their attempts to pressure the Zelensky government to publicly announce investigations into Biden and a conspiracy theory involving the 2016 elections. He also spoke with Trump about the potential investigations directly over the phone, according to at least two US officials who apparently heard the conversation. "In the presence of my team in a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him about his meetings in Kiev," said Bill Taylor last week. "A member of my team could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the" investigations. "Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward."
Of course, none of this will get Republicans out of the way; Last week's hearings revealed not only Trump's extensive corruption, but also the depths into which Republicans will plunge to defend their man. But communications between Sondland and Trumpworld mean that the Republican Party will probably continue to do a much harder job than the Democrats. With testimonials from Yovanovitch, Taylor and George Kent already in the bank, along with a new list of witnesses this week – including Alexander Vindman, who was on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky, and Democratic adviser Fiona Hill told Axios that you can "put a whole bow on it" – the case of the Democrats seems to be the most convincing.
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