It was a quick exchange that didn’t generate much attention, but a reporter asked Donald Trump two months ago to explain his administration delaying military aid to Ukraine. The president, without missing a beat, lied. “I didn’t delay anything,” Trump said at the time.
The next day, the Republican’s story changed and he tried to explain why his administration delayed the aid he’d just denied delaying. “We want to make sure that country is honest,” Trump told reporters. “It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
From time to time, the White House and its allies will still pretend to take this line seriously, as if Trump, despite allegations of widespread corruption surrounding him and his team, has a deep and abiding concern related to possible Ukrainian malfeasance.
As the scandal has unfolded, the idea that the American president is sincere about this has always been laughable, and in recent days, the point has become even more absurd. Privately, administration officials keep making clear that Trump couldn’t have cared less about corruption in Ukraine, a point that’s been bolstered publicly during congressional impeachment proceedings. (When the National Security Council recommended that Trump bring up the issue during a phone meeting with Zelensky in April, and included specific talking points in briefing materials to emphasize the importance of the topic, Trump ignored the NSC, making his apparent indifference clear.)
This morning, however, these concerns came into sharper focus. Consider this exchange between House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Ambassador Gordon Sondland, as part of a clarification regarding the White House’s quid-pro-quo scheme.
SCHIFF: He had to get those two investigations if that official act was going to take place, correct?
SONDLAND: [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.
A great many revelations have come to the fore today, many of which reinforce some of the worst fears surrounding Trump and his extortion scheme. This point about simply “announcing” investigations, without regard for follow through, is among the most striking.
In fact, there was a related exchange later on during the proceedings.
Later, Daniel Goldman, counsel for the House Democrats, pressed Sondland on the point.
“You understood that in order to get that White House meeting that you wanted President Zelensky to have and that President Zelensky desperately wanted to have,” Goldman said, “that Ukraine would have to initiate these two investigations. Is that right?”
“Well, they would have to announce that they were going to do it,” Sondland replied.
“Right, because they – because Giuliani and President Trump didn’t actually care if they did them, right?” Goldman asked.
“I never heard, Mr. Goldman, anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed,” Sondland said. “The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise was that they had to be announced in some form. And that form kept changing.”
“Announced publicly?” Goldman asked.
“Announced publicly,” Sondland replied.
In fairness, the way the ambassador characterized this wasn’t quite categorical. But if it’s true that Ukraine was asked to announce an investigation, without regard for actually conducting an investigation, it’s a significant revelation with broad implications.
If accurate, it means Trump and his team were solely concerned with public relations, not corruption. They wanted something that would serve a domestic political purpose in the form for a cudgel that could be used against a Democratic rival. (Some part of them may have even realized that if Ukraine bothered to do an investigation, it wouldn’t have turned up anything useful or interesting.)
In other words, what Sondland described was a scenario in which Team Trump cared about acquiring a talking point that could be used to embarrass Joe Biden – and nothing else.