The public recently learned of text messages between Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, in which the former made his dissatisfaction clear to the latter.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and [a White House] meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor wrote in early September. He added, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Nearly five hours after that text was sent, Sondland replied, “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”
It was a difficult message to accept at face value, since common sense suggests it was written as a cover story. But yesterday, we learned even more during Sondland’s sworn testimony about the conversation he had with Donald Trump after receiving Taylor’s text. The ambassador told lawmakers:
“I finally called the president, I believe it was on 9 September. I can’t find the records, and they won’t provide them to me. But I believe I just asked him an open-ended question, Mr. Chairman. ‘What do you want from Ukraine? I keep hearing all these different ideas and theories and this and that. What do you want?’
“And it was a very short, abrupt conversation. [Trump] was not in a good mood. And he just said, ‘I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky to do the right thing,’ something to that effect.”
For some reason, Trump immediately convinced himself that this was the game-over moment he’d been waiting for. The president carried with him handwritten notes on Sondland’s description of the September phone conversation, and he repeated the lines with great vigor in brief comments to White House reporters yesterday. The Republican proceeded to tweet about this soon after.
It’s quite strange. As the editorial board of the New York Times explained, “Perhaps the president is unaware that simply saying he didn’t do something is not proof that he didn’t – especially when he has already provided the proof that he did do it.”
Orin Kerr, a law professor at UC Berkley, added, “You can’t charge him with a crime because after he walked into the bank with a gun and said, ‘Give me the money and no one gets hurt,’ the clerk tripped the silent alarm and he yelled, ‘I want nothing! I want nothing! Tell the clerk to do the right thing!’ when the cops arrived.”
The Washington Post published a good analysis along these lines, noting that Sondland’s recollection of Trump’s comments is “almost meaningless.”
…Sondland’s testimony explicitly and in detail outlined what he described without reservation as a quid pro quo: one focused on an effort to leverage an official White House meeting to pressure Ukraine to announce new investigations. The claim that “no quid pro quo” ever occurred is the opposite of what Sondland testified. It’s just that the quid pro quo that Sondland expressly articulated isn’t the one that was the subject of that call.
Also, notice who is originally denying the quid pro quo. This isn’t Sondland telling House investigators that there was no quid pro quo for Ukrainian aid; it’s Sondland saying that Trump said there was no quid pro quo. It’s like a man on trial for arson standing up and insisting that he must be innocent because one of the witnesses described how the accused arsonist himself had denied setting the fire. Sondland is conveying Trump’s own insistence of innocence. Trump doesn’t get to then claim that this proves his innocence.
Especially since Sondland made clear in his testimony that he didn’t necessarily buy Trump’s assertions. After describing the call with Trump, Sondland went on to explain the message he sent back to Taylor.
For the president to see this as exoneration is demonstrably ridiculous, even by Trump standards. He’d already launched the quid-pro-quo scheme. The whole extortion plan was already being implemented, as Ukraine was well aware. Trump may have told Sondland, “I want nothing” in September as part of an implausible cover story, but he’d already told Zelensky months earlier exactly what he wanted in the form of “favors” from Kyiv.
To take this desperation plea seriously is to ignore literally everything we already know about Trump’s scandal.