As scandal intensifies, testimony collapses pillar of Trump defense

When Donald Trump's Ukraine controversy first came to public light, key elements of the story were immediately scandalous. The Republican president and his team had not only held up aid to a vulnerable U.S. ally, but Trump had also pressured the ally's leaders to participate in a brazen political scheme.

For the White House's GOP allies, however, the story was missing an important ingredient: there was no quid pro quo. Without this element, they said, the controversy is largely meaningless.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Axios the other day, "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." A month ago, Politico ran a report with similar assessments from several other congressional Republicans.

While Sen. Pat Toomey called the conversation "inappropriate," the Pennsylvania Republican said "it does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense." It "reveals no quid pro quo," he added. [...]"I didn't find it concerning," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). "There was no quid pro quo, you'd have to have that if there was going to be anything wrong." [...]Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of Trump's top confidants on Capitol Hill, had tweeted four separate times about the absence of a "quid pro quo" by lunchtime.

Even before yesterday, this talking point was badly flawed. For one thing, it wasn't altogether necessary to prove a quid pro quo: Trump holding up the aid and pressuring Ukraine president Volodomyr Zelenskiy was the basis for a legitimate scandal.

For another, there was already compelling evidence of quid pro quo, by virtue of the Trump/Zelensky call summary, Sen. Ron Johnson's (R-Wis.) acknowledgements, and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney's damaging press briefing last week.

Nevertheless, this remained the central pillar of the Republican argument: the only way to make this scandal significant, Trump and his allies said, was to show that the president was directly involved in holding up military aid to a vulnerable ally as part of a deliberate White House scheme to leverage that ally into participating in Trump's domestic political plans.

Yesterday, the central pillar of the Republican argument collapsed.

President Donald Trump has insisted there was no "quid pro quo" in his dealings with the Ukrainian government, and "no pressure" on Ukraine's president to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.But in his remarkable 15-page statement delivered to Congress on Tuesday, Trump's top diplomat to Ukraine painted a picture of both.

Bill Taylor's testimony, supported by extensive and contemporaneous notes, exposed the American president's direct involvement in an explicit scheme to leverage both military aid and a White House meeting as part of a plan to coerce Ukraine into participating in Trump's domestic scheme.

Trump's allies spent a month placing a dangerous bet. They assumed that compelling evidence of a quid pro quo would never emerge, which in turn would give them a pretense to look the other way in response to an obvious presidential abuse.

We now know that they gambled and lost. The evidence Republicans hoped wouldn't materialize has been made plain and presented in detail to lawmakers.

If recent history is any guide, GOP officials will spend today moving the goalposts, pretending they didn't actually spend a month peddling the no-quid-pro-quo talking point.

But if Republicans are counting on fair-minded observers believing their Trump defense, they're too late.