Gordon Sondland’s newly revised testimony amounts to the smoking gun many House Democrats have been looking for: a quid pro quo on Ukraine.
But to the Senate Republicans who will determine whether President Donald Trump will be removed from office, it seemed to have almost no effect.
None said Tuesday said that Sondland’s testimony was bad news for Trump. When asked about the newest revelations, some referred back to the White House summary of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky to defend the president. Others said Sondland’s view was immaterial at this point.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared Trump will probably be acquitted by the Senate in any impeachment trial.
While each deposition seems to bring Trump ever closer to being impeached by the House, much of his Senate jury is tuning them out, according to interviews with more than a dozen GOP senators.
It’s a sign that there may be almost nothing that Democrats can unearth in their impeachment inquiry that will move many GOP senators to support Trump’s removal from office.
“Neither the president of Ukraine or the president of the United States says there’s a quid pro quo or that there was pressure applied. Does everybody else’s opinion matter if the supposed victim wasn’t victimized?” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “Zelensky doesn’t feel like he was pressured. I don’t know who the rest of the world is to feel victimized on his behalf.”
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) sought to cast doubt on practically the entire set of witnesses deposed by House Democrats behind closed doors when compared to the weight of Trump’s call with Zelensky.
“There’s been several folks that have testified that they think that it was not only inappropriate but that there was a quid pro quo,” Braun said. “And I’m going to base it upon, not someone’s opinion, but what I actually see. So far that is the transcript for me.”
And after spending a month bashing the House process as opaque and secretive, Republicans seem to be ignoring the public information that is now being put out by the committee.
“What difference does it make? This is all out in the public, with the [summary] the president put out two or three months ago. It doesn’t make any difference what anybody else said,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
Not a single Senate Republican interviewed Tuesday about the depositions said they’d thoroughly read the two transcripts released on Monday containing House Intelligence Committee interviews with former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and former top State Department official Michael McKinley. Those transcripts were certainly lengthy at nearly 500 pages combined, but they were made public on a day the Senate was out of session, ostensibly giving senators time to read.
The transcripts of Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and of former U.S. special envoy Kurt Volker, were both released Tuesday. And the Sondland deposition in particular was revealing, as he had to revise his statement after the testimony of other officials.
Sondland said that he told a top Ukrainian official that hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid would likely be held up unless investigations into Trump’s political rivals were announced — a major reversal from his previous testimony.
Yet despite the latest bombshells, some Republicans seem not to care what might come out of the secure room in the Capitol basement where House investigators are conducting their interviews.
“The whole process continues to be flawed, OK? The idea that you’re going to continue to selectively release the information, and the timing of it is all designed to build on this narrative,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who said that he’s “reading a great history of the Andrew Johnson impeachment” amid the flurry of deposition transcripts being published this week.
And on Tuesday afternoon, Republicans continued hearing from the Trump administration in person about impeachment.
Vice President Mike Pence criticized the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry as “partisan” in a closed-door lunch with the Senate GOP, according to two attendees.
That followed two October lunches at the White House between Trump and a total of 19 Republican senators, in which Trump discussed impeachment with the same people who will vote to convict or acquit him.
Despite some senators’ vow of silence on impeachment, many Republicans dismiss the notion of trying to remain a neutral juror.
“I’ve talked to the president about this,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the No. 4 Senate GOP leader. “This is a political process. So you’re not going to remove the political elements from this process. So you’ve got to be realistic about that.”
“Technically I think we are the jury,” said Cornyn, who lunched at the White House last week. “But I wouldn’t call it an impartial jury.”
Some Republicans are still tracking the revelations shaping the historic impeachment inquiry.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), for instance, said that Sondland’s testimony contradicted his own conversation with the president about Ukraine aid earlier this year.
“I never heard that. And I had a specific conversation with the president and all he talked about is Europe” paying its fair share in Ukraine, Portman said.
But the number of Republicans focused on the Democrats’ case against Trump is dwindling.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said she’d reserve making judgments until the Senate considers the impeachment trial, echoing McConnell’s remarks on Tuesday when he said he would not comment on the day-to-day developments.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has previously said she would be concerned if Ukraine aid was tied to a probe of former Vice President Joe Biden, said she hasn’t changed her mind. But she would not comment on Sondland’s testimony
“Don’t summarize anybody’s testimony. We all know that gets you in deep dark trouble,” Murkowski said when informed of Sondland’s remarks. “If I don’t have the opportunity to hear it myself, review it myself, I don’t like to speculate.”
Despite not being familiar with Monday’s transcript releases, some senators said they planned to catch up on them later. But by the time they get around to reading them, there’s likely to be more public depositions to sift through, adding to the piles already released.
And even as House Democrats move into the public phase of their inquiry, Republicans are still dinging them for previously working behind closed doors. It’s a dynamic that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
“It’s hard to keep up with the constant tick tock,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). If Democrats “would have a more open transparent process I think it would be easier for everybody to stay more informed.”
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