WASHINGTON — By the time President Trump’s punishing impeachment week wrapped up, his GOP defenders appeared so tired of having their talking points slapped down by witnesses they simply stopped asking questions.
Who could blame them? The evidence was overwhelming. The endless hours of testimony all pointed to the same conclusion: Trump sent his private attorney and senior officials on a “domestic political errand,” to quote Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia advisor in the White House, to convince a foreign country to investigate his political enemies.
Hill’s ability to synthesize the mountain of evidence into one crystal clear phrase capped a damning week for President Trump, and left many Democrats to believe they’d made the best case they could to the American people.
“The president did it,” said Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) as the curtain fell on the hearings Thursday afternoon. “The only question that remains is, what will we do?”
Here’s how this week’s parade of witnesses, including current and former top administration officials, presented the case against Trump.
Gordon Sondland: “Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ … The answer is yes.”
Sondland was a tricky witness, evading answers and conveniently forgetting major moments throughout his testimony. But he explicitly confirmed the most crucial element of Democrats’ impeachment argument: Trump was demanding a quid pro quo, which the president and his aides pursued with increasing pressure over the course of the summer and early fall. And Sondland made it clear that top Trump officials knew exactly what he was up to.
“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” Sondland said on Wednesday. “We all understood that these prerequisites for the White House call and the White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements,” he said.
Sondland repeatedly listed a bevy of top Trump officials he was in touch with about his pressure campaign on Zelensky — and proved it with emails showing that White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and many others were told of his efforts. “Everyone was in the loop,” he declared.
Fiona Hill: Sondland “was on a domestic political errand”
Former National Security Council member Fiona Hill was arguably the most damaging witness to the Trump administration of the whole marathon of hearings. Perhaps her most stinging moment came during the Republicans’ turn to question her.
Hill was asked by the GOP’s attorney about a fight she’d had with Sondland during a meeting. She admitted that things had gotten “testy” because Sondland hadn’t been looping her in like he was supposed to — and then delivered a cutting response as she explained that she now realized Sondland was “absolutely right.”
In one moment, Hill calmly laid out exactly what Sondland was doing, explaining that he was clearly working with top White House officials.
“What I was angry about is that he wasn’t coordinating with us. Now I actually realized having listened to his deposition that he was absolutely right — that he wasn’t coordinating with us because we weren’t doing the same thing he was doing,” she said.
“He was absolutely right. Because he was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.”
By the time she was done, Republicans were so rattled that they’d given up asking questions and were just filibustering through their allotted times with speeches.
Alexander Vindman: “What I heard was improper”
Hill’s former deputy, Lt. Col. Alex Vindman, rolled up to testify in full Army dress and a chest covered in medals.
After describing his own concerns about Sondland and Trump’s behavior, he helped dispel the notion that Trump might simply have been acting to combat corruption generally.
Vindman said he drafted talking points for Trump to use about the importance of fighting corruption during Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
But Trump ignored them. Instead, Trump pressed Zelensky to “look into” the Bidens, and to chase down a conspiracy theory that would have taken the blame off Russia for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election.
“I was concerned by the call, what I heard was improper,” Vindman said. “It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent.”
Kurt Volker: “Conspiracy theories”
Republicans couldn’t even get a break from their own witnesses. One in particular, Trump’s own special envoy to Ukraine, Ambassador Kurt Volker, told them that the investigations Trump specifically asked Ukraine’s president for were bunk.
There was no reason to think Biden acted improperly when he sought the dismissal of a Ukrainian prosecutor renowned for his unwillingness to investigate real corruption, Volker said.
“The accusation that Vice President Biden was acting inappropriately didn’t seem at all credible to me,” Volker said. “I don’t think that raising 2016 elections or Vice President Biden, or these things I consider to be conspiracy theories circulated by the Ukrainians… they’re not things we should be pursuing as part of our national security strategy in Ukraine.”
Tim Morrison, another National Security Council staffer called in by Republicans and perhaps the most favorable GOP witness, provided yet more evidence of the quid pro quo at the heart of Democrats’ case for impeaching Trump.
Morrison testified that Sondland told him in September that a hold on military aid to Ukraine would be lifted if the country announced investigations — a conversation that left him with a “sinking feeling.”
David Holmes: Zelensky “loves your ass”
David Holmes was a late addition to this week’s hearings line-up, but his appearance proved explosive.
The career diplomat got wrapped up in the impeachment inquiry after overhearing Sondland talk to Trump on the phone about “investigations” during a fancy lunch with fine wine in downtown Kyiv last summer.
Zelensky “loves your ass,” Sondland told Trump, and was prepared to launch investigations and do anything else Trump asked.
Sondland conveniently forgot to mention this conversation during his first deposition, and later said he primarily remembered discussing how to get the rapper A$AP Rocky out of prison.
But Sondland largely backed the account of the call by Holmes.
But Holmes had more to add then just that call. When pressed by Republicans about why his boss didn’t mention that call sooner, Holmes said by then the entire U.S. embassy knew what was going on in general terms. He said they braced for Zelensky to announce the investigations in September, until the assistance money was ultimately released at the last moment and the presidential statement was averted.
“Of course the president is pressing for a Biden investigation,” Holmes said. “Everyone by that point agreed. It was obvious what the president was pressing for.”
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