The Slatest

Today’s Impeach-O-Meter: OK, It Was a Quid Pro Quo, but We Didn’t Say the Words “Illegal Quid Pro Quo” Out Loud

Sondland, standing and wearing a blue suit, speaks to seated reporters.
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland aboard Air Force One on May 14.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The original Impeach-O-Meter was a wildly subjective and speculative estimate of the likelihood that Donald Trump would be removed before his term ended. Republicans have since established that there’s nothing that Trump could do to lose their support, making a conviction in the GOP-held Senate inconceivable. But as evidence of the president’s criminal unfitness for office continues to accumulate, an increasing number of Democrats are willing to say that he should be held accountable, at the least, via impeachment proceedings in the House. So we’ve relaunched the Impeach-O-Meter as a (still wildly subjective and speculative) estimate of the likelihood that the House votes to impeach Trump before the end of his first term.

Around the time of the release of the whistleblower complaint and phone call transcript that show the Trump administration putting pressure on Ukraine to smear Joe Biden, there was speculation about whether the Biden issue was tied to the White House’s otherwise unexplained summertime decision to withhold congressionally authorized military aid to Ukraine. Were duly appropriated federal funds used as leverage to persuade a foreign country to do favors for the president’s reelection campaign?

As details emerged, it became clear that this particular quid pro quo, at least, hadn’t taken place during the infamous July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. In July, Zelensky wasn’t yet aware that the specific package of military aid in question had been withheld. However, Trump did complain during the call—shortly before bringing up Biden and his son Hunter, who had been on the board of directors of a Ukrainian natural gas company—that Ukraine hadn’t been “reciprocal” enough about the support it got from the U.S. more broadly. While it was clear to disinterested observers that Trump was suggesting a bogus Biden investigation would be one way to even out that reciprocity, the president’s defenders predictably argued that the transcript proved no quid pro quo had in fact taken place.

That talking point suffered some upon the release of a Sept. 1 and Sept. 9 text exchanges in which State Department official Bill Taylor wrote to Gordon Sondland, the U.S.’s ambassador to the European Union, that he understood “security assistance” to Ukraine to be “conditioned” on its willingness to launch “investigations” that would benefit Trump’s chances of reelection. Sondland, in the texts, denied that the president was seeking “quid pro quo’s of any kind.” But over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that Sondland is prepared to testify that this was simply what Trump told him to say and that he did, in fact, know the administration was using its formal leverage to secure the announcement of an investigation into the company that Hunter Biden worked for:

Sondland is expected to say that for months before the Sept. 9 message, he worked at the direction of Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, to secure what he would call in another text message the “deliverable” sought by Trump: a public statement from Ukraine that it would investigate corruption, including mentioning Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, by name. In exchange for the statement, the president would grant Ukraine’s new president a coveted White House audience.

Sondland is apparently going to claim that he had no idea until recently that Hunter Biden worked for Burisma despite the Biden-Burisma connection having been a major story for months earlier this year. “It was a quid pro quo, but not a corrupt one,” the Post quotes a “person familiar with Sondland’s testimony” as saying. (One person who will likely have difficulty convincing the general public that he didn’t know about the Bidens’ link to Burisma is the president, given that he alluded to it during Fox News interviews in both April and May.)

Sondland—who, in happier times, donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural fund—is expected to give a deposition to the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday despite the State Department’s having told him not to. Raise the meter for rats making self-interested decisions on whether to take legal advice from a sinking ship!

The Impeach-O-Meter is set at 90 percent.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo and Lisa Larson-Walker/Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, and Peter Parks-Pool/Getty Images