Republicans claim that two private remarks by President Donald Trump clear him of wrongdoing in the Ukraine scandal. The first remark, supposedly made on Aug. 31 to Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, was that Trump would “never” require Ukraine to do anything for him in order to get military aid he had suspended. The second remark, made on Sept.
7 or Sept. 9 to Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was that Trump wanted “nothing” from Ukraine. These two statements, according to Republicans, prove that Trump didn’t withhold the aid or a White House meeting as leverage to extract favors—specifically, investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats—from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
But now it turns out that by the time Trump spoke to Johnson, the president already knew he was under investigation for extorting Zelensky. This discovery, reported on Tuesday night by the New York Times, inverts the meaning of Trump’s statements to Johnson and Sondland. Trump wasn’t telling the truth. He was launching his cover story.
Trump has been peddling the “no quid pro quo” line in public since late September, when he disclosed a rough transcript of his July 25 call with Zelensky. A week later, on Oct. 3, the House of Representatives released text messages that had been exchanged between Sondland and Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. In a message dated Sept. 9, Taylor had warned Sondland that it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Five hours later, Sondland had written back: “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.”
Trump cited these texts as proof of his innocence. On Oct. 4, the morning after they were released, he boasted to reporters that Sondland “said there was no quid pro quo. That’s the whole ballgame.”
That evening, the president got more ammunition. In a Wall Street Journal interview, Johnson said that on Aug. 31, he had called Trump to find out whether the aid was being withheld as leverage to get something from Ukraine. According to Johnson, Trump had replied with an expletive and said, “No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?” Johnson had answered that he’d heard it from Sondland. According to Johnson, Trump signaled that the aid would soon be released, telling the senator, “You’ll probably be happy with my decision.”
Johnson claimed that his story substantiated Trump’s innocence. It showed that on Aug. 31—well before House Democrats were alerted to a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s alleged extortion of Ukraine—Trump had dismissed the idea. “When I asked the president about that, he completely denied it,” Johnson recalled on Meet the Press. “He vehemently, angrily denied it. He said, ‘I’d never do that.’ ”
On Oct. 17, Sondland further bolstered the president’s defense. In a deposition before the House Intelligence Committee, he testified that before writing his “no quid pro quo” text on Sept. 9, he had called Trump directly to find out why the aid was being withheld. “I asked the president, ‘What do you want from Ukraine?’ ” Sondland told the committee. “The president responded, ‘Nothing. There is no quid pro.’ ” Sondland claimed that Trump had told him, “I want nothing. I don’t want to give them anything, and I don’t want anything from them.” He recalled that Trump “kept repeating ‘no quid pro quo’ over and over again.”
Last week, at an open hearing of the Intelligence Committee, Republicans seized on Sondland’s story. Nine times, they repeated the two sterling quotes: “No quid pro quo” and “I want nothing.” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, Trump’s point man on the committee, declared that these words were “the best direct evidence we have” of the president’s intent.
Democrats pointed out that if Trump’s statement to Sondland took place on Sept. 9, that was the same day the House had learned of the whistleblower complaint and announced an investigation of the Ukraine scandal. They suggested that “No quid pro quo” and “I want nothing” might have been attempts by the president to deny what he had just been caught doing. But Steve Castor, the Intelligence Committee’s Republican counsel, noted that Trump’s remarks to Johnson preceded the House investigation. Castor quoted from a Nov. 18 letter in which Johnson elaborated on his story about the call. “I asked [Trump] whether there was some kind of arrangement where Ukraine would take some action and the hold would be lifted,” said Castor, reading from the letter. “Without hesitation, President Trump immediately denied such an arrangement existed.”
Castor held up Johnson’s letter as evidence of Trump’s sincerity. “Sen. Johnson’s telephone call with the president wasn’t a public event,” said Castor. “It was capturing a genuine, you know, moment with the president.” According to Castor, the letter demonstrated that “even on Aug. 31—and this is before any congressional investigation started—the president was signaling to Sen. Johnson that he was going to lift the aid.”
Tuesday night’s Times story guts this narrative. It shows that in late August, days before Trump’s call with Johnson, White House lawyers told the president about the whistleblower complaint. The lawyers did so, according to the article, in order “to determine whether they were legally required to give [the complaint] to Congress.” To reach that determination, they would have had to tell Trump at least the gist of the complaint. And the gist, according to the complaint’s opening paragraph, was that Trump was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election” by “pressuring [Ukraine] to investigate one of the President’s main domestic political rivals.”
This revelation flips the meaning of what Trump told Johnson and Sondland. He knew exactly what he needed to say, and he said it. No quid pro quo. I want nothing. I would never do that.
At face value, Trump’s statements to Johnson and Sondland never made sense. Why would he say “I want nothing” while simultaneously demanding that Zelensky “go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations” of Biden and the Democrats? Why would he deny wanting anything from Zelensky after asking the Ukrainian president, in the July 25 call, for the investigations as “a favor”? And why would Trump introduce the lawyerly Latin phrase “quid pro quo,” which neither Johnson nor Sondland had used? California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee, has noted the oddity of Trump’s words. Saying “There’s no quid pro quo” in response to vague queries, Swalwell observed last week, is “like being pulled over for speeding … and saying, ‘I didn’t rob the bank. I didn’t rob the bank.’ ”
Once you understand that Trump knew about the whistleblower complaint, everything falls into place. The real story was the extortion. The fake story was what Trump told Johnson and Sondland. By then, the cover-up was underway. After telling Trump about the complaint, White House lawyers decided, according to the Times, “that the administration could withhold from Congress the whistle-blower’s accusations because they were protected by executive privilege.” And Trump needed to snuff out any leads. So when Johnson asked Trump whether the aid was being held up to get something from Ukraine, Trump asked what any crook would ask: “Who told you that?”
Jordan is right: Trump’s words to Johnson and Sondland are clear evidence of his intent. His intent was to cover up his crimes.