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The tower of President Donald Trump's defense on Ukraine is crumbling

Gordon Sondland appears before the House intelligence committee's

Gordon Sondland appears before the House intelligence committee's impeachment inquiry Wednesday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary Credit: The Washington Post/Bill O'Leary

In the last several weeks, President Donald Trump and Republican members of Congress have tried to build a tower of arguments to counter the House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry.

Witness by witness, brick by brick, that tower has started to crumble.

After Wednesday's testimony by European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland, there seems to be little left to defend.

Among the debunked arguments: 

"There is no quid pro quo."  Trump tweet, Nov. 3, 2019

Sondland asserted Wednesday what others have determined: There was a quid pro quo — a promise of a White House meeting in exchange for the announcement of investigations into Ukraine's alleged involvement in the 2016 election, and into Burisma, a Ukraine natural gas company. And he suggested that the natural conclusion is that the release of foreign aid was also part of the deal.

"It happens all the time." — Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff, Oct. 17, 2019

In this argument, a quid pro quo  is not a problem. However, several witnesses, including Sondland and Ambassador William Taylor, made clear that calls for investigating a political opponent in exchange for an official presidential act -- a meeting, or  freeing foreign aid -- are not regular.  

"Dems relying on 2nd/3rd/4th hand hearsay to connect dots not actually connected." —  Rep. Lee Zeldin tweet, Nov. 1, 2019

The early defense that the testimony was hearsay has been overtaken by witnesses with first-hand information, such as Jennifer Williams, a special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, National Security Council expert on Ukraine, who monitored the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. Then there's Sondland, who spoke to Trump, and Kurt Volker, former special envoy to Ukraine, who testified about working with Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. 

“Now with all due respect, ambassador, your clear understanding was obviously wrong, because it didn’t happen.”  — Rep. Jim Jordan, Nov. 13, 2019

Jordan suggested last week to Taylor that since Ukraine eventually got the aid without starting an investigation, there was no wrongdoing. But even if an attempt to offer a bribe failed, just making the attempt would be wrong. And the money was released only after the scheme became public. Worse for the GOP,  Pentagon official Laura Cooper destroyed another line of defense, testifying that Ukraine knew about the stopped aid much earlier than previously thought. 

"Where is the impeachable offense in that call?" — Rep. John Ratcliffe, Nov. 13, 2019

The question of whether there are legitimate grounds for impeachment remains to be answered by the impeachment inquiry. It's not for foreign service officials to answer.

As Sondland's testimony was making a bad day for Trump, the defense changed again. Republicans are saying Trump didn't personally or directly say to Sondland or other witnesses that a public statement or investigation was necessary to release the aid.

There's a simple next step. If Trump did nothing wrong, the White House should respond to congressional subpoenas and release all relevant documents and call transcripts.  If Republicans in Congress want to hear about direct conversations with Trump, then demand that the White House allow testimony from Mulvaney, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Pence, all of whom, Sondland said, were "in the loop."

Only then will we know whether Trump's collapsing tower of defense can withstand winds of impeachment. — The editorial board

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