Here is a good indication of how Gordon Sondland’s testimony on Wednesday played out for the president and his defenders:
Moments before Wednesday’s impeachment hearings and right after U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland’s opening statement was released, Fox News contributor Ken Starr wondered aloud whether Sondland flipping on President Trump would cause GOP senators to push Trump to resign. “The real issue is the senators are watching,” Starr said. “Are senators going to now say in light of what we hear today, it’s going to be a long day even with the ambassador alone, in light of what we have heard, ‘We need to make a trip down to the White House’? That historic example set during the Nixon presidency. From what I’ve been able to glean I don’t think that’s going to happen. But obviously what happens today could—has the potential to be a game-changer.”
In his opening statement, Sondland claimed that Trump was seeking a quid pro quo with Ukraine in exchange for investigations into the president’s political rivals, adding that Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani was “expressing the desires” of Trump.
During a break in the hearings a few hours later, Starr was just as emphatic in his belief that this could spell bad news for Trump. Noting that “articles of impeachment are being drawn up if they haven’t already been drawn up” over Sondland’s testimony, Starr concluded by saying “this obviously has been one of those bombshell days.”
Kenneth Starr used to be the main instrument of the far right’s Clinton Derangement Syndrome. At this point, he sounds like just another “Never Trumper.” But it’s getting to be almost impossible to remain in the president’s corner and maintain a straight face.
I think we can all list the many ways in which Republican officeholders find it extremely difficult to criticize the president, let alone vote for his removal from office. But, against that, is what exonerating the president will ultimately entail. At a certain point, the Republicans will be asked to vote, first in the House and thereafter in the Senate. A vote against impeachment or conviction will also be a vote that creates a precedent about what is permissible and what is not permissible in the future.
I think Kenneth Starr is struggling to see how the Republicans can say the president’s behavior is permissible in light of the testimony that has emerged so far, and yet he’s still not willing to predict that the president will be removed. Nonetheless, he sees Wednesday’s testimony from Sondland as potentially game-changing, and the reason is that it stripped the president’s best defenses away and left his defenders sputtering about process and a few spare and parsed interpretations of the president’s denials.
We’re still seeing only the tip of the iceberg with the Republicans. We see and hear from those whom chose to be seen and heard, but the vast majority of Republican officeholders are maintaining their silence. We don’t know how opinion is shifting among them because they have no incentive to advertise their opinions. What we do know is that they cannot be enjoying how things are progressing because they have to leg to stand on in defending the president’s behavior. They need something more solid than complaints about the whistleblower or the process. They really can’t rely on the totally implausible theory that Rudy Giuliani was freelancing and the president was not orchestrating the whole scheme.
They are at the point where acquitting the president requires them to admit the charges against them and then say that they aren’t a serious problem, but that also requires them to say that future administrations don’t have to respond to congressional subpoenas for witnesses and documents. It requires them to say that future administrations can condition military aid on getting phony evidence ginned up by foreign governments against their presidential contenders.
That’s a very heavy price to pay to preserve a dysfunctional and basically disastrous presidency. Are they going to be willing to pay it?