Washington • A big donor to President Donald Trump, whom Trump later named the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified Wednesday that he believed there was a “quid pro quo” demand from the White House for Ukraine to announce investigations into political rivals to gain much-needed military aid and a meeting with Trump.
“Everyone knew it” at the top levels of the Trump White House, Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified Wednesday.
House Democrats seized on the testimony as proof that those trying to get Ukraine leaders to look for dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden were acting at the direction of Trump.
“It was the conditioning of official acts to something of great value to the president,” declared House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. “The veneer has been torn away."
The Utah Republican was unwavering in his defense of the president after hours of testimony by Sondland that seemed to undermine the GOP narrative that the president did nothing wrong.
Stewart said that Trump’s denial of leveraging any military aid, combined with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s statement that he never felt threatened, meant there is no evidence of extortion.
“The American people aren’t stupid,” Stewart said. “And the American people can hear that and they can say, ‘I don’t think [Zelenskiy] was under duress. I don’t think he was being extorted. I don’t think there was an exchange of a bribe.’”
Stewart, like his lockstep GOP colleagues, has relished his role as a defender of the president and vented Wednesday that the whole impeachment process is a continuation of Trump critics trying to oust the man they didn’t think would win the White House.
He also charged it was a step beyond typical politics.
“The American people expect a lot of things out of politics: arguments, protests. We certainly see that clash of principles and ideas, I think, sometimes,” Stewart said. “Eventually, they actually would like to see some compromise. But I think something they expect above everything else, fundamentally they expect that there is a sense of fairness about it.”
Stewart compared the current impeachment inquiry — which centers on the president’s actions regarding Ukraine and his refusal to produce documents or allow witnesses to testify — to the multiple probes into whether Trump’s team played a hand in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
“Now you can see a lot about the treatment of President Trump over the last few years. But I think one thing you cannot argue is that it has been fair,” Stewart said. “There were those calling for his impeachment literally before he was inaugurated. For 2½ years, we were told every single day he has betrayed our country. He is a Russian asset. He has committed treason — accusations that we know now are not true and for which we never had any evidence to support.”
The Utah lawmaker said Democrats initially focused on proving there was a quid pro quo demanded by Trump but are now using the words “bribery” and “extortion,” the latter of which Stewart said he had to look up to understand its full meaning.
“I'm not an attorney,” Stewart said. “Extortion sounds pretty scary. Kind of serious. I had to look it up what it means. It means obtaining money or property by threat to a victim's property or loved ones.”
Federal law describes it a bit differently.
“Extortion means an offense that has as its elements the extraction of anything of value from another person by threatening or placing that person in fear of injury to any person or kidnapping of any person,” according to the U.S. criminal code.
After Sondland’s testimony, Republicans used their time to question him to try to show that he was never directly told by Trump or his associates to seek a quid pro quo, and that Trump had specifically said he didn’t want one.
After reading comments by Trump and Zelenskiy denying any quid pro quo or extortion, Stewart asked Sondland if he thought that clears it up.
“I really think that’s for the committee and the Congress to —” Sondland replied before Stewart cut him off.
“Well, you know what? Mr. Ambassador, it's really for the American people,” Stewart interjected.
“I agree,” the ambassador said.