ANALYSIS:

Ever since former US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker handed over those text messages, President Donald Trump's defenders have pointed to one of them as supposedly exonerating Trump. "Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions," Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told another diplomat. "The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo's (sic) of any kind."

This text has been a linchpin of the Trump Ukraine defense. But on Saturday night, the linchpin broke.

Trump and his defenders have hailed Sondland's text as being dispositive. Photo / AP
Trump and his defenders have hailed Sondland's text as being dispositive. Photo / AP

The Washington Post's Aaron C. Davis and John Hudson reported that a source close to Sondland says he will tell Congress in a deposition this week that there was some kind a quid pro quo, "but not a corrupt one."

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Sondland will also indicate that he was merely relaying Trump's defense, which he had discussed with the president on a phone call before the text message:

This is remarkable stuff, especially considering that Sondland, unlike the two diplomats he was conversing with in those text messages, was a big-time Trump donor. He was also the only one of the three who hadn't suggested there was a quid pro quo. (Volker suggested it involved a meeting with Zelensky, while the U.S. chargé d'affaires in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, suggested it involved hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid that was being withheld.)

Trump and his defenders have hailed Sondland's text as being dispositive. Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, in a column promoted by Trump on Friday, accused the mainstream media of ignoring the important text and said Sondland had "shut down" the claim of a quid pro quo. Trump himself tweeted the quote, saying "That says it ALL!"

Of course, the idea that Trump's defence would ever rest on that quote was folly from the beginning. As soon as the texts were released, pretty much anybody who understands how these things work viewed Sondland's text as a very lawyered-sounding expression of the party line. It seemed to be exactly the kind of thing intended for public consumption if these texts ever became part of an investigation. And his suggestion that they take the conversation off text messages - and perhaps to a medium with no paper trail - also indicated that he knew something problematic was taking place.

It turns out that appearance didn't lie. That's pretty much exactly what happened.

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The implosion of this particular Trump defense epitomises the broader problem his supporters have here. The vast majority of Republicans have been unwilling to go to bat for Trump, avoiding the questions or deflecting them and talking about something else (like about how there really is corruption in Ukraine). That's largely because they have little faith that something more incriminating won't eventually come out, making their defenses look silly. Trump and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, simply don't appear to have taken much care to avoid at least the appearance of soliciting foreign influence on an American election.

The other quote Trump and his defenders often point to is from Zelensky, who said he didn't feel pressured in that July 25 phone call with Trump. Much like Sondland, though, Zelensky has an interest in downplaying anything corrupt, because Ukraine relies on the United States. Zelensky can't just come out and accuse Trump of doing something wrong. He also has a personal interest in not looking like Trump's stooge, which he was at risk of after the rough transcript showed him apparently acceding to Trump's requests to launch certain investigations.

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The fact that these statements are at the core of the Trump defense shows just how little they are working with at this point. It's simply difficult to argue that Trump didn't, at the very least, toy with a quid pro quo, even if it might have been implicit.

On Twitter, Trump indicated that he "would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify."

It sounds as if that may not be the case anymore. Sondland's impending testimony sounds like that of a man covering his own backside and knowing his apparent defence of Trump could quickly fall apart upon further examination.