But this argument requires one to pretend that numerous widely documented facts simply don’t exist — including repeated public statements by the president himself.
Which points to a morbidly amusing perversity about this new turn in the Ukraine saga: Republicans are now blaming Donald Trump’s underlings for taking their cues on how to respond to this scandal from none other than Donald Trump.
All three occupy a special place in the Ukraine narrative as the people in most direct contact with Trump. As Republicans argue that most of the testimony against Trump is based on faulty secondhand information, they are sowing doubts about whether Sondland, Giuliani and Mulvaney were actually representing the president or freelancing to pursue their own agendas. The GOP is effectively offering up the three to be fall guys.
To discredit Sondland — who has now admitted he directly told a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the military aid was conditional on announcing the “investigations” Trump wanted — Republicans are pointing out that Sondland carefully said he “presumed” this to be the case.
But Sondland has repeatedly and explicitly testified that he was acting at the direction of Giuliani, with whom he conversed regularly throughout this affair — and, crucially, that Giuliani was carrying out Trump’s wishes. As Sondland put it: “Until Rudy was satisfied, the president wasn’t going to change his mind.”
What’s more, Giuliani and Trump have publicly been entirely clear, going back months, on what Trump wanted: Ukraine had to launch investigations that would validate the conspiracy theory absolving Russia of sabotaging the 2016 election for Trump and smear Joe Biden in advance of 2020.
And Giuliani himself spent months publicly carrying out the whole scheme, repeatedly saying he was acting in the interests in and at the direction of his “client,” that is, Trump.
So how will Republicans get around that niggling difficulty? By arguing that Giuliani, too, was freelancing. As Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) put it: “There are a whole lot of things that he does that he doesn’t apprise anybody of.”
Trump told Zelensky: Speak to Rudy
Here’s the problem, however: Trump himself flatly stated that Giuliani was his point man in carrying out his wishes with regard to Ukraine. On the July 25 call, right after Zelensky said Ukraine needs U.S. military help, Trump said, “I would like you to do us a favor though.”
Trump then explicitly demanded Ukraine investigate the 2016 conspiracy theory and the Bidens. After some back-and-forth, Trump praised Giuliani effusively.
“I will ask him to call you,” Trump said. “Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great.”
Trump added: “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call.”
So, in Trump’s own words as captured in a White House document, after Zelensky requested military help, Trump directly pressured Zelensky to carry out his political dirty deeds, and repeatedly told Zelensky that Giuliani was his henchman for getting it done.
Republicans will argue that the final act of withholding the military aid to pressure Ukraine can’t be tied directly to Trump. But this requires one to believe something that’s spectacularly implausible.
Note first that Trump himself suspended the aid a week before his call with Zelensky. What’s more, it’s not in serious dispute (Sondland directly copped to this) that Trump conditioned the White House meeting with Zelensky — another thing Ukraine badly wanted — on carrying out the “investigations” Trump wanted.
So we’re now supposed to believe that after dangling the White House meeting to leverage those investigations, Trump suddenly didn’t intend to use the frozen military aid for the same purpose, at precisely the moment he was maximizing his leverage over Zelensky?
And we’re supposed to believe that Giuliani, having carried out this scheme at Trump’s direction all throughout — again, by Trump’s own admission — suddenly freelanced via Sondland the most spectacularly corrupt act of this whole scheme, even though Trump is the one who froze the aid under still-unexplained circumstances?
Mulvaney is the most hapless of all
One last point: Trump himself has told reporters to their faces that there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with any of this. Trump has said withholding the money to force Ukraine to fight “corruption” was absolutely correct, and he’s also flatly said that he damn well did want Ukraine to “start a major investigation into the Bidens,” thus admitting this is what he truly wanted, not an investigation of generic “corruption.”
In so doing, Trump seemed to be signaling to Republicans that they should unabashedly defend what Trump actually did do as absolutely fine.
Now Republicans are tossing Mulvaney overboard for defending Trump more or less just as shamelessly as Trump himself had done, and they’re tossing Giuliani overboard for implementing the plot that Trump himself advertised. It all couldn’t be happening to a bunch of nicer henchmen.