The distinct lack of vouching is a reflection of where Republicans and administration officials find themselves in this fast-evolving scandal. As I’ve written before, it’s not so much that they aren’t able to defend Trump against the evidence as it’s currently constituted; it’s that they appear to have little faith that it won’t get worse before it gets better. They worry about the defenses they throw up now quickly looking foolish.
And they have plenty of reason to feel that way, because it has already happened. Republicans had planted a flag in the “no quid pro quo” defense, only to have Mulvaney set fire to that particular argument on Thursday. Mulvaney admitted that military aid to Ukraine was withheld in part because Ukraine didn’t investigate a conspiracy theory about the Russia investigation that Trump favors. And if Trump was willing to say the things he said to Ukraine’s president on that call the day after Robert S. Mueller III testified about Trump’s ties to another foreign election interference effort, who is to say how bold he might have been?
Giuliani, in particular, has proved particularly brazen in all this. As the New York Times reported Friday, even as the controversy over his work for foreign clients has built and as two Giuliani associates with ties to Ukraine have been indicted, Giuliani has continued pressing forward on his work with such clients. He has also doubled down on all of this, even after he was forced to cancel a planned Ukraine trip in May because of the backlash. Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said it well recently: “No, no, no, no. I can’t speak for Mr. Giuliani. He’s wild as a March hare.”
But while Trump and Giuliani have proved unwieldy commodities for the past couple of years, Mulvaney’s turn at getting the cold shoulder and suspicious glances is particularly telling. As Philip Bump wrote last week, the acting chief of staff seems to be one of two central characters here, along with Giuliani, and his sloppy performance on Thursday and his willingness to defend the politicization of military aid have to make those around him wonder how much of a blind spot he had.
There is also a not-insignificant chance that if things go badly, Giuliani and, potentially, Mulvaney could be made to take the fall for it. It’s difficult to separate all of this from Trump personally, given the phone call with Ukraine’s president and given that Sondland said Trump explicitly directed top officials to work with Giuliani. But it’s not difficult to see Trump backers, if this does get bad, trying to portray Giuliani and even Mulvaney as rogue actors going outside their mandate. Better to do that, after all, than pin the blame on Trump himself.
Of course, the mere fact that people seem to be making that kind of calculation shows how worried they are.