On Tuesday evening, with public impeachment hearings looming, President Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani attempted to retcon the Ukraine story. In an essay published by the Wall Street Journal, Giuliani attempted to fit an exculpatory narrative into what’s known about how Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into announcing new investigations that would benefit him politically.
Giuliani offered a unique description of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“In particular, Messrs. Zelensky and Trump discussed Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” Giuliani writes. “A Ukrainian court ruled in December last year that the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and Ukrainian lawmaker Serhiy Leshchenko illegally interfered in the 2016 election by releasing documents related to Paul Manafort.” Giuliani goes on to riff on a 2017 Politico article that has become to the Ukraine scandal what Carter Page was to the Russia probe.
Contrast Giuliani’s presentation with what Trump said.
“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike. . . . I guess you have one of your wealthy people. . . . The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said, according to the rough transcript. “There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation.”
What Trump’s talking about is a hollow conspiracy theory centered on the idea that perhaps Russia wasn’t responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s network in 2016. Russia’s culpability is well established, including in a lengthy indictment obtained last year by then-special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. But Trump heard something that suggested maybe Ukraine could be blamed, thereby discrediting Mueller and Trump’s critics, so he raised it with Zelensky.
Remember, Trump has presented the rough transcript as not only error-free but complete. But, according to Giuliani, Trump in the section above was somehow saying that he was concerned about the release of documents related to Manafort?
This is all very Giuliani. For months, he has been operating a hyperactive defense of Trump, conducted most visibly on cable television. (His TV appearances have slowed, however, as the Ukraine scandal has escalated and following the indictment of two of his associates.) Since late September, we’ve gained new insight into the scale of that defense, involving more than a year of cobbling together a shaky theory about how Ukraine has been an impediment to and could be the salvation of his client. And he has done so as explicitly on Trump’s behalf as he was in that Journal essay, where he refers to Trump as his “client.”
There have been murmurs for a week or two that one strategy Republicans might deploy to defend Trump during the impeachment process will be to load Giuliani with as much responsibility for what happened as possible and then push him overboard. “Rudy will be cut loose because he was rogue,” one “uber-connected” Republican told Axios.
The only problem with that strategy, of course, was that Giuliani was very much not rogue. He was so not rogue, in fact, that on the morning that public impeachment hearings are set to begin in the House, he publicly aligned himself with Trump and Trump’s line of thinking, and identified himself as an employee of Trump’s in an essay published in a major American newspaper.
But Trump’s approval of Giuliani’s efforts on Ukraine over the past year extend much further than that. When Giuliani in May publicly explored traveling to Ukraine to try to dig up dirt that could benefit Trump, he insisted to the New York Times that Trump “basically knows what I’m doing, sure, as his lawyer.”
“I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop,” he said. “I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
Giuliani’s effort met with quick condemnation, given his admission that he was leveraging his position as the president’s attorney to try to influence Ukraine to engage in investigations that could benefit his client personally — that client being Trump. Yet Trump offered no critique of Giuliani’s effort. In mid-May, less than a week after Giuliani canceled his trip, Trump publicly echoed one of the central parts of Giuliani’s effort, focused on former vice president Joe Biden.
On May 23, the president hosted several senior officials at the White House, including E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. He expressed frustration about Ukraine, telling the group about “hearing from Rudolph W. Giuliani that they’re aIl corrupt, they’re all terrible people,” according to Volker. Sondland and Volker testified that Trump then tasked the three with leading his efforts on Ukraine — working through Giuliani.
Volker and Giuliani were in contact repeatedly over the summer, with Volker at one point connecting Giuliani to a senior Zelensky aide, Andriy Yermak. When Volker and Sondland worked with Yermak and the Ukrainians to develop a statement publicly announcing the investigations Trump desired, they included Giuliani in doing so and incorporated feedback Giuliani passed along from the president.
“I think Mr. Giuliani was the one giving the input as to what the president wanted in the statement,” Sondland said during his testimony before the House impeachment inquiry. Asked what Giuliani said Trump wanted, Sondland identified the two investigations Trump mentioned in his call with Zelensky.
Even the Ukrainians understood that Giuliani was a conduit to Trump. They knew, Volker testified, that “you could get something to Giuliani, and he would be someone who would be talking to the president anyway, so it would flow information that way.”
At one point, Giuliani even provided a dossier of documents to the State Department including notes from interviews he and his associates (the indicted ones) had conducted with various Ukrainian officials and news stories promoting his theory of the case. The documents came to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an envelope with a return address of “The White House.”
During none of this did Trump distance himself from Giuliani. Numerous people were apparently concerned about Giuliani's efforts, including Volker. Asked during his impeachment inquiry testimony if anyone could have prevented Giuliani from intervening in Ukraine, Volker said that Pompeo would not have been able to do so but that Trump “perhaps” could.
Setting aside the various ways Trump is directly or circumstantially implicated in the effort to pressure Ukraine, it’s clear that Giuliani was acting broadly with Trump’s mandate. His actions were focused on corruption in the same way that Trump’s were in the July 25 call: solely within the constraints of where purported corruption might overlap with Trump’s political whims. On the July 25 call — the rough transcript of which Trump insists that everyone read — Trump tells Zelensky that he’ll put him in contact with two people as Ukraine begins the investigations Trump sought, Attorney General William P. Barr and Rudolph W. Giuliani.
It’s a relationship that can’t be retconned away.