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.
Since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) initiated the impeachment inquiry Sept. 24, congressional Republicans have struggled to come up with a consistent and coherent explanation for why Trump tried to coerce a foreign leader to investigate the president’s domestic political rivals.
Their evolving strategy comes as House Democrats settle on their argument that Trump tried to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to undertake two politically advantageous investigations as a precondition for U.S. military aid and a White House meeting between the two heads of state.
By raising questions about the motivation of Trump’s top lieutenants on Ukraine policy, the GOP hopes to undermine the reliability of otherwise incriminating testimony from several current Trump administration officials.
William B. Taylor, currently the top diplomat in Ukraine, and National Security Council expert Tim Morrison told lawmakers they learned through Sondland that U.S. military aid to Ukraine was being leveraged to secure the probes.
Sondland “made a presumption,” House Oversight Committee member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told reporters, stressing that “what Sondland was told by the president ... [is] there was no quid pro quo.”
Republicans, however, face several potential problems if they try to pin a quid pro quo on Sondland alone.
Sondland testified that he was “assuming” Giuliani was speaking for Trump when he said the president wanted Zelensky to investigate the Ukrainian energy company Burisma — which gave Joe Biden’s son Hunter a job on its board when the elder Biden was U.S. vice president — and also to pursue a debunked conspiracy theory about Ukraine’s interfering in the 2016 U.S. election.
“All the communication flowed through Rudy Giuliani, and I can only speculate that the president was instructing his personal lawyer accordingly,” Sondland said, according to a transcript of his deposition.
But while Giuliani is Trump’s personal lawyer, GOP lawmakers appear to think they can argue he was not coordinating his actions with the president.
“There is no direct linkage to the president of the United States,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told reporters this week, contending that while lawyers normally coordinate with their clients, Giuliani is a special case. “There are a whole lot of things that he does that he doesn’t apprise anybody of.”
The White House and a lawyer for Sondland declined to comment.
The suggestion that Sondland, Giuliani and possibly Mulvaney made demands of Ukrainians without Trump’s explicit blessing has emerged among several theories that Republicans have offered in Trump’s defense, as witnesses testify that they believed Ukraine was being squeezed.
In a sign of how the GOP is scrambling, however, many of those theories run counter to each other.
In the past few days, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has said it doesn’t matter whether Trump made a quid pro quo demand because he didn’t have “criminal intent.” Sens. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) have argued, as Mulvaney did from a White House lectern last month, that such exchanges happen “all the time” in foreign policy and are not a serious offense, let alone impeachable.
And Trump ally Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has floated yet another defense, suggesting Trump’s Ukraine policy was too “incoherent” for officials to successfully execute anything as calculated as a quid pro quo arrangement.
“What I can tell you about the Trump policy toward Ukraine: It was incoherent, it depends on who you talk to, they seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo,” he said.
Much of the GOP’s frustration in recent days has focused on Sondland, who amended his original testimony after Taylor and Morrison spoke to House impeachment investigators. Sondland said he did in fact recall telling Ukrainian officials that the release of military aid would be contingent on Kyiv’s opening investigations Trump wanted.
Both Taylor and Morrison testified that Sondland told them that Trump had asked Sondland to leverage a head-of-state meeting that Zelensky greatly desired, using it to get the two investigations activated, and that the military aid also would be contingent on the investigations taking place. But Sondland, who told investigators that he was in touch with Trump far more than he was in touch with Giuliani, testified that he never heard directly from Trump on those issues, a contradiction that witnesses have yet to clear up.
“During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukraine interference in the 2016 U.S. election,” Taylor testified. “He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky in a box by making a public statement about ordering such investigation.”
Taylor said that during another conversation a few days later, Sondland said “he had talked to President Trump,” who was “adamant that President Zelensky himself had to clear things up and do it in public.”
Morrison, who defended Trump’s actions to investigators, said that he wondered at the time whether Sondland was freelancing when he informed him about the apparent quid pro quo on Sept. 1, 2019.
“Even then I hoped that Ambassador Sondland’s strategy was exclusively his own and would not be considered by leaders in the administration and Congress, who understood the strategic importance of Ukraine to our national security,” he said.
Sondland told lawmakers that his understanding was based on conversations with Giuliani, whom Trump had already told him he should listen to on Ukraine matters.
“It must have been Giuliani, because I wasn’t talking to the president about it,” Sondland said, according to a transcript of his testimony, later adding: “I heard that from Rudy Giuliani. I never heard it from the president. I am assuming Rudy Giuliani heard it from the president, but I don’t know that.”
That puts Giuliani back in the spotlight — and potentially in the crosshairs of Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Giuliani’s freewheeling approach to representing Trump has frequently perplexed Republicans, who are frustrated by the former New York mayor’s loose-lipped media appearances, in which he has pushed conspiracy theories about Ukraine and even admitted that he directly asked Ukrainian officials to investigate the Bidens. Republicans also point to Giuliani’s business interests in Ukraine as reasons to think he may have been motivated by personal gain, and not his oft-claimed loyalty to Trump, as he ran what amounted to a shadow policy on Kyiv.
Giuliani and Sondland are not the only people that Republicans argue can take the heat off Trump. Some congressional Republicans have suggested that Mulvaney was simply exercising his own well-documented penchant for cutting foreign aid when he effectively admitted in an Oct. 17 news conference that the administration had withheld U.S. aid to Ukraine to secure investigations that could help the president politically.
House Democrats consider Mulvaney’s comments during that news conference — remarks that Mulvaney later tried to walk back — to be a central piece of evidence in their impeachment case against Trump.
Several witnesses have cited Mulvaney’s quiet but central role convening meetings in which pivotal decisions about Ukraine policy were made. Multiple U.S. officials have observed that Sondland appeared to have a close relationship with Mulvaney, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent testified that Sondland exploited his ties to Mulvaney to secure audiences with Trump about Ukraine policy.
But Sondland denied to investigators that he and the acting White House chief of staff ever substantively discussed the alleged quid pro quo.
“I don’t recall ever having a conversation with Mr. Mulvaney” about withholding a meeting with Zelensky until Ukraine committed to the investigations, Sondland testified. “I’ve had very, very few conversations with Mr. Mulvaney. I wanted to have more, but he was never available.”
Aaron Davis contributed to this report.