House Republicans’ latest plan to shield President Trump from impeachment is to focus on at least three deputies — U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, and possibly acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — who they say could have acted on their own to influence Ukraine policy.
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.
The emerging plan to present Sondland as the true mastermind of the Trump administration’s Ukraine scheme, and Trump as an ignorant bystander, is going to run into several massive problems. The first is that any depiction of Sondland as the brains behind the Ukraine scheme is easily disabused by even a casual familiarity with Gordon Sondland. The hotelier and Republican fanboy is clearly very interested in the perks and access associated with his ambassadorship, and has zero record of deep personal investment in proving various right-wing conspiracy theories about Ukraine framing Russia for the 2016 email theft, or Joe Biden’s alleged corruption. Sondland is a pure functionary who could not possibly have taken over authority for Ukraine — from a post, E.U. ambassador, that does not cover Ukraine — without presidential authority.
Second, it relies on the assumption not only that Sondland was acting alone, but so too were several other Trump officials, all in pursuit of the same extortion plot. Mick Mulvaney, who has publicly admitted a quid pro quo, was not following orders from Gordon Sondland when he held up military aid to Ukraine. Mike Pence was not following orders from Sondland when he publicly affirmed that the aid was tied to Ukraine investigating the Bidens.
And Rudy Giuliani spent months carrying out his work in broad daylight. Giuliani has stated repeatedly that his work was undertaken at Trump’s direction (“I don’t do anything that involves my client without speaking with my client.”) He continues to regularly remind the world on Twitter that he is following Trump’s orders and absolutely not working alone.
Then there is the wee fact that Trump actually has revealed his own involvement. In a series of candid remarks to reporters all the way back in September that have somehow fallen down the memory hole, Trump made clear that “corruption” is his code word for “Biden,” and that he did demand investigations of this to Ukraine (“It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”). Then of course there’s the rough transcript of Trump pushing Ukraine’s president to do exactly that.
Trump may be too suspicious to allow his underlings to take notes on his schemes, but he’s also dumb enough to just blurt them out himself. And this points to the greatest risk of the House Republicans’ patsy defense: Trump is very unlikely to go along with it. He cannot tolerate other people taking credit for his decisions, manipulating him in any way, or depicting him as anything other than fully in charge of his own administration. What’s more, he seems unable to grasp the accusation itself. Seeing nothing wrong with using foreign policy for his political ends, he keeps confirming he has demanded investigations of his rivals, and indeed keeps demanding new ones in broad daylight.