the national interest

New GOP Ukraine Defense: Trump Was Just a Patsy for Sondland

“President” Donald trump Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Washington Post reports House Republicans are formulating a new impeachment defense of President Trump. Rather than deny that the extortion scheme took place, or defend the extortion as a legitimate exercise in foreign policy, they plan to make the case that his deputies “could have acted on their own to influence Ukraine policy.” So the whole scheme was going on right under Trump’s nose, without his knowledge or participation?

This line of defense’s advantage, such as it is, is the relative dearth of direct evidence of Trump’s orders to his subordinates. “There is no direct linkage to the president of the United States,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) told reporters.

It is true that the president has developed a lifelong aversion, honed through years of directing shady and outright criminal schemes, to any of his advisers taking notes in a meeting with him. Several accounts have depicted Trump lashing out at lawyers for taking notes, and insisting that Roy Cohn — an attorney Trump shared with several leading Mafia dons — never took notes. The new book by an anonymous senior Trump official has another scene of the president berating an aide: “Are you [expletive] taking notes?”

And so, while European Union envoy Gordon Sondland has testified that Trump directed him to withhold diplomatic favors from Ukraine to compel investigations of Trump’s domestic enemies, he has no physical evidence. That makes it Sondland’s word against Trump’s. And Trump can then run his usual play of denying everything, calling Sondland a Never Trumper — any person who opposes Trump is either a Democrat or, by Trump’s definition, a Never Trumper — who is bitter and resentful.

Yet 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.

At the risk of over-relying on Simpsons references, the ploy of pinning everything on Sondland is reminiscent of Bart Simpson getting a job working for the Mafia, only for them to tell the court that Bart was the family don:

Photo: FOX

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.

If House Republicans have already reached such a state of desperation as to absolve Trump from the policies of the Trump administration, one can only wonder where the defenses will go from here. Maybe Trump doesn’t actually exist and is the character of “Trump” is a Tony Clifton–style hoax. Maybe the whole Ukraine thing was just a dream!

New GOP Ukraine Defense: Trump Was Just a Patsy for Sondland