Shift­ing at­ten­tion

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KAROUN DEMIR­JIAN AND RACHAEL BADE karoun.demir­[email protected]­post.com [email protected]­post.com Aaron Davis con­tributed to this re­port.

House Re­pub­li­cans’ plan to shield Trump is to fo­cus on deputies.

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.

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 looselippe­d 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 well­doc­u­mented 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.”

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Act­ing White House chief of staff Mick Mul­vaney is among those who Re­pub­li­cans say may have acted in­de­pen­dently on Ukraine.

AL DRAGO/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Rudolph W. Gi­u­liani is Pres­i­dent Trump’s lawyer, but Re­pub­li­cans are try­ing to ar­gue he wasn’t co­or­di­nat­ing his ac­tions with Trump.

AL DRAGO/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Gor­don Sond­land, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the Euro­pean Union, “made a pre­sump­tion” in Ukraine talks, Rep. Jim Jor­dan claimed.

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