Fall guy: I barely know this "Gordon Sondland" person, says Trump

We’re getting tantalizingly close to the day when someone asks him a question about Giuliani and he replies, “I’ve only met Rudy a few times, you know.”

I’m only half-joking about that. The takeaway from Lindsey Graham’s appearance on Fox on Wednesday night is that Trump and his allies are prepared to make Sondland a fall guy on Ukraine. Graham tried to do that by wondering whether Sondland is coordinating now with Adam Schiff and the Democrats, never mind that he was a major Trump donor during the campaign, the president’s ambassador to the EU, and one of the three key figures in the White House’s Ukraine diplomacy. If getting Trump off the hook means accusing Sondland of conspiring with Democrats and the “deep state” to impeach the president, so be it.

But there’s an easier way to make Sondland the fall guy, one that doesn’t require conspiracies. Simply accuse him of having gone rogue in his Ukraine outreach. It wasn’t Trump who came up with the idea of a quid pro quo involving military aid to convince Zelensky to investigate the Bidens, it was the people to whom he had delegated the Ukraine matter. That means Gordon Sondland. And it means Mick Mulvaney.

And of course it means Rudy Giuliani.

If you think I’m exaggerating the degree to which Sondland and Giuliani might be scapegoated for Trump’s Ukraine policy, read this WaPo story. It’s already happening.

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

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.”…

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…

“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 GOP is effectively offering up the three to be fall guys,” sniffs WaPo. Rudy was the mastermind and our poor president the victim as usual of aides who selfishly refused to look out for his best interests. There are problems with that narrative, though, starting with the fact that Sondland had plenty of direct contact with Trump. (He testified that “he was in touch with Trump far more than he was in touch with Giuliani,” as WaPo puts it.) If it was Giuliani, not Trump, who came up with the dubious idea of using Ukraine’s military aid to get them to cooperate on Burisma, you would think Sondland might have said to Trump at some point, “This okay with you, boss?” He would have been doing Trump a favor by raising the subject if he thought that Rudy had gone rogue and was about to cause the president political trouble with such a controversial unauthorized scheme.

Another obvious problem is that only a select few people would have had the authority to put a hold on Ukraine’s aid and private attorney Rudy Giuliani certainly wasn’t one of those people. Mick Mulvaney, the president’s chief of staff, was. But, er

President Trump told his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to hold back almost $400 million in military aid for Ukraine at least a week before a phone call in which Trump is said to have pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate the son of former vice president Joe Biden, according to three senior administration officials…

Administration officials were instructed to tell lawmakers that the delays were part of an “interagency process” but to give them no additional information — a pattern that continued for nearly two months, until the White House released the funds on the night of Sept. 11.

The “fall guy” narrative requires us to believe that Trump made the quid pro quo possible by creating the leverage needed to squeeze Ukraine on Burisma but that he didn’t realize that that’s what would happen. He withheld the aid for other, still unclear reasons, supposedly. It was the nefarious Mulvaney, Giuliani, and Sondland who seized on the delay in aid to pressure the Ukrainians.

One nice thing for Trump about making Sondland the fall guy, though, is that in a way it’s a no-lose proposition for him. If Sondland remains loyal to him then great. The White House has a willing scapegoat, Trump is off the hook, all’s well. Gordon Sondland can deal with the fallout. If Sondland doesn’t remain loyal to him — if he gets angry that he’s being blamed for something that wasn’t his fault — then that’s fine too. Watching Sondland pull a Michael Cohen by cooperating with the president’s accusers after he’s been thrown under the bus will only strengthen Trump’s pitch to Republican voters that his accusers are all in cahoots with Pelosi’s coup-plotters. “Sondland is working with Schiff now!” Graham’s accusation on Fox News a few nights will have ended up as a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy.

Elsewhere today, Politico is looking ahead to the big impeachment and removal votes to come in the House and Senate, respectively, and wondering which Republicans might will betray Trump. There won’t be many. Anxious Trump aides are reportedly working each other’s nerves with scenarios in which Ben Sasse or Cory Gardner casts a surprise vote to remove but it’s pure nonsense. No Republican who’s on the ballot next fall can risk voting against him, and no Republican wants to be the 50th or 51st vote to remove in the Senate, handing Democrats the talking point that a bipartisan majority of the chamber voted to oust Trump. No more than two GOPers will defect, I think. In the House the calculus is even tougher: Although retiring Rep. Francis Rooney seems like a probable vote to impeach, no one with a future in the party is likely to cross the aisle. Which makes … this one an interesting vote to watch:

A former federal prosecutor who made a name for himself in Washington as Ted Cruz’s original Senate chief of staff, [Rep. Chip] Roy is a true believer who was sharply critical of Trump throughout 2016. When Roy decided to run for Congress in 2018, in fact, he was reminded to scrub his social media of attacks on the president. With so many of his Freedom Caucus colleagues springing to the president’s defense in recent months, Roy’s silence has been a subject of growing concern. Although the freshman congressman hasn’t indicated that he’s prepared to impeach Trump, he hasn’t soothed anxieties by ruling it out, either…

“I have not associated myself with any of the defenses of my colleagues on this issue, because I’m going to make my own assessment and frame it however the facts present themselves,” he says. “I’ve got my own views on this, and I don’t necessarily believe the arguments I’ve heard to date have been the best arguments, because people are just firing on the fly without thinking it through.”

Roy is just 47 years old and well connected in Texas, with ties to Rick Perry and Cruz. He could conceivably succeed Greg Abbott as governor or Cruz or John Cornyn in the Senate. Safe bet: He’ll find a reason to oppose impeachment, albeit not one remotely as dumb as “Uh, maybe Rudy Giuliani did all the bad stuff without Trump knowing.”

Anyway, public hearings are set to begin in the House next week. GOP senators, who’ve spent the past six weeks or so complaining that the hearings should be public, are now more or less unanimously too busy to watch them.

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David Strom 12:30 PM | April 23, 2024