Not a great soundbite, which isn’t to say that it can’t be or won’t be spun as irrelevant.
But this line of questioning is dangerous to Trump insofar as it cuts right to the GOP’s main remaining factual defense of the president. No one except Trump himself is arguing at this point that there was no quid pro quo. The defense congressional Republicans are settling on is that there was a quid pro quo but that it was perfectly justified. The president has the power, even a duty, to bargain with foreign countries for concessions that advance America’s public interest. That’s all he was doing in this case, pressing Ukraine to investigate possible corruption by a former vice president of the United States on behalf of his son Hunter.
Hence Val Demings’s question to Bill Taylor and George Kent in the clip below: Based on what you know of Rudy Giuliani’s activities in Ukraine on Trump’s behalf, is that what Rudy was after — promoting the national interest? Or was he just trying to take out Trump’s political rival, the Democratic frontrunner? Because that would be the sort of illicit personal purpose that would make this impeachable. Trump would be using taxpayer money to not just obtain oppo research on an opponent but to generate it.
No hesitation here from Kent and Taylor.
Rep. Demings: “Was Mr. Giuliani promoting US national interests or policy in Ukraine?”
Taylor: “I don’t think so, ma’am.”
Kent: “No, he was not.”
Demings: What interests was he promoting?
Kent: I believe he was looking to dig up political dirt against a potential rival. pic.twitter.com/R4LchphJYW
— NBC News (@NBCNews) November 13, 2019
Makes sense. Giuliani hasn’t been shy about telling people that his core goal in Ukraine was advancing his client’s personal interest. Why else would Trump use his personal attorney as a liaison to Ukraine instead of official diplomatic channels, right? He has career bureaucrats like Taylor and Kent to negotiate with foreign countries over policy interests. For personal interests — which even Giuliani recognized might be “improper” in this context — you send in a crony, the sort of guy who won’t readily sit down before a House committee and make your life harder.
There are two ways to dismiss the response from Kent and Taylor. One: Even if it’s true that Rudy was looking to dig up dirt on the Bidens to help Trump’s reelection, that doesn’t mean Trump knew what he was doing. Maybe the president really did have a public interest in mind and Giuliani was simply a bit more cutthroat in his intentions. Rudy’s the fall guy, the one who behaved improperly. There’s nothing on Trump. Two: Who cares what Kent and Taylor *thought* Giuliani’s intentions were? This is speculation! Nearly all of the information in their testimony today was secondhand. If they don’t have direct evidence of Rudy’s motives, let alone Trump’s, then this is nothing more than “interesting” informed guesswork from two people who were close to the action. But it’s not the sort of stuff you remove presidents over.
I agree with that point, but with two caveats. First, if Kent and Taylor were under this impression about Giuliani’s motive, there’s a fair chance that Gordon Sondland was under the same impression. And Sondland was in direct contact with Rudy and Trump. If he ends up testifying that he has reason to believe Trump and Rudy were looking to take down Joe Biden ahead of the election, that’s going to make this mess much stickier for Republicans. Kent and Taylor can be waved away; Sondland, the middleman in all this, can’t be. Second, it’s hard to have much sympathy for the argument that Kent and Taylor are spewing pure hearsay when many of the key witnesses who’d be able to shed light on what Trump did or didn’t know are being bottled up by the White House on “absolute privilege” grounds. You think Trump had only the best intentions in sniffing around the Bidens and Burisma? No problem, then: Send down John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney to testify and we can wrap this up in a day. Rudy too, assuming he doesn’t try to assert attorney-client privilege.
In reality, Trump’s advisors are reportedly urging him not to fire Mulvaney despite the president’s annoyance at him because it would increase the risk of Mulvaney testifying. If he cans Mulvaney, Mulvaney ends up in the same position as Bolton, a disgruntled former employee who’s gone to court for judicial guidance on whether he’s obliged to comply with a Democratic subpoena or not. The White House strategy is to keep as many direct witnesses away from the witness table as it can. I wonder why.