The Slatest

Trump and Rudy Are Helpfully Identifying a Lot of Good Witnesses for the Impeachment Hearings

Giuliani points at Trump as Trump frowns. Both men are indoors at one of Trump's golf clubs and wearing suits.
Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani in Bedminster Township, New Jersey, in 2016. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Right now, House Democrats have a lot of things they need to figure out about how to carry out impeachment proceedings. Should upcoming hearings, and the eventual articles of impeachment the hearings produce, cover other subjects (tax returns, federal spending at Trump properties, etc.) besides Donald Trump’s Rudy Giuliani–abetted efforts to browbeat/extort Ukraine’s president into investigating Joe Biden? How much more time should be taken investigating the Ukraine case itself given that Trump essentially already handed over a confession when he released the White House’s notes on his call with Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday?

In a Thursday piece for GQ, former Democratic Senate aide Adam Jentleson—he worked for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and frequently criticizes current caucus leaders for passivity—makes a case not to drop the other investigations, but to return to them later after a Ukraine-specific blitz that will force Republicans to talk about the quite incriminating facts of this particular case, rather than the as-yet-hazier issues involved in other inquiries. As to the scope of the Ukraine investigation, he writes, “the length of the hearings … should be determined by a simple test: Are we driving the news? Do we have control of the narrative? If so, keep going. If not, wrap it up and vote.”

Luckily for the Democrats, two key figures in the case have already been telling them exactly which potential avenues of investigation should be most narratively fruitful: Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani. Both the president and his personal lawyer have been behaving for months in a way that could not have been more effective in identifying co-conspirators and disgruntled potential witnesses—and in generally exposing the existence and purposes of their scheme—if they’d done it on purpose.

• First, in April, Giuliani said on Fox News that he wanted Attorney General William Barr to look into Biden’s history with Ukraine and into something Ukraine-related that is connected to the 2016 Democratic National Committee email hack in a way that is only comprehensible to truly devoted right-wing conspiracy theorists. Then, in May, he out and told the New York Times that he was going to Ukraine to try to hassle the government there into investigating those two subjects.

• In May and June, Trump brought up both Biden/Ukraine and the email conspiracy theory in Fox News interviews, suggesting that he was aware of Giuliani’s work.

• At about the same time, the White House abruptly removed the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch; the whistleblower complaint says Giuliani told a Ukrainian journalist in May that Yovanovitch was “part of the efforts against [Trump],” which would suggest she knew about and objected to Giuliani’s shenanigans. (I haven’t been able to confirm the quote, but given that the whistleblower is reportedly a CIA officer, it’s possible he was reviewing material published in Ukraine that can’t be found with English-language web searches.)

• This period was also when Trump told Mike Pence not to attend Zelensky’s inauguration—thus roping Pence into the story as well—apparently because he didn’t want to give the new president a sign of respect until he knew if he would play ball on Biden.

Then there was the July phone call with Zelensky itself, in which Trump explicitly endorsed Giuliani’s efforts, told Zelensky that Barr was involved too, and again highlighted Yovanovitch, referring to her as “bad news.” Incredibly, reporting suggests that Trump thought releasing the White House’s summary of this phone call would be exculpatory.

In the days since the release, the president and the former mayor have continued to volunteer that others might have known about what they were up to. Trump told reporters that Pence had made phone calls to Ukrainian leaders, while Giuliani appeared on Fox to show text messages that he says prove that a State Department official named Kurt Volker was aware of his work in the country.

The finger-pointing is spreading, presumably because others in the administration are watching Trump and Giuliani blaming everyone in sight and figuring they ought to start passing the buck before they get blamed too. A “White House official” told CNN that National Security Council attorneys were responsible for filing the Zelensky call summary in a secret system in which the whistleblower complaint says it didn’t belong; a State Department official told Politico that it was “impossible to believe that the secretary [Mike Pompeo] wasn’t aware of what was happening” regarding Ukraine.

Typically, in an investigation of an organized crime scheme, you “flip” low-ranking participants in order to get them to “rat” on their bosses. In this case, though, the rats appear to be the ones at the top.