Politics

The GOP’s Ukraine Report Incriminates Trump

He gave his personal lawyer the power to extort a foreign government.

Rudy Giuliani speaks briefly with the media on his way out of the lobby of Trump Tower on Nov. 11, 2016, in New York City.
Rudy Giuliani speaks briefly with the media on his way out of the lobby of Trump Tower on Nov. 11, 2016, in New York City.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Monday, House Republicans issued a report on the Ukraine impeachment inquiry. Their summary—a preemptive counternarrative to the Democratic analysis released on Tuesday—purports to exonerate President Donald Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. But the evidence outlined in the Republican report incriminates both men. It shows that Giuliani, operating under Trump’s authority, pressed Ukraine to serve Trump’s personal interests rather than the interests of the United States.

The GOP report relies on technicalities. It points out that Giuliani and his principal contact in the State Department, special envoy Kurt Volker, have denied that Giuliani had an official role. “[I]n my conversations with Mayor Giuliani, I never considered him to be speaking on the president’s behalf, or giving instructions,” Volker testified. The envoy said he “made clear to the Ukrainians on a number of occasions that Mayor Giuliani is a private citizen and the President’s personal lawyer and that he does not represent the United States Government.”

But the meat of the report unintentionally shows that these technical distinctions were a sham. At a May 23 White House meeting, Trump told U.S. officials that if they had a problem with his hostile view of Ukraine, they should—in the words of multiple witnesses—“talk to Rudy.” Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, has testified that he took this statement from the president as a “direction.”

The report notes that Volker said he didn’t regard Trump’s words as an order. But in practice, Volker, like Sondland, learned to treat Giuliani as the power behind the throne. Volker testified that he “became concerned that a negative narrative about Ukraine,” through Giuliani, “was reaching the president.” The report cites this testimony and acknowledges that Volker relayed his concern to Andriy Yermak, an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. On July 3, according to Volker’s deposition, he directly warned Zelensky about “this negative narrative about Ukraine that Mr. Giuliani seemed to be furthering with the President.”

The Republican account tries to spin this informal relationship between Trump and Giuliani as benign. There was “nothing inherently improper with Mayor Giuliani’s involvement,” says the report, since “the Ukrainians knew that he was a conduit to convince President Trump that President Zelensky was serious about reform.” But the conduit arrangement was the whole ball game. Giuliani had power because everybody knew his judgment would determine Trump’s.

In recounting later episodes of the story, the report fixates on the scripts of those encounters. It omits the crucial context: that Volker had already warned Ukraine about Giuliani’s role. This allows Republicans to frame Ukraine as the initiator. “President Zelensky, not President Trump, first referenced Mayor Giuliani” in the July 25 phone call between the two presidents, the report notes. Zelensky “did not express any concern about Mayor Giuliani’s engagement.” In fact, the Ukrainian president told Trump, “We are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine.”

Why would the president of Ukraine roll out the red carpet for Trump’s lawyer? Because he knew Giuliani had the keys to the White House.

The report puts a similar gloss on Giuliani’s conversations with Yermak, which began in late July. Yermak “initiated contact with Mayor Giuliani—and not the other way around,” says the Republican narrative. The two men discussed certain investigations Giuliani wanted Ukraine to undertake, as well as whether Zelensky would get a White House meeting. But the report emphasizes that they “did not discuss a link” between the two topics.

Again, the technical distinction is a sham, and the claim that Ukraine took the initiative is misleading. Why was Ukraine negotiating a White House meeting with Trump’s lawyer? The premise of the conversation was that Giuliani controlled access to the Oval Office.

As the negotiations proceeded, Giuliani flexed his power. After meeting with Giuliani, Yermak sent Volker a draft statement about investigations Ukraine would undertake. A group edit ensued. Everyone involved in these talks understood that the statement was being tweaked to appease Giuliani and Trump. Giuliani wanted Ukraine to announce two specific investigations: one into allegations that Democrats had worked with Ukraine to hurt Trump in the 2016 election, and another into whether former Vice President Joe Biden—a leading candidate against Trump in 2020—had interfered in Ukraine to protect Burisma, a company that had hired Biden’s son Hunter.

The report says “the intent of the statement was to convey a public commitment to anti-corruption reform.” But that’s a fig leaf. Volker’s testimony, excerpted on Page 56 of the report, shows what really happened:

Andrey sends me a text. I share it with Gordon Sondland. We have a conversation with Rudy to say: The Ukrainians are looking at this text. Rudy says: Well, if it doesn’t say Burisma and if it doesn’t say 2016, what does it mean? You know, it’s not credible. You know, they’re hiding something. And so we talked and I said: So what you’re saying is just at the end of the—same statement, just insert Burisma and 2016, you think that would be more credible? And he said: Yes. So I sent that back to Andrey …

This whole conversation was corrupt. Ukraine was negotiating with Trump’s lawyer because he was the conduit to Trump. And the lawyer was demanding specific investigations that would help his client politically.

To deflect scrutiny from this abomination, the Republican analysis focuses instead on Volker, who was caught in the middle. It points out that Volker believed his mission to connect Yermak with Giuliani was—in the report’s words—“in the best interests of the United States.” To support this patriotic storyline, the report quotes an exchange from Volker’s deposition. He was asked: “And to the extent Mr. Giuliani is tight with the President, has a good relationship with him, has the ability to influence him, is it fair to say that, at times, it was in the U.S.’s interest to have Mr. Giuliani connecting with these Ukrainian officials?” Volker answered, “Yes.”

What the report doesn’t mention is who asked the question. It came from Steve Castor, the committee’s Republican counsel, and it was crafted to mask the perversity of Giuliani’s role. By treating the context as a given—Trump’s delegation of power to Giuliani, and Giuliani’s use of that power to demand political favors—Castor narrowed the question to Volker’s plight. Yes, in navigating between Yermak and Giuliani, Volker had sought to arrange a White House meeting that would serve the interests of both countries. He had done so, as diplomats often do, by appeasing a corrupt government. But in this case, the corrupt government was the United States.

That’s the first layer of the present crisis: Trump and Giuliani betrayed our country. The Republican report, while trying to whitewash this scandal, inadvertently confirms it. The second layer is that Trump and his accomplices are stonewalling the inquiry into their crimes. Giuliani’s refusal to hand over records of his activities, even under a congressional subpoena, is just one of many warning signs that Trump’s regime considers itself above the law.

The House Republican report adds a third layer to the crisis. It declares that because Giuliani’s role in Ukraine was authorized by “President Trump—constitutionally, the nation’s ‘sole organ of foreign affairs’ … this arrangement is not evidence of an unsanctioned and nefarious ‘shadow’ foreign policy apparatus.” Trump can choose any envoy he likes, on this theory—even his private attorney—and whatever that envoy demands is the foreign policy of the United States.

The Ukraine scandal is a story of creeping authoritarianism. First came the corruption of U.S. foreign policy. Then came the Trump administration’s defiance of Congress. Now, in this report, the congressional GOP is defending runaway executive power. American diplomats, when they go abroad, are used to dealing with countries that behave this way. Now it’s the kind of country they come home to.

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