Once upon a time—before nine of the top ten chairs of the National Security Council were sitting empty and the most common way to start a title in Washington was with “acting”—Donald Trump claimed he was going to fill the White House with “all the best people.” But the latest demonstration of how much that did not happen isn’t another cabinet member rolling out the revolving door, it’s the latest strategy from House Republicans to protect Trump. That plan is The Buck Stops Anywhere Else.
As The Washington Post reports, Republicans have moved on from the idea that nothing bad happened in Ukraine. They’re resigned to the fact that someone has to go under the bus. In fact, they’re prepared to give that bus all the someones … so long as none of them are the guy who actually ordered everything that happened. Republicans have three principle bad actors they’re ready to give up—after, of course, an appropriate level of pretense and high drama.
The first of these is Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. Sondland wasn’t just one of the “three amigos” who was charged with seeing that Trump’s demand for investigations into Joe Biden and the 2016 election were delivered to Ukrainian officials, he was extraordinarily clumsy about it. As apparently the only member of Trump’s White House team who hasn’t binged Mafia movies, Sondland did his leaning on Ukrainian officials in front of State Department officials, in front of NSC officials, and in texts. Worse still, as far as Republicans are concerned, Sondland seems to realize that both what he did and what he was asked to do, were seriously bad. So his testimony was 100% about protecting Gordon Sondland and roughly 0% about protecting Donald Trump. That alone is enough to make Sondland the first man into the crosswalk.
However, since it’s hard to blame a lowly ambassador for everything that went wrong, particularly when his major crime seems to be enthusiastically following orders (orders which, to be fair, he thought were criminal), there’s a second name lineup for tire tracks: Rudy Giuliani. If there’s one common theme to every transcript, every statement, and every comment made about Ukraine, it’s that almost every issue seems to start with the involvement of Giuliani. When he wasn’t trying to oust an ambassador for being too honest, Giuliani was trying to get a visa for a known criminal willing to go along with Trump’s Ukraine demands. Or he was threatening State Department officials. Or he was threatening Ukrainian officials. Or he was running back to The New York Times so they could break his latest big scoop.
In general, Giuliani rolled around Ukraine like the less-attractive form of wrecking ball and was hated by everyone, in every position, in both governments. But the problem with lining up the bus this way is that the only reason Giuliani was allowed to do such damage, is that everyone knew he had the backing of Trump.
Finding enough space between Trump and Giuliani to pretend that one was operating without the full knowledge and cooperation of the other may be difficult, but Republicans are sure they can do it. And since there’s barely a page of deposition that doesn’t contain a complaint about Giuliani’s constant ass-hat-ery, it won’t be hard to find reasons he should be pitched.
But if the public is unwilling to let Trump slide with just the ritual sacrifice of an ambassador and a personal attorney, Republicans have a step three to the meat barrier plan. The final sacrificial victim is acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
There are plenty of good reasons to go after Mulvaney, who refused to appear before the inquiry in response to a congressional subpoena on Friday. It was Mulvaney who pulled together Sondland, special envoy Kurt Volker, and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry to form what he tagged the “three amigos” and charged them with seeing that Trump’s will be done before Ukraine got the aid and support that was due to them. Mulvaney seems to have kept his hand in and eye on this team as they bludgeoned their way toward forcing Ukraine into investigations of things everyone knew were ridiculous. And Mulvaney’s other role as director of the Office of Management and Budget means his fingerprints were also all over the non-issue of the military assistance funds. In fact, it was someone from Mulvaney’s office who finally let everyone else in the government know that, yep, Trump had put a hold on the money.
But Mick Mulvaney’s most unforgivable sin as far as the Republicans are concerned is that he apparently thinks he’s Trump. As in Mulvaney believes he can admit crimes in public and just shrug it off. Appearing before Congress in October, Mulvaney ‘fessed up that assistance to Ukraine was held until the government there announced the investigations Trump wanted. “That’s why we held up the money,” said Mulvaney. Then he capped it off with, “Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.” That right there is one of the things Republicans are never going to forgive: telling the truth.
In the evolving storyline Republicans are preparing, Sondland misread his cues and tried to force Ukraine into something Trump really wasn’t demanding. And if that’s not good enough, Giuliani was running around making all kinds of statements and it was really rogue Rudy who was responsible for all the problems. And if that’s not good enough, Mulvaney was trying to make things happen, but he never really filled Trump in on the details.
Sondland. Giuliani. Mulvaney. In that order. Those are the names Republicans in the House are willing to burn in order to protect Trump. Or at least, those are the names so far. There’s always more room on the list.