Intrepid Republican sleuths finally found the Deep State operatives who have been working to bring down President Donald Trump by creating the appearance of an improper, politically motivated quid pro quo in his dealings with Ukraine. Those operatives are a rogue U.S. ambassador and a lawyer operating in the shadows entirely outside the normal workings of government.
I can even tell you their names: Gordon Sondland and Rudy Giuliani.
This, at least, is the upshot of the defense House Republicans seem to be offering at the public impeachment hearings:
Republicans would portray figures like Mr. Giuliani as working in his own interests, not at Mr. Trump’s behest; and…they would argue that Mr. Sondland, a political megadonor with little diplomatic experience, was a braggart who exaggerated his relationship with Mr. Trump and essentially freelanced on his behalf.
See what I mean? It’s the Deep State in action, operating to promote their own nefarious interests rather than working on behalf of the president.
Except, of course, that if this is anyone’s Deep State, it’s Donald Trump’s Deep State.
How did Republicans paint themselves into this corner? They did it because every other defense of Trump is faltering.
The process arguments, sterling examples of Barone’s Law to begin with, have been failing. Republicans can’t impugn the motives of the original whistleblower, because there is now so much evidence from others that the original tip-off is irrelevant. The whole talking point about “secret” testimony is also obsolete, now that transcripts of all the sessions are being released.
More to the point, the substance of the hearings has already validated all of the key claims against Trump. They have shown that the Ukrainians were aware that the administration was holding up aid at the behest of the White House.
The timing of the communications about the issue, which have not previously been reported, shows that Ukraine was aware the White House was holding up the funds weeks earlier than US and Ukrainian officials had acknowledged. And it means that the Ukrainian government was aware of the freeze during most of the period in August when Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and two American diplomats were pressing President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to make a public commitment to the investigations being sought by Trump.
But the big blow to Trump’s defenders came when U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland realized that he was on the hook for perjury—having denied things multiple other witnesses had testified to—so he “revised” his testimony to admit that he had expressed a clear quid pro quo to Ukrainian officials, demanding political favors for Trump in return for aid.
This was such a blow that Lindsey Graham ended up speculating that Sondland (whom he keeps calling “Sunderland”) is now in cahoots with “Democratic operatives.”
So the new defense of Trump is that he has totally lost control, and his handpicked representatives, Sondland and Giuliani, have been running America’s Ukraine policy without either his knowledge or permission.
You can see why Republicans had to go this direction. To admit that Trump knew any of what was going on in his own administration is to admit that he is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. Better just to conclude that he is completely incompetent and has no idea what’s going on.
Next step: Tell voters we need Four More Years!
But this fallback position isn’t going to hold up, either.
For Trump’s defenders, Sondland is joining the ranks of those awful, perfidious, disloyal, and incompetent losers whose names we never would have heard if they hadn’t been hired by Donald Trump. (Previous examples include Michael Cohen, Rex Tillerson, and Omarosa Manigault.) Sondland has no diplomatic background or experience; his ambassadorship is a reward for donating a million dollars to President Trump’s inauguration committee. He was appointed ambassador to the European Union, with no special mandate to manage policy on Ukraine. The only reason he was directly involved in Ukraine was because Donald Trump insisted on it.
The same circumstances apply to Rudy Giuliani, who holds no position in the government but was acting as an unofficial ambassador to Ukraine on the insistence of the president. Multiple witnesses describe a White House meeting in which Trump told them to “talk to Rudy” when it came to shaping Ukraine policy. All of this was coordinated out of the White House, based on meetings either with Trump himself or with his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
This is what I mean about a Deep State.
When Trump and his apologists talk about the Deep State, they mean the normal, formal workings of the State Department. They are talking about the people who are actually appointed to be in charge of policy, working through official channels, keeping records of their activities, and being accountable to oversight both within the executive agencies and from Congress—which is why they have been able to give such detailed and consistent testimony to Congress.
This machinery is in fact the opposite of a Deep State.
In an attempt to counter this delusional theory of a Deep State, President Trump constructed an actual Deep State of his own: a quasi-governmental apparatus operating largely in secret, with no accountability or oversight.
That’s the big story that has emerged from the testimony so far. Every one of the officials who was supposed to be conducting U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine reports coming up against an unofficial parallel channel that went through Sondland and Giuliani. They report how the official State Department bureaucracy was frequently in the dark about what this parallel channel was doing and why.
The most interesting tidbit from the public hearings so far is Ambassador Taylor’s recounting of an overheard phone call between Sondland and President Trump in which Trump appears to be pushing the quid pro quo–which will be the subject of further testimony later in the week.
The motive is obvious. To demand that Ukraine investigate conspiracy theories about the 2016 election or claims of corruption against the family of a political rival, Trump’s Deep State does not have to submit actual evidence of those allegations. Rudy Giuliani can go with a rumor that he heard from one of his associates—maybe it was Lev, maybe it was Igor—and pour it into the president’s ear without any pesky intelligence officials pointing out that it’s bunk. Then the president can go have Giuliani and Sondland push the theory, bypassing any process that requires career diplomats to sign off on policies pursued for purely partisan or self-dealing motives.
There’s a Deep State all right, if you want to call it that. But it’s the secret parallel government created by Trump to push policies that can’t withstand scrutiny in the light of day.