“Secretary [Rick] Perry, Ambassador [Kurt] Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the president of the United States. . . . We followed the president’s orders. . . . Everyone was in the loop.”
With these words, Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, did his country the favor of candor and clarity. This does not mean that elected Republicans will yield to reason and evidence. But it does change conditions on the ground in significant ways.
First, President Trump can no longer employ his go-to method of damage control — throwing subordinates beneath the presidential limousine. Trump, according to Sondland’s testimony, personally directed the Ukraine squeeze. And if underlings are to be sacrificed, they would have to be underlings of the highest order. According to Sondland, Vice President Pence was informed of the extortion attempt and said nothing. Both acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were closely involved in the effort. Trump would not hesitate to fire all three men if it would put him one point higher in the polls. But shedding your vice president, your chief of staff and your secretary of state is not a strategy of containment; it would be the complete collapse of the executive branch into recrimination and chaos.
The impeachment investigation has gained additional fuel by uncovering broad complicity at the highest levels of government. Some stories, such as the involvement of Attorney General William P. Barr, are yet to be fully told. Why did Justice Department prosecutors dismiss the possibility of campaign finance law violations after such a narrow and cursory examination? Why did Trump, according to the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call, say (twice) that Barr would be in touch with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or his people to cooperate in a Burisma/Bidens investigation? Is it really plausible that the most politicized attorney general of recent memory was an innocent bystander in these events?
Congress now has every reason and right to hear directly from Barr, Pence, Mulvaney and Pompeo, given their implication in public corruption. And their refusal to testify compounds their apparent corruption with cowardice.
Second, we have once again seen evidence of Trump’s mobster mentality. The president surrounds himself with a bodyguard of rotters — fixers who are willing to do his dirty work based on hints delivered with all the subtlety of a silent film actor. Any leader who would depend on Rudy Giuliani, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone for service and counsel is not a bad judge of character; he is a good judge of useful knaves. As president, Trump has created an environment in which his fixers can work unchecked by institutions and individuals with ethical standards. Public servants such as Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and William B. Taylor Jr., the acting ambassador to Ukraine, raised concerns about corruption up the normal lines of authority. But at the top of those lines Trump has placed people such as Mulvaney, Barr, Pence and Pompeo, who are morally neutered. In a perverse form of political Darwinism, leaders in the executive branch have been selected for traits of turpitude and tractability. It is the survival of the unscrupulous.
Third, the Sondland testimony — along with the testimony of other witnesses — has stripped away the last, semi-rational arguments advanced by Republican defenders of the president. No quid pro quo? No longer tenable. Secondhand hearsay? Not anymore. A “deep-state” plot? Tell that to Vindman and Taylor. The president as anti-corruption crusader? Give me a break.
None of this is likely to change the minds of most elected Republicans on impeachment itself. It does, however, place their motivations out in the open. In the face of serious charges against the president, Republicans have no exculpatory evidence to offer. Their true appeal — their only appeal — is tribal. Republicans would certainly support impeachment for a Democratic president who sought foreign help in rigging an American presidential election, particularly in a manner that strengthened an international rival. But no matter. Tribalism dictates that Republicans stick together in their opposition to impeachment because, well, you can’t give aid and comfort to an enemy intent on ruining the country. The only thing that matters in the end? Using power to keep power.
Some, such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), are surrendering their integrity eagerly, almost happily. Other Republicans will want to appear more reluctant. But anyone who puts power above truth and character is doing a nasty disservice to their country. And it won’t be forgotten.
Michael Gerson served as President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001-2006 and is a columnist for the Washington Post.