President Donald Trump certainly wouldn't be the first employer to retroactively try to designate a staffer as an independent contractor, but he might be the first to do so to aid his fight against being impeached and removed from the White House.
His assertion to former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly that his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani was acting independently on Ukraine, perhaps for other clients, has an obvious goal. Giuliani was the point of contact or agitation for numerous people within the administration over the course of the year, empowered, in their view, to execute Trump's agenda. He wasn't exactly embraced; Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland once lamented that Giuliani always "[messes] everything up" -- though Sondland used a punchier word.
Nonetheless, Sondland worked with Giuliani on Ukraine. Asked why during a public hearing earlier this month, Sondland explained that he'd been told to do so by Trump in late May.
"Well, when the president says talk to my personal attorney and then Mr. Giuliani as his personal attorney makes certain requests or demands," Sondland said, "we assume it's coming from the president. I don't -- I don't -- I'm not testifying that I heard the president tell Mr. Giuliani to tell us, so if that's your question."
That gap is precisely what Trump is hoping to exploit, of course, that distinction between hearing from Giuliani and hearing from Trump himself. What Trump presented to O'Reilly was a scenario in which Giuliani was simply pressing forward on his own volition.
"So you didn't direct him to go to Ukraine to do anything or put any heat on them?" O'Reilly asked.
"No, I didn't direct him," Trump said. "But he's a warrior. Rudy's a warrior. Rudy went. He possibly saw something."
"I know that he was going to go to Ukraine and I think he cancelled the trip," Trump added, referring to an aborted trip in early May. "But Rudy has other clients, other than me."
This is a ludicrous argument.
It's a ludicrous argument in part because we've seen this pattern so many times before. Over and over and over, Trump's tried to distance himself from people he clearly knows and often knows well. He did it to Gordon Sondland himself just last month. He did it to associates of Giuliani's with whom he'd met at the White House. He's even done it to a past personal attorney, namely Michael Cohen. Any claim from Trump that he doesn't know someone or that they were operating at a distance should be treated with skepticism by default-if not suspicion about what that other person might have been up to.
His claim that Giuliani was freelancing, though, is also ludicrous given the evidence at hand. Numerous witnesses before the impeachment inquiry testified that they understood Giuliani to be advocating Trump's interests and serving as a conduit for information back to the president. Giuliani was an understood point of contact and authority by the Ukrainians themselves. Trump is asking us to believe either that he was giving Giuliani the space to act on his behalf or that a big chunk of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship was being managed by someone acting without Trump's authorization-suggesting a remarkable, shameful abdication on the part of the president.
Giuliani publicly presented himself as acting on Trump's behalf, of course, reinforcing the incongruity of what Trump suggested to O'Reilly. So when Giuliani told the New York Times in May that he planned to travel to Ukraine to advocate investigations which would "be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government," we're meant to assume, what? That Giuliani was referring to some client beyond Trump?
When Giuliani further said specifically that Trump "basically knows what I'm doing, sure, as his lawyer," how are we to interpret that? Giuliani was lying? Or how about when he told the Times that his "only client is the president of the United States"? How does that comport with the Giuliani-had-other-clients claim offered by Trump?
Trump had any number of opportunities to differentiate between what he was advocating and the work Giuliani was doing. Instead, he amplified it.
When Giuliani gave a wild interview to CNN's Chris Cuomo in September in which he first publicly explored a lot of the allegations he's since leveled at Trump's opponents, Trump praised his performance.
"I think he was excellent," Trump said. Then he complained that the media took Giuliani out of context instead of "show[ing] the whole" interview.
In October, after the Ukraine situation emerged into public view, Trump praised Giuliani on Twitter, calling him "a great guy and wonderful lawyer."
All of this suggests a president with a close relationship to his attorney even as the attorney pressed diplomats and Ukrainian officials in service of ginning up investigations that would benefit Trump personally. The evidence is clear.
And that's even without the most obvious, damning evidence: Trump's own words to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in their July 25 call.
Giuliani was so integrated into the U.S.-Ukraine relationship by that point that Zelensky himself first raised the former New York mayor.
"I will personally tell you that one of my assistants spoke with Mr. Giuliani just recently and we are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine," Zelensky said.
Trump's response was not, "What? Why? What's Rudy doing?" Instead, it was this:
"Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the. mayor bf New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you," Trump said. "I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General. Rudy very much knows what's happening and he is a very capable guy."
Emphasis added, for emphasis. Giuliani came up several more times, as Trump repeatedly suggested he'd have Mr. Maybe He Was Working For Other Clients engage directly with the president of Ukraine.
After the call, Andriy Yermak, a senior aide to Zelensky, texted an American official to ask that Giuliani be reminded to finalize dates for a meeting with Yermak in Madrid. Again the response wasn't "Why?" but, instead, "will do!"
What Trump would like us to believe, it seems, is that everything Giuliani was doing was somehow disconnected from what Trump himself wanted. He's asking us, in essence, to believe that his own grip on U.S. foreign policy is so loose that random individuals from outside the government can task multiple senior officials as he sees fit without Trump himself knowing or being able to intervene.
That Trump sees this as a preferable to the assumption that he was telling Giuliani to do what he did indicates that the president recognizes the threat posed by impeachment.