How Rudy Got Trump Impeached

Had Trump hired just about any competent lawyer instead of Rudy, his political circumstances would look quite different.
January 7, 2020
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Rudy Giuliani speaks to the press outside the grand ballroom as he arrives for a New Year's celebration at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on December 31, 2019. (Jim Watson / AFP / Getty)

Rudy Giuliani, more than any single person other than Trump himself, is responsible for Donald Trump’s impeachment.

Trump was impeached for corruptly conditioning an official act, the release of military aid to Ukraine, on receiving something of personal value, a public announcement that Ukraine was investigating his political rival, Joe Biden.

Call it bribery. Call it extortion. Call it a high crime or misdemeanor. Doesn’t matter what you call it. That was the gist of it.

Trump’s defenders argue that the evidence developed by the House Intelligence Committee was insufficient to prove the charge. On that basis, they may succeed in achieving an acquittal in the Senate.

But that won’t change the fact that Trump was impeached. And it won’t change the fact that virtually every Democrat in the House, not to mention a plurality of the American public, came to believe that the evidence was sufficient to impeach and remove the president.

The evidence that Trump personally orchestrated the aid-for-dirt scheme is compelling. It is indisputable that Trump ordered the withholding of aid to Ukraine. It is also indisputable that Trump asked Ukraine for “a favor,” investigations into the 2016 election and the Bidens. And it is indisputable that American diplomats implemented the scheme in the belief that they were acting on Trump’s orders.

But the evidence that Trump personally and directly ordered the aid-for-dirt scheme, while seemingly obvious, is nevertheless somewhat circumstantial. Nobody has testified that they heard Trump utter the words “tell them they won’t get the aid unless they announce an investigation of Biden.”

Instead, Trump uttered the words, “Talk to Rudy.”

And Rudy took it from there.

Gordon Sondland and others did what Trump told them to do. They talked to Rudy, and then worked with him on the understanding that they were acting “at the express direction of the president of the United States.” They “followed the president’s orders” as conveyed by his personal attorney.

There are only two possibilities here. One is that Giuliani accurately implemented Trump’s direct order to condition aid on receipt of a political favor. The other is that Giuliani either went rogue or misunderstood what Trump really wanted. (A third possibility, that everybody is lying about everything except truth-tellers Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani, is too far-fetched to entertain.)

Either way, take Rudy out of the picture and replace him with almost any competent lawyer, and Trump wouldn’t have been impeached.

Start with the first (and most probable) scenario: that Rudy was faithfully following Trump’s orders in implementing the aid-for-dirt scheme.

What kind of attorney follows orders like that? What kind of attorney doesn’t immediately advise his client not to implement that kind of corrupt scheme, or at least refuse to play any part in it?

There are countless examples of Trump blurting out preposterous, illegal demands that were quickly and easily thwarted by the adults in the room. Of course, that requires one to think back to a time when there actually were adults in the room, but that wasn’t so long ago.

Rod Rosenstein refused Trump’s demand to say that firing FBI Director James Comey was his idea. Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to un-recuse himself. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Trump he’d ask Sessions to resign, but never did it. White House Counsel Don McGahn refused Trump’s order to fire Mueller, and then to deny that he ever received such an order. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recounted that Trump often asked him to do things that required Tillerson to admonish the president that, “I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.”

This pattern was so obvious that it prompted the Mueller investigation to conclude that the recalcitrance of those around Trump had fortuitously provided him with a safety net: “The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that was largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”

How difficult would it have been for a competent lawyer to tell Trump that conditioning an official act on a personal favor was illegal and most likely impeachable? How difficult would it have been for Trump’s personal attorney to do what so many others had done before him, simply nod agreement and then fail to carry out the corrupt order?

But this time, instead of having an adult in the room, Trump had Rudy.

Now consider the second scenario: Rudy either went rogue and acted on his own, or innocently but mistakenly believed that he was following Trump’s orders.

That’s even more inexcusable on Rudy’s part. It would mean that he, not Trump, was the initial architect of the scheme that got Trump impeached. It would mean that Giuliani blundered his client into impeachment.

But it wouldn’t exonerate Trump.

Even in the unlikely event that Rudy, not Trump, was the initial father of the aid-for-dirt scheme, Trump adopted it. It is inconceivable that Giuliani, Sondland, and all of the other diplomats who were dragged into implementing this scheme were operating behind Trump’s back without the president knowing what they were doing. At a minimum, Trump gave his tacit assent and allowed the scheme to play out even when what was happening became obvious to everybody.

It is far more likely, of course, that Giuliani was blindly and stupidly following Trump’s orders. Don’t you think that if Trump thought he could get away with accusing Rudy of going rogue he would have done so already? Don’t you believe that Giuliani is telling the truth when he says that Trump can’t throw him under the bus because he has “insurance” to keep Trump loyal?

But either way, Rudy Giuliani was the engine of Trump’s impeachment.

No wonder Rudy now says he would “love to try the case” in the Senate.

Better to try the case than to be the target of some other lawyer’s It-Wasn’t-Trump defense.

Philip Rotner

Philip Rotner is a columnist whose articles appear in national publications and on his website, philiprotner.com. Philip is an attorney who has practiced for over 40 years, both in private practice and as the general counsel of a global professional services firm.  Philip’s views are his own, and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.