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White House follies: ‘No crimes are being committed in this text. We swear!’

[Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the EU]

Attorney Scott Pilutik wrestles with the news of the day, from a lawyerly perspective…

Three House committees released text messages between White House officials in the run-up and aftermath of the Trump phone call with Ukraine president Zelensky. They provided some helpful context but the text messages are pretty self-explanatory.

The participants are Kurt Volker (since-resigned US Ambassador to Ukraine), Bill Taylor (US Chargé d’affaires for Ukraine — basically deputy Ambassador), Gordon Sondland (Ambassador to European Union), Andrey Yemek (aide to Ukraine president Zelensky), and Rudy Giuliani.

A lot of preparation went into setting up the phone call, indicating that at a minimum, Trump’s remarks on the call weren’t extemporaneous utterances — he knew what he was going to ask for, and Zelensky knew what to expect.

It might not have immediately occurred to Trump aides, during the call preparation, that withholding foreign aid to Ukraine was part of the ask package, but it was clear enough after, and Bill Taylor noticed and it clearly worried him:

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[9/1/19, 12:08:57 PM]
BILL TAYLOR: ARE WE NOW SAYING THAT SECURITY ASSISTANCE AND WH MEETING[*] ARE CONDITIONED ON INVESTIGATION?

[9/1/19, 12:42:29 PM]
GORDON SONDLAND: CALL ME.

In other words, please don’t be so crass as to discuss crimes in text messages.

Eight days later Taylor and Sondland had another exchange. The entire thing is enlightening but these two messages are key:

[9/9/19, 12:47:11 AM]
BILL TAYLOR: AS I SAID ON THE PHONE, I THINK IT’S CRAZY TO WITHHOLD SECURITY ASSISTANCE FOR HELP WITH A POLITICAL CAMPAIGN.

4+ hours later…

[9/9/19, 5:19:35 PM]
GORDON SONDLAND: BILL I BELIEVE YOU ARE INCORRECT ABOUT PRESIDENT TRUMP’S INTENTIONS. THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN CRYSTAL CLEAR NO QUID PRO QUO’S OF ANY KIND. THE PRESIDENT IS TRYING TO EVALUATE WHETHER UKRAINE IS TRULY GOING TO ADOPT THE TRANSPARENCY AND REFORMS THAT PRESIDENT ZELENSKY PROMISED DURING HIS CAMPAIGN I SUGGEST WE STOP THE BACK AND FORTH BY TEXT IF YOU STILL HAVE CONCERNS I RECOMMEND YOU GIVE LISA KENNA[**] OR S A CALL TO DISCUSS THEM DIRECTLY. THANKS.

Gordon Sondland’s other texts lack the same lawyerly touch as the above text, which makes sense because Sondland is a wealthy hotel owner who contributed asswads of money to Trump’s 2016 campaign, which is his sole qualification for the Ambassador gig. To be fair, many US ambassadors aren’t qualified to do anything except shake hands and sign checks, regardless of which presidency they’re serving under.

But the bigger point is that Sondland appears to have been struck by the cold reality of what Bill Taylor was conveying, possibly grasped his own potential liability but at least grasped the President’s potential liability (“hey, uh, these text messages, I don’t think they’re totally, like, private”), and got on the phone to legal.

Legal then fabricated an ostensibly acceptable fiction about what was transpiring between Trump and Zelensky, and had Sondland convey that as a text message, which feels like a performance of sorts. As these text messages were looking more and more like future evidence. If these were phone calls instead of text messages it’d be as if Sondland suddenly realized the phones were tapped, changed the tone of his voice and yelled “No crimes are being committed on this phone call!”

Of course, Trump has since blown up this legal rationale a few times over by his words and actions, but they’re cornered and will undoubtedly resort to this as their defense for the articles of impeachment that allege a causal relationship between the foreign aid to Ukraine and Trump’s demand for an investigation into Joe Biden and that might exonerate Russia’s 2016 election interference.

 

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