Trump's Ukraine call cover-up implicates Rudy Giuliani — but there were other lawyers involved

If Congress does not step up, it’s possible these unnamed individuals will get a free pass — and maybe even a promotion.
Image: Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani
Rudy Giuliani introduces then-presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign event at Trask Coliseum in Wilmington, North Carolina on Aug. 9, 2016.Sara D. Davis / Getty Images file
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By Leah Litman, assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School

The bombshell revelations in the whistleblower complaint have unfurled a much larger scandal extending far beyond the Ukraine, President Donald Trump, or even Attorney General William Barr and Rudy Giuliani. As detailed in the complaint, White House attorneys were also involved in potentially trying to minimize Trump’s actions; These attorneys attempted to cover up the president’s stunning defiance of his constitutional obligations. Any impeachment investigation must identify who these attorneys are so that the American public can ensure they never serve in government offices again.

By now, most people are familiar with the core of the whistleblower complaint: Trump asked the Ukrainian president to open an investigation into Joe Biden’s son and whether Ukraine, rather than Russia, interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

As detailed in the complaint, White House attorneys were also involved in potentially trying to minimize Trump’s actions.

These politically expedient requests were accompanied by implicit promises and threats. The whistleblower also implicated Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in the scheme. Now it is being reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on the July 25 call as well.

But the buck does not stop with Giuliani or Barr or Pompeo. The whistleblower complaint also implicates scores of other White House attorneys. These attorneys knew about the president’s attempted bribery and either assisted him in carrying out his abuse of office or attempted to cover it up (and thus empowered the president to abuse his office even more).

The whistleblower complaint alleges that “there were approximately a dozen White House officials who listened to the call” between Trump and Zelensky. These officials knew or suspected that the phone call revealed a grave breach of the president’s constitutional duties because “[i]n the days following the phone call… White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call.”

It was not just policy officials who intervened to cover up the president’s misdeeds: Officials “were ‘directed’ by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system.” According to the whistleblower, this was not a unique occurrence. In fact, there was already a system and procedure in place created solely “for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information.”

Subsequent reports described how lawyers buried the president’s conversations with both the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and Russian President Vladimir Putin, including one instance where Trump told Putin that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was no big deal.

Who are these White House lawyers? As of now, we don’t know. An impeachment inquiry and impeachment hearings should attempt to change that. We should know who those lawyers are, if only to ensure that they do not ascend to higher government office. These lawyers have displayed a stunning lack of judgment and lack of integrity unbefitting government office. They must be identified and sanctioned, both to officially recognize their misdeeds and to deter future lawyers from doing the same thing.

This does not mean that the lawyers involved should be criminally prosecuted. Nor does it mean they should be disbarred. Their sanction, instead, should be much narrower: They should not serve in government again, given their acceptance of gross corruption and their willingness to cover up government wrongdoing.

The prospect that these lawyers might serve in government again is not hypothetical. The White House has nominated for federal judgeships several individuals who are or were White House lawyers.

These attorneys might be otherwise professionally qualified for the judgeships. They may even have glittering resumes and elite credentials. But they also may have participated in a shocking abuse of power and attempt to cover it up. That should be disqualifying for higher office.

A nominee’s elite credentials are not sufficient to justify their promotion. Consider Attorney General William Barr, who is so far implicated in the Ukraine scandal. Or better yet, consider the assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), Steven Engel. Engel has a glittering resume — he clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court and graduated with impressive academic honors. But when Engel was presented with an account of the president’s gross dereliction of constitutional duty, he offered a series of thin justifications to prevent that information from ever getting to Congress or the public.

For example, Engel’s OLC relied on the Inspector General’s sentence structure as a reason not to pass along the whistleblower’s serious allegations to Congress. The OLC noted that the inspector general, who concluded the whistleblower’s complaint was of “urgent concern,” had not explicitly identified the White House’s efforts to bury the conversation on secret, classified servers as a reason why the whistleblower’s allegations were of urgent concern. Based on this inadequate justification, the OLC memo attempted to bury the president’s serious breach of official duties.

Conspiracies never happen in a vacuum, and those who enable the abuse contribute to the spreading rot of corruption.

The House and the Senate must determine whether any nominee who served in the Trump White House assisted the president in carrying out his abuses of office or attempted to cover up the president’s conduct. Conspiracies never happen in a vacuum, and those who enable the abuse contribute to the spreading rot of corruption. If Congress does not step up now, it’s possible the individuals involved will get a free pass for conduct that should be disqualifying for government office — and maybe even a promotion.