Point Austin: One, Two, So Many Amigos
Agent Orange stops in Austin, trailing corruption in his wake
As I write (midday Wednesday), U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is in the midst of publicly spilling his guts to the House Intelligence Committee pursuing the presidential impeachment inquiry. Hotel tycoon Sondland acquired his ambassadorship via the time-honored method of direct purchase, at a reported price of $1 million in inaugural celebration funds. So far today, he has implicated a dozen or more officials in the prolonged Trump administration effort to extort Ukrainian officials into providing (real or manufactured) political dirt on Trump's Democratic rivals, notably potential 2020 challenger Joe Biden.
The insiders privy to the extortion scheme cited by Sondland include (among others) Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, Ambassador Kurt Volker, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security advisor John Bolton, Vice President Mike Pence ... the list of people involved in Sondland's "continuum of insidiousness" is long enough that for all of them to fit under the bus, it will definitely require one of those double-length accordion models. The list inevitably includes the biggest whale of them all, Donald Trump, so sophisticated a criminal genius that he told Sondland that to not say "quid pro quo" while soliciting a bribe is sufficient insulation against self-incrimination.
Unlike his boss, Sondland appears to be smart enough to understand the legal implications of international blackmail (and of lying about it to Congress). While he's playing dumb in certain respects (e.g., claiming not to realize until later the direct connection to Biden), he's doing what he can to extricate himself from a conspiracy he didn't initiate. From subsequent committee questions, it's clear that his strategy hasn't entirely worked – but he has certainly eviscerated Trump defenders' claims of "No quid pro quo!" or Trump himself having clean hands.
Also prominent on the list of co-conspirators is Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, our own former governor-for-life. Sondland, Volker, and Perry were the trio of freelance operatives known as the "Three Amigos," after the 1986 film farce starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short – easily a more likely (and likable) team of co-conspirators than the ones Trump chose as his Ukraine enforcers (even as they chafed at deferring to consigliere Giuliani). Perry, who has refused to testify, issued a self-serving DOE press release claiming ignorance of any demand by Trump for investigations of the Bidens et al. Claiming ignorance is a Perry specialty, and in his case – let's face it – it can be persuasive.
Gov. Goodhair, having already announced his resignation at year's end, had nearly escaped the impeachment raid just as the cops were closing in, but Sondland, unwilling to take the fall for the entire corrupt cabal, has forcibly yanked him back into the maneuverings. Since Giuliani (like his Kate McKinnon caricature) was all over TV bragging about the Ukraine assignment from his "client," it's laughable to hear these guys pretend that they only realized Trump's intentions after the fact. As Sondland reportedly said, "Trump doesn't give a shit about Ukraine. ... He wants those investigations."
Experts on Icky
Beyond the explicitly political machinations, Perry brought to Ukraine, and to U.S. energy policy, some Texas bidness-as-usual: That is, promoting the interests of oil-and-gas cronies (and political donors, much the same thing) as extensions of official policy. The Associated Press reports that two other Perry "amigos" – Michael Bleyzer and Alex Cranberg, partners in a "Ukrainian Energy" joint venture – were awarded a potentially lucrative 50-year exploration contract in the wake of Perry's various discussions with Ukrainian officials (including recommending Houston-based Bleyzer as an energy advisor).
Perry's spokespeople have insisted there was nothing untoward about the deal, but a George Washington University expert on corruption told the AP that, while likely not illegal, "It's just icky."
Speaking of major ickiness, the Big Orange Capo of all this thuggish self-dealing is in Austin as the Chronicle goes to press, with Jill-of-All-Profiteering-Trades Ivanka and Apple CEO Tim Cook, touring the company's North Austin manufacturing facilities. The imperial motorcade will undoubtedly be greeted by both sycophants and protesters, but for most of us, it will be like international politics in Ukraine: a bunch of big shots twisting each other's arms and working on side-deals, while the Russians beleaguer the eastern front and the people on the ground wait for some supportive gesture from the Leaders of the Free World. In case you haven't noticed, the emperor has no clothes.