Trump impeachment inquiry recap: House releases testimony transcripts as it prepares for public hearings

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Here are the highlights from the impeachment inquiry this week — followed by analysis by chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett and chief congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes:

A new phase

The impeachment inquiry transitioned this week into a more public process. The impeachment committees released transcripts of closed-door testimony from eight witnesses: Fiona HillGeorge KentMichael McKinleyGordon SondlandBill Taylor, Alexander VindmanKurt Volker and Marie Yovanovitch. Not every member of Congress will be reading them, though. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham refuses to read the transcripts because in his view, the impeachment process is a “joke.” When asked about U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland’s revised testimony (more on that below), Graham said he doesn’t care what Sondland thinks. 

Transcript takeaways

Most of the witnesses’ testimonies support the anonymous whistleblower’s complaint that U.S. military aid was conditioned on whether Ukraine investigated 2016 election interference and Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company in which Hunter Biden — the son of Mr. Trump’s political rival — sat on the board. This is controversial because it is illegal to ask foreign entities for election assistance. An investigation into Burisma could have helped Mr. Trump’s reelection campaign. The release of the transcripts prompted Sondland to update his own testimony. He said reading other accounts “refreshed” his own memory and that he now remembers telling a top Ukrainian official that the release of delayed military aid “would likely not occur until Ukraine provided” an announcement of investigations that would have benefited Mr. Trump politically. When he testified before the committees, in October, Sondland had originally said that he believed the White House invitation for Zelensky had no preconditions.

More no-shows

The number of people who have refused to testify in the impeachment process more than tripled this week to 14, after the Justice Department sent a letter on Sunday to the White House that concluded Trump advisers have “absolute immunity” from congressional subpoenas. 

The following current and former White House officials did not show up this week: Robert Blair, the president’s assistant and Mulvaney’s senior adviser; John Bolton, the former national security adviser; T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, a State Department counselor; Michael Duffey, OMB’s associate director for national security programs;  John Eisenberg, the president’s deputy counsel for national security affairs; Michael Ellis, the president’s senior associate counsel; Wells Griffith, a special assistant to the president; Brian McCormack, OMB’s associate director for natural resources, energy and science; Mick Mulvaney, the White House’s acting chief of staff; Rick Perry, the outgoing energy secretary; and Russell Vought, OMB’s director. (Not all of them were subpoenaed; some were simply asked to testify.)

Whistleblower concessions and warnings

The whistleblower is willing to answer written questions directly from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee — on the condition that his or her identity would still be hidden but verified by the inspector general of the intelligence community. But Mr. Trump and his allies want the whistleblower to testify publicly and have called on the media to publish the person’s name, which is protected by federal law. After a week of intense pressure on the whistleblower — including Republican Senator Rand Paul using a Trump rally to urge the media to print the person’s name — their attorney sent the White House a cease-and-desist letter, accusing Mr. Trump of “tampering with a witness” and endangering the whistleblower and their family.

New representation

Rudy Giuliani is still Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, but he’ll be taking a backseat as White House lawyers step up their role in defending the president against impeachment. Meanwhile, Giuliani, who is a central figure in the impeachment inquiry himself, hired several attorneys to represent him. 

Never mind

The House formally withdrew its subpoena for Charles Kupperman, a deputy to former National Security Adviser John Bolton. The White House ordered him and all senior Trump officials not to testify, so Kupperman sued to force a judge to decide whether he should comply with the legislative branch or the executive branch demands. The House said waiting on the court “would only result in delay” of the impeachment process.

Up next week

The impeachment inquiry’s first public hearings begin next week. On Wednesday, Americans will hear from Bill Taylor, the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine; and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs; on Friday, they will hear from Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff also asked Republicans for their witness requests.

— Stefan Becket, Grace Segers, Kathryn Watson, Emily Tillett, Olivia Gazis, Margaret Brennan, Rebecca Kaplan and Arden Farhi contributed.

What will public hearings in impeachment inquiry accomplish?

Perspective

This week, the book. Next week, the mini-series.

That description of the House impeachment process is not meant to trivialize developments past or future but to suggest a useful metaphor of the process.

This week brought the release of hundreds and hundreds of pages of transcripts from impeachment interviews with key figures in the Ukraine story. Taken together, they would make a very large book.

Next week will see the first public hearings where some of the key witnesses will appear before the full Intelligence Committee. That will be the made-for-TV mini-series. Not every witness interviewed will appear.

Democrats on the Intelligence Committee want a tight narrative that illustrates what they believe evidence gathered to date either proves or strongly suggests: President Trump wanted Ukraine to launch investigations into political matters of value to him; he leveraged U.S. military aid as an inducement; he used outside loyalists (like Rudy Giuliani) to apply pressure; and in the process, he abused career diplomats who got in the way. 

That, in a nutshell, is the tale Democrats say has emerged from hours upon hours of closed-door depositions.

Republicans, meanwhile, say that it doesn’t matter what the witnesses have said — what matters is that, in the end, Ukraine launched no investigations and the U.S. military aid, though delayed, was delivered.

Republicans also raised questions about revisions provided by Gordon Sondland, a Trump inauguration donor and diplomatic novice whose revised testimony appeared to reinforce the quid-pro-quo testimony of other witnesses. Republicans branded the revised testimony suspicious. The White House preferred Sondland’s original testimony and threw cold water on potentially damning clarifications. Counselor Kellyanne Conway said Sondland spoke of presumptions and interpretations.

“Ladies and gentleman, be careful, because you cannot impeach a president, remove him from office in a constitutional democracy … based on someone saying ‘they presumed’ and ‘someone saying they interpreted,'” she said.

Some of this reminded me of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. The facts were unpleasant for the president. He had an extra-marital affair and lied about it and encouraged witnesses to be less than cooperative in finding the truth. Clinton defenders said the president’s accusers were partisan, that the allegations of lying about an affair were not worthy of impeachment and that the investigation that unearthed the affair was a conspiracy to drive him from office. 

This may sound familiar.

I remember aides to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich describing these lines of defense as “harassing fire, typically a tactic deployed by an army in retreat.” Gingrich and other Republicans who pressed impeachment to the hilt believed the facts were clear and that Clinton defenders had only arguments about process, motive and partisanship to make.

No impeachment is like another. Not only was Clinton more popular than Trump is now, the evidence being gathered now is about actual uses or abuses of presidential power. 

Congressionally approved military aide is involved, as is the relationship of the U.S. government to another country — one in military and diplomatic distress. In the Clinton impeachment, these presidential powers, congressional prerogatives and national security considerations were not directly implicated — lying about sex was.

Until this week, Republicans tried with some gusto to deny a quid pro quo with Ukraine. Their line of defense crumbled a bit on Capitol Hill this week, though the White House still held to it. Replacing it became the declaration that in the end – despite tactics that Democrats began to call extortion – nothing rotten actually happened. They argued that something nasty or hard-boiled was afoot is meaningless unless said hard-boiled nastiness actually occurred.

It was, in its own historically resonant way, a reminder of what many Republicans said about Trump’s maneuvers to blunt the Mueller investigation: Trump did things that sounded obstructive but legally weren’t. 

With the Ukraine story, Republicans appeared willing to say facts so far uncovered may be unpleasant, unconventional and baldly Trumpian (in that they convey his acknowledged zest for transactional politics), but they say they were not criminal and are not impeachable. 

— Major Garrett

President Trump Departs White House For Georgia
President Trump talks to reporters before boarding Marine One and departing the White House November 8, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Getty Images


What’s next?

For Democrats, the stakes are high in the upcoming public hearings — the material is complicated, there are many unfamiliar names in a large cast of characters. Some Americans will be trying to get to know the names and faces and others may just ignore the proceedings. Democrats have to figure out how to simplify and make the case clear and simple for the casual observer that the president’s behavior was so egregious that it merits removal from office.

This is their one shot at impeachment, and they’re being careful about who they’ve chosen to call to testify in the open hearings and who will do the questioning. Robert Mueller’s testimony backfired for them earlier this year. He would not say that the president had committed crimes and was a reluctant witness.

The witnesses we’ll see next week are willing, well-spoken, experienced, nonpartisan witnesses. Democrats are banking on them to be the right vehicles. 

Republicans are going to be starting fights with Democrats, creating distractions. They moved Representative Jim Jordan to the Intelligence Committee not just because he’s attended the depositions. He’s good at starting fights with Democrats, making the defense into a fight about the process, rather than about the witnesses and what they saw. 

They will likely continue to argue that the hearings are out of line and take the focus away from the witnesses. We saw this with Senator Lindsey Graham this week, who said he won’t be reading the transcripts and he doesn’t care about Gordon Sondland in light of his changed testimony.

Many Republicans are in a tough position, though. They don’t want to abandon the president, but they don’t want to be the face of his defense either. 

— Nancy Cordes



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