The path to impeachment: 3 key revelations in the Trump/Ukraine scandal
Keeping track of the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Trump's attempts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Vice President Joe Biden is an exhausting task. There are new developments breaking in the story every single day, and the president is regularly trying to distract from the issue by, say, taking a trip to Pennsylvania. If you're feeling out of the loop regarding the latest news in the impeachment saga, here are three new developments that broke this week that will get you up to speed, along with the people you need to know.
The key players this week:
- Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a congressman from New York. Nadler’s committee has been helming the impeachment process since the House Intelligence Committee passed its fact-finding report over last week. On Tuesday, Nadler announced which charges House Democrats would bring against Trump.
- Donald Trump, the president of the United States and the reason this is all happening. It’s obvious that he’s a key player in this whole affair — but particularly this week, his rhetoric on impeachment has Democrats wondering about new worst-case scenarios.
- Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and a senator from Kentucky. As the Republican leader of the upper chamber, McConnell would lead Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate. He offered some pretty clear insight into how that might go this week.
1. House Democrats unveil two articles of impeachment, signaling a narrow approach.
The takeaway: On Tuesday, Nadler revealed that House Democrats would charge Trump with two impeachable offenses: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. It took Democrats just shy of three months to get here.
The incriminating details: Democrats were considering a variety of charges: abuse of power, bribery, obstruction of Congress. They were also considering invoking some of the revelations from the special counsel report into Russia’s election interference in 2016 to add obstruction of justice to the president’s possible rap sheet.
In the end, though, they landed on the narrowest possible approach to impeachment. They decided not to reference the Russia investigation at all, and abandoned the bribery charge that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had floated in recent weeks.
Instead, the articles focused intently on 2020. Trump abused his presidential power “when he solicited and pressured Ukraine to interfere in our 2020 presidential election — thus damaging our national security, undermining the integrity of the next election, and violating his oath to the American people,” Nadler said. He added that Trump’s actions toward Zelensky were furthermore “consistent” with his “previous invitations of foreign interference in our 2016 presidential election.”
Nadler presented the articles sequentially, noting that the second charge — obstruction of Congress — came into play only after the investigation into Trump’s conduct with Zelensky had begun. “When he was caught — when the House investigated and opened an impeachment inquiry — President Trump engaged in unprecedented, categorical, and indiscriminate defiance of the impeachment inquiry,” Nadler said. The White House directed several key witnesses not to testify to House investigators, citing executive privilege in broad cases, and defied subpoenas.
Nadler echoed a favorite phrase among Democrats during the Trump presidency: “No one, not even the president, is above the law,” he said. He additionally preemptively addressed some criticism from Trump supporters — including the president himself — that impeachment is supposed to be a last-resort option that is rarely used. In introducing the articles, Nadler began by saying: "Our president holds the ultimate public trust. When he betrays that trust, and puts himself before country, he endangers the Constitution, he endangers our democracy, and he endangers our national security. The framers prescribed a clear remedy for presidents who violate their oath of office. That is the power of impeachment.”
What we still want to know: Would Democrats have been better off lobbing the most charges possible against Trump to see what stuck? We’ll never really be able to know the answer to that, but it’s an obvious question given how publicly the various charges were being floated. It’s also one that appears to be haunting some Democrats themselves — more on that below.
2. President Trump publicly downplays impeachment, while Democrats wonder about worst-case scenarios.
The takeaway: Trump held a raucous rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania, this week, where he floated staying in office for 29 more years. It’s hardly the first time Trump has suggested he might break with the Constitution and serve indefinitely, but given the current climate, it signaled a president unwilling to be chastened by impeachment. The president’s overall public posturing has prompted Democrats to wonder what they might do if Trump is acquitted by the Senate, given their most powerful tool — impeachment — will have already been deployed.
The incriminating details: Trump’s Pennsylvania event was pinpointed as a possible hotbed even before it happened by PennLive.com’s David Wenner. Wenner noted that Trump barely won the state in 2016, and its heightened importance to his re-election hopes, combined with the ongoing impeachment effort, might spur the president to be more aggressive in his speech.
He wasn’t wrong. Vox’s Aaron Rupar claimed the Pennsylvania rally “revealed a presidency off the rails,” listing various controversial moments from Trump’s appearance, including when the president slandered FBI leadership and lobbed personal attacks against a possible 2020 competitor, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He also slammed the “stupid” impeachment inquiry, saying Democrats were “embarrassed” by the process. “This is the lightest, weakest impeachment,” the president said, calling the Democrats’ case “flimsy” and “pathetic.”
What we still want to know: With the president hardly appearing to back down as an impeachment trial looks increasingly inevitable, Politico reported that some Democrats were starting to consider what might happen if Trump is acquitted and, basically, learns nothing from the whole affair. “Democrats are only just beginning to confront the paradox that their imminent impeachment vote creates,” Politico wrote: “What happens when a remorseless president commits the same behavior that got him impeached in the first place — only this time after the House has already deployed the most potent weapon in its arsenal?”
Lawmakers had various approaches to the question. Florida Rep. Val Demings countered with a hypothetical question, asking, “Should we stop stopping speeders if they still speed?” Pennsylvania Rep. Madeleine Dean argued that the focus must be on calling out impeachable behavior, rather than on the political likelihood of acquittal in the Senate. “The behavior is the president’s. The blame is on the president. We are not responsible for that,” Dean told Politico. “If he continues in that behavior, we hope the Senate will do their duty.”
Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, however, had the more cynical approach. “I have not allowed myself to entertain that sequence of hypotheticals,” he told Politico of the possibility that Trump is acquitted and continues behaving just as he did before. “If he’s just impeached and not removed, we will definitely have to continue to deal with a lawless and ungovernable president.”
Trump has yet to be chastened by any pushback or scolding throughout his presidency, really. So it’s easy to imagine that he would feel vindicated by an acquittal in the Senate — and emerge possibly more aggressive and emboldened. If that’s the case, historians will be left to wonder whether Democrats made the right decision in impeaching Trump at this time and on these charges. And if he wins re-election in 2020, count on there to be questions of whether Democrats should try impeaching the president again in his second term, if there’s some new scandal akin to the Ukraine affair.
3. The Judiciary Committee advances impeachment to the full floor, setting up a trial for Mitch McConnell.
The takeaway: On Friday, after a lengthy and contentious debate that began late Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to send the articles of impeachment to the full House for a vote. The full lower chamber is expected to vote on impeachment next week, before Congress adjourns for the holidays on Dec. 20.
The incriminating details: It took 15 hours of yelling to move this vote forward. The so-called “markup” process, which allows House members to modify bills and propose amendments, began at 7 pm. ET on Thursday, virtually guaranteeing a late night right off the bat. The New York Times explains that House rules allow each member of the committee five minutes to make an opening statement; with 41 lawmakers on the panel, this portion alone took hours.
Then came the fireworks. Republicans tried to add several amendments, including explaining why Trump withheld aid from Ukraine and name-checking Hunter Biden, the Times reported, not to mention their attempts to kill both articles altogether. The Hunter Biden suggestion came from Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and set off a particularly ugly exchange, as Gaetz referenced the younger Biden’s history of substance abuse, prompting a Democrat to invoke Gaetz’s previous drunk driving arrest.
Eventually, late Thursday, Nadler gaveled to adjourn the session and resume Friday morning, which resulted in uproar from the Republican side of the dais. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the panel’s top Republican, said Nadler’s decision was “the most bush league stunt I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” The whole thing was couched in politics: Some believe that Republicans prolonged the markup process to force the vote to advance the articles out of committee to happen in the middle of the night, setting up an obvious Republican talking point; others argue Nadler postponed the vote until the morning to have TV cameras at the ready.
What we still want to know: The vote next week is mostly a formality — it’s all but certain that House Democrats will flex their majority muscles and move impeachment to the Senate in a partisan vote. That sets up the likelihood of an impeachment trial in the Senate early next year, helmed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
So the big question is: Is there any chance the Senate trial is for real? Removing the president requires a supermajority in the Senate. There are plenty of signs that the outcome is preordained, that the chamber’s Republican majority would never let Trump be convicted and removed from office. For one, a stunning 20 GOP lawmakers would have to break rank to side with Democrats for Trump to be removed; for two, that itself assumes that every single Democratic-leaning senator would vote to convict Trump, which isn’t a guarantee.
In addition to the tough math, McConnell has given critics plenty of ammunition to declare the trial will be rigged from the start. The Washington Post reported earlier this week that the two strategies being floated in the Senate are a quick trial with no witnesses, in an attempt to avoid political theater and media sound bites that could hamper the 2020 election, or a lengthy, fiery trial with a long, politically pointed list of witnesses — this reportedly being the White House’s preference, so that Trump can weaponize the drama for his re-election campaign.
Notably, both proposals have an eye toward benefiting Republicans in 2020, rather than determining whether the president committed impeachable offenses and should be removed. Damningly, McConnell appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show Thursday night and uttered these words when discussing how he’d handle the inevitable Senate trial: “Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with White House counsel. There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this.”
He added, per the Post: “I’m going to take my cues from the president’s lawyers.” Even conservative pundit Bill Kristol pointed out the obvious problems with McConnell’s remarks.
So we know Democrats opted for a narrow approach to impeachment, hoping to nail Trump on the most specific of charges. We also know that there’s agita within the Democratic caucus that impeachment will do absolutely nothing to curb Trump’s problematic behavior, and that there is at least one and possibly five more years of his presidency ahead. With statements like this, it’s hard not to wonder whether any of this will matter at all.
WEEK OF DEC. 2
The key players this week:
- Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff’s committee led the first phase of the impeachment inquiry, calling witnesses from the upper levels of government to testify about Trump and his associates’ dealings with Ukraine. On Tuesday, the committee released a 300-page report summarizing what it learned during this fact-finding portion of the impeachment process.
- Jonathan Turley, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and the only Republican-selected witness during a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. Turley and three other law professors — the rest of whom were invited by the committee’s Democrats — were convened to discuss whether Trump’s actions violated the constitution and rose to the level of impeachable offenses.
- Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker. On Thursday, she moved the impeachment inquiry ahead by asking Democratic leaders to draft articles of impeachment, keeping to the accelerated timeline her party had outlined at the outset of the investigation.
1. Adam Schiff drops a 300-page bomb.
The takeaway: With the release of its impeachment report, the Intelligence Committee moved the impeachment process along to the Judiciary Committee’s jurisdiction. Most of the report contained information that had become public through reporting as well as closed and open hearings that have taken place in recent weeks. But there were a few notable revelations, as well as a prelude by Schiff that made clear that Democrats believe Trump’s actions rise to the level of impeachable conduct.
The incriminating details: The document, called “The Trump-Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Report,” declares that the president “subverted U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine and undermined our national security in favor of two politically motivated investigations that would help his presidential re-election campaign” — that is, his demands that Zelensky investigate the Bidens and also a disproven conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election. The report further stated that investigators had “uncovered a monthslong effort by [Trump] to use the powers of his office to solicit foreign interference on his behalf in the 2020 election,” dubbing the apparent efforts by Trump and his associates to strongarm Ukraine a “scheme.”
While most of the information in the report was previously known, it did contain some new details about the work investigators had done behind closed doors — mostly in relation to Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer and a key figure in the Ukraine affair. Per The New York Times, the report revealed extensive communication between Giuliani and California Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, during the time a smear campaign was being propagated against Marie Yovanovitch, then the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Cell phone records obtained by the inquiry show “a series of phone calls” between Giuliani and Nunes that happened while GIuliani was campaigning for Yovanovitch’s recall, per the Times. When asked about Nunes’s appearance in the evidence, Schiff said that “it is deeply concerning” that a member of Congress may have been “complicit” in Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine, but declined to speak to whether Nunes should recuse himself from the investigation.
The report declines to state outright that the House should vote to impeach Trump, though it does strongly suggest that course of action. In a prelude Schiff attached to the 300-page document, he specifically undermined Trump’s frequent cry that Democrats are simply trying to relitigate the 2016 election because they lost. Impeachment “was specifically intended to serve as the ultimate form of accountability for a duly-elected president,” Schiff wrote. “Rather than a mechanism to overturn an election, impeachment was explicitly contemplated as a remedy of last resort for a president who fails to faithfully execute his oath of office.”
What we still want to know: The release of the Intelligence Committee’s report signals that the Judiciary Committee will now helm the impeachment process. But Schiff’s panel said it would continue investigative work, even as the Judiciary Committee begins identifying and drafting articles of impeachment. Several witnesses sought by Democrats, like John Bolton, the former national security adviser, and Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, have still yet to testify. In McGahn’s case, a court has ruled that he should honor a subpoena, though investigators declined to subpoena Bolton as well to avoid a protracted legal battle. It’s unclear which witnesses may still appear, or what specifically the Intelligence Committee will continue probing.
Additionally, the committee’s report was met with a companion document released by Republicans to defend Trump’s actions. It sought to discredit some witness testimony that had been damaging to the president — and pushed the debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election, showing how bogus information has infiltrated Capitol Hill at the highest levels.
It begs the question: How would Trump’s likely acquittal by the Senate affect the ongoing campaign against the truth? If he is acquitted by the upper chamber’s Republican majority, it seems like that will be surefire ammunition for critics to feel validated in their cries of “fake news.” If even objective evidence provided by highly trained career government officials isn’t enough to net a conviction, that outcome combined with the current polarized information climate may do further damage to facts — an idea that should frighten both sides of the aisle.
2. Jonathan Turley cautions Democrats about moving too fast — but doesn’t really quibble on the merits.
The takeaway: The Republicans’ lone witness at Wednesday’s hearing before the House Judiciary Committee was a solitary voice among the four law professors called to the stand. While the other three law professors called to testify — Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School, Pamela Karlan of Stanford Law School, and Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina School of Law — largely offered legal backing for Democrats’ claims that Trump’s actions were impeachable, Turley was instead more reserved about the progression of things.
The incriminating details: By far Turley’s buzziest quote of the day was when he cautioned Democrats against pushing ahead with a preordained outcome too quickly. By leaving key witnesses on the table — by declining to subpoena Bolton’s testimony, for example — Turley said that Democrats were guilty of the same wrongdoing they are attributing to the president.
If Democrats issued subpoenas that were then upheld by courts, and witnesses still refused to testify under orders from the White House, “then you have an obstruction case,” Turley said. That’s because unless a higher court stays the order for the person to testify, their refusal per the White House’s orders would constitute obstruction, he explained.
“But I can’t emphasize this enough,” Turley continued. “If you impeach a president — if you make a high crime and misdemeanor out of going to the courts — it is an abuse of power. It’s your abuse of power. You’re doing precisely what you’re criticizing the president for doing.” The decision for the legislative branch to circumvent the judicial branch in persecuting the executive branch is improper, Turley argued, and violates the checks and balances system outlined in the Constitution.
Turley’s quote was of course passed around by conservative media figures and politicians, and he published a follow-up op-ed in The Hill on Thursday that further skewered Democrats for rushing their investigation process. But The Atlantic points out that for all of Turley’s scolding of Democrats, he didn’t do the one thing that would actually damage their case: disagree with it.
Feldman, Karlan, and Gerhardt all stated clearly that they believed Trump’s actions toward Ukraine met the impeachable standard. While Turley’s wording and overall message was slightly different, The Atlantic notes he did not break with his fellow witnesses: “As he delivered his opening oral remarks,” Joshua A. Geltzer wrote, “he cut to the heart of the matter: ‘The use of military aid for a quid pro quo to investigate one’s political opponent, if proven, can be an impeachable offense.’”
What we still want to know: Democrats have held fast to the vote-before-Christmas timeline that they outlined at the beginning of this whole thing. (More on that below.) So Turley’s quibbles, it seems, will fall on deaf ears for now. When things move to the Republican-controlled Senate, though, it’s all but guaranteed that the tenor of the impeachment process will change drastically.
In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether Turley’s larger points will break through the way his “abuse of power” comment did. His op-ed in The Hill makes clear that he believes impeachable conduct exists, and that the Democrats’ possible charges are valid. What he says is that the evidence for those charges is still lacking. Will either side of the aisle reckon with those statements?
3. Nancy Pelosi sets up a Christmas showdown.
The takeaway: On Thursday, Pelosi asked the Democratic chairmen leading the House’s impeachment investigation to begin drafting articles of impeachment against Trump. It was a historic move, and notable because Pelosi’s phrasing indicated that multiple committee chairs could be involved in the process, rather than solely the Judiciary Committee chairman as has traditionally been the case. It’s expected that a vote will take place in the lower chamber by Dec. 20, the last day Congress is in session for the year.
The incriminating details: Pelosi has been laying the groundwork for a bribery charge for a few weeks now, and Karlan, Feldman, and Gerhardt were specific in outlining how Trump’s actions may have met the Framers’ definition of high crimes and misdemeanors.
The charges, per Vox, are expected to include abuse of power, bribery, and obstruction. There may be one or two articles spanning abuse of power and possibly bribery stemming from Trump’s apparent attempt to make congressionally approved aid and a White House meeting with Ukraine contingent upon that country opening up investigations that would be politically beneficial to him. There may then be one charge of obstruction of Congress due to the White House’s consistent stonewalling of the investigation, as well as another possibly tied to the lingering question of whether Trump obstructed justice during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
What we still want to know: At this point, we’re approaching what is, at the end of the day, the only question that really matters: Will any of this stand a chance in the Senate? Trump’s response to Pelosi’s announcement was to urge Democrats to hold the vote quickly so that his case may move on to the Republican-controlled Senate. His assumption that the Democratic majority in the House will vote to officially impeach him is probably sound one — but in the Senate, odds are rather long that the president would actually ever be convicted and removed from office.
The White House has signaled that it won’t deign to mount a defense for Trump while the process still lies with the House. In a brief letter to Nadler, White House counsel Pat Cipollone declared the lower chamber’s investigation “completely baseless” and echoed his boss’s call for things, if they must proceed, to proceed in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s realm.
It’s clear Team Trump believes the Senate will absolve their guy and make this whole mess go away once and for all. Odds are, they’re right. Pelosi’s plan to hold a House vote before the end of the year means the process should be in the Senate’s hands sooner rather than later, bringing an end to most of the suspense that this process had to offer.
So if we already know things will move to the Senate, and we already know what the Senate will do, there’s only one more question that remains: How will this affect the 2020 election, from the top of the ticket on down? Unfortunately, we still have nearly a year before we’ll know that answer.
WEEK OF NOV. 18
The key players this week:
- Gordon Sondland, the Trump-appointed ambassador to the European Union. A wealthy hotelier, he supported Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican primary but then donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration fund. Sondland has been central to the impeachment inquiry, first testifying behind closed doors, then issuing a revised written statement that completely reversed his private testimony, then appearing publicly this week.
- Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official who specialized in Russian and European affairs. She testified publicly this week about the irregular channels of diplomacy that she saw operating in Ukraine, emphasizing the fact she has served under Republican and Democratic administrations.
- Donald Trump, the president of the United States and the reason this is all happening. Trump is accused of making congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine contingent upon Zelensky launching investigations into Biden and other politically beneficial issues. He has called the impeachment inquiry “witch hunt,” but this week’s testimony makes that harder and harder to buy.
1. Gordon Sondland names names at his public testimony.
The takeaway: As Sondland had initially told investigators that there was not a quid pro quo, only to then submit a revised testimony a few weeks later that said there was, it was not clear how exactly he’d behave in public testimony. But it didn’t take long into his hearing for it to become evident that his strategy was to give as much information as possible.
“Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” Sondland said, setting the tone for a hearing that was not flattering — and certainly not exculpatory — for the president or many of the officials in his closest circle, including his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The incriminating details: Beyond explicitly saying there had been a quid pro quo, Sondland also pushed back on any defense Trump might continue to try to use that he didn’t know about the demands being made on his behalf. When the Democratic counsel, Daniel Goldman, asked Sondland how he knew the information was coming from the president when it was being delivered through Giuliani, Sondland pointed out how Trump had specifically repeatedly told him to talk to Giuliani.
"You understood that Mr. Giuliani spoke for the president. That's correct?" Goldman asked Sondland. "That's correct,” Sondland replied.
Sondland also seemed determined to detonate any chance Trump or any of his people might have taken to turn him into the fall guy. Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, had earlier submitted text messages where Sondland denied the existence of a quid pro quo while he was working on the arrangement. In those records, Sondland seemed set on shutting down text conversations that could produce an electronic trail. It was in his revised statement submitted earlier this month that Sondland claimed he was merely telling Taylor what the president had told him, not what he himself believed.
On Wednesday, Sondland made it clear that any irregular channels of communication that were open between the United States and Ukraine were known to many high-level White House officials. Those channels would have been approved from the top down, he indicated, with the knowledge of Trump, Pence, Mulvaney, and Pompeo.
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said. “It was no secret.”
What we still want to know: Sondland explicitly called out Pence, Pompeo, Mulvaney, and Giuliani. Will any of them cooperate with the impeachment inquiry now that they are being publicly dragged into it? Or will they decide that sticking with Trump is the winning bet, and refuse to come before the House even if they are called?
It’s also worth watching whether Trump launches a full-scale assault against Sondland, now that the ambassador has given particularly damaging testimony. Trump has done this in the past with other people who flipped on him, like his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
Sondland’s appearance was a particular slap in the face, though, because he’s a Republican who Trump appointed to his position and who has helped reinforce the allegations against the president. Will he be the start of more Republicans turning on Trump?
2. Fiona Hill demolishes the Republican defense — and calls out conspiracy theorists.
The takeaway: While it is easy to feel like impeachment is an inherently political, partisan process — if you listen to Democrats and Republicans recap the same event, it often sounds like they were at different hearings entirely — Hill came eager to show that she was an unbiased patriot who only wanted what was best for the country.
Hill was composed and measured, painting a clear picture of the machinations she saw unfolding in Ukraine. In her testimony, she often focused on the effects this controversy was having on American foreign relations and national security; the aid that was apparently swept up in Trump’s quid pro quo is given in the first place to deter Russian aggression, a key U.S. policy plank. When Hill was asked whether it is not in fact the president’s prerogative to redirect American foreign policy as he sees fit, she said that it is — but the problem in this case was that national security officials were not informed of these decisions, so they weren’t acting consistently with the president’s message.
The incriminating details: Hill’s testimony was powerful in multiple ways. Unlike someone like Sondland, whom she described as being involved in a “domestic foreign errand,” Hill’s perspective as a career official who’d served under several administrations lends her additional credibility. In that capacity, she detailed how having multiple communication channels with Ukraine was hindering diplomats, and furthermore endangering American national security. If overseas governments are receiving mixed messages from the U.S., it undermines the entire American foreign policy apparatus, she explained.
She additionally cut down the conspiracy theory that Trump and Giuliani have been pushing that it was actually Ukraine, not Russia, that launched a cyberattack during the 2016 election. "Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” she said. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves."
Her analysis made it clear that not only is that theory unfair to Ukraine — a country that no experts have implicated in the 2016 meddling — but that it also gives a free pass to Russia for the intervention it already carried out. American intelligence agencies have confirmed Russian interference, and experts are concerned that Trump’s consistent dismissal of that fact could allow the country to successfully interfere in future elections.
Hill also, notably, called on other public servants who might have relevant knowledge to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry. It’s easy to interpret her comment as a specific nudge to John Bolton, the former national security adviser, whose testimony is highly sought by Democrats but who so far has played hardball. "I believe that those who have information that the Congress deems relevant have a legal and moral obligation to provide it,” she said.
What we still want to know: Hill’s testimony is compelling to political experts and establishment figures in Washington, D.C. She’s a nonpartisan, career diplomat, and she spoke strongly and clearly of the situation as she witnessed it unfold. But she’s not a household name, and not as bombastic a figure as someone like Sondland. It remains to be seen whether her testimony could have any substantive impact on public opinion, even though her statements have been printed in myriad headlines in recent days.
More interestingly, however, will be whether Hill’s calls for people who have knowledge about the Ukraine affair are enough to compel someone like Bolton to testify. Democrats need a known figure to state clearly wrongdoing on Trump’s part, and in a sea of embedded foreign policy officials there aren’t many famous faces. Bolton is so far the closest person to that mold, and securing his testimony would be a big win for the pro-impeachment crowd.
3. President Trump tries a few different defense strategies.
The takeaway: During Sondland’s testimony Wednesday, Trump created a viral sensation when showed up to talk to reporters while wielding a pad of paper with large notes written in black marker. The notes were a transcription of a short section of Sondland’s testimony where the ambassador said Trump had told him: “I want nothing. No quid pro quo.” Trump spoke to the media, pushing this line and arguing that it meant the inquiry had reached a dead end.
While the majority of Sondland’s testimony did not in fact support this line of argument, Trump deployed a media tactic he has often employed throughout his presidency: identifying and repeating over and over one small messaging soundbite. Consider his repeated tweets and statements of “No collusion!” or “Read the transcript!” “No quid pro quo” may be his new statement du jour — but whether it actually holds up is another matter entirely.
The incriminating details: Trump has taken a few different approaches to discredit the testimony of witnesses during the impeachment inquiry. Last week, as Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was testifying before the House, Trump attacked her on Twitter in real time:
This week, he again attacked Yovanovitch in a Friday phone interview with Fox & Friends. Trump specifically said Yovanovitch was “no angel” while telling a bizarre story to reinforce his claims that she was actively working against him while serving as the U.S. envoy to Ukraine.
"This ambassador that, you know, everybody says is so wonderful, she wouldn't hang my picture in the embassy,” Trump said. “She is in charge of the embassy. She wouldn't hang it. It took like a year and a half, two years to get the picture up.” This claim has not been corroborated, and CBS News noted that a member of Yovanovitch’s legal team said in a statement that portraits of Trump, Pence, and Pompeo were hung in the embassy “as soon as they arrived from Washington, D.C.”
When it came to Sondland, Trump tried a different tack — one that he’s resorted to many times when confronted with damaging information from a close associate. He acted like he barely knew him.
“I don’t know him very well,” Trump told reporters outside of the White House. “I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. Seems like a nice guy though. He was with other candidates. He actually supported other candidates.”
This is at odds with reports that people heard Trump talk to Sondland on the phone about the investigations, as well as Sondland’s own description of their rather informal way of communicating. Trump has denied that call. But from David Duke to his former campaign officials to columnist E. Jean Carroll, who has accused him of rape, Trump has repeatedly tried to simply say he doesn’t know someone whose existence has proved inconvenient — even when that claim is demonstrably false.
What we still want to know: How much credibility has Trump lost through this impeachment inquiry, with the majority of witnesses testifying in ways that are not doing him or his reputation any favors? Is there a point at which Republicans might begin to turn on Trump, or at least signal that his conviction by a GOP-led Senate is as least possible?
It’s unlikely. And this is far from the first time we’ve seen mountains of evidence that Trump is untruthful, and that reputation hasn’t hurt him so far. If anything, people appreciate his “honesty” when he blurts out new opinions.
Perhaps the more appropriate question, then, is this: If he is impeached by the Democratic-led House, but acquitted by the Republican-led Senate, will any of this hurt his chances for re-election?
WEEK OF NOV. 11
The key players this week:
- Bill Taylor, George Kent, and Marie Yovanovitch, career government officials with extensive experience in Ukraine. Taylor is the U.S.’s top diplomat in the country and a lifelong public servant who has served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, including as the ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009. Kent is the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, where he oversees policy for a number of eastern European nations, including Ukraine; he’s been in the foreign service since 1992. Yovanovitch is the former ambassador to Ukraine who was ousted from her post in May by the Trump administration after amassing more than 30 years of experience in the Foreign Service.
- Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker. Pelosi was initially hesitant to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump, but after the whistleblower complaint prompted a group of freshman Democratic lawmakers from swing districts to vocalize their support, she gave the greenlight. She’s become increasingly vocal about the now-public investigation.
- Brad Parscale, the campaign manager for Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. As unflattering allegations come out about Trump’s conduct in the impeachment inquiry, Parscale is using social media to try to spin the narrative, deploying the investigation as a fundraising tool and portraying it as a “witch hunt” by Democrats.
1. Key witnesses bring the receipts to first public hearings.
The takeaway: In the first week of the public impeachment hearings, Democrats have called on three key witnesses: Taylor, Kent, and Yovanovitch. Each diplomat’s testimony was unique, but they all reinforced Democratic allegations that Trump’s behavior toward, and demands of, Ukraine were unprecedented, unethical, and not in the interest of American national security.
“Holding up of security assistance that would go to a country that is fighting aggression from Russia for no good policy reason, no good substantive reason, no good national security reason is wrong,” Taylor said in his testimony. In Yovanovitch’s hearing, she spoke of feeling like Trump — who was live-tweeting about her as she testified — was trying to intimidate her. She also talked about how it felt to see herself become a subject of the conversation between Trump and Zelensky, as revealed by the White House’s summary transcript.
"I was shocked and devastated that I would feature in a phone call between two heads of state in such a manner,” Yovanovitch said, “where President Trump said that I was ‘bad news’ to another world leader. And that I would be going through some things.”
The incriminating details: In their individual testimonies, Taylor, Kent, and Yovanovitch all appeared fully ready to discuss the magnitude of Trump’s discussions with Zelensky. Trump claims that Biden acted corruptly in pressuring Ukraine to fire its former prosecutor general, for the purpose of protecting work his son, Hunter Biden, was doing with a Ukranian energy company. But both Kent and Yovanovitch made it clear that Biden was acting in accordance with official U.S. policy at the time in calling for that firing.
Beyond disproving Trump’s unfounded allegations against Biden, Taylor in particular shed bright light on why he found Trump’s actions toward Ukraine so troubling. Taylor spoke of a State Department staffer who told him of overhearing a previously undisclosed conversation between Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Trump. Per Taylor’s recounting, the staffer said Trump explicitly asked Sondland about the status of the “investigations,” and Sondland replied that the Ukranains were ready to move forward.
Yovanovitch, who was removed from her position after what she calls a smear campaign led by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Guiliani, presented testimony that helped explain the danger of a president and his allies allowing personal interests to supercede the country’s national security. “I remain disappointed that the [State] Department’s leadership and others have declined to acknowledge that the attacks against me and others are dangerously wrong,” she said, indirectly incriminating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “As Foreign Service professionals are being denigrated and undermined, the institution is also being degraded. This will soon cause real harm, if it hasn’t already.”
What we still want to know: Will the testimony of Taylor, Kent, and Yovanovitch be enough to persuade any Republicans? Will their long careers in public service sufficiently establish them as impartial, patriotic voices in an incredibly polarized political moment?
While the Democrats would have the votes to impeach the president in the House on their own, they would then need at least 20 Republican senators to vote to remove Trump — and that’s assuming all Democratic senators vote yes, which is not a guarantee. While that sort of mass Republican defection is incredibly unlikely, the public testimony of Taylor, Kent, and Yovanovitch, could still put Republicans in a tough spot politically as they answer for alleged conduct by the leader of their party that has now been aired to the public.
Republicans have attempted to undermine the testimony, pointing out that none of the three witnesses have firsthand knowledge of Trump’s call with Ukraine. In Yovanovitch’s case, they’ve argued that Trump as president has the right to remove an ambassador if he does not feel she best represents the interests of the U.S. Like many events in the Trump presidency — such as when he publicly sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over American intelligence agencies on their conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election — this is a moment that will make Republicans choose between Trump and the longstanding institutions of the U.S. government.
2. Nancy Pelosi escalates her rhetoric in accusations against Trump.
The takeaway: Where Pelosi was hesitant to launch an impeachment inquiry earlier this year, she is now increasingly fierce in her rhetoric about the president’s alleged wrongdoing. On Thursday, during her weekly news conference at the Capitol, she used the word “bribery” to describe his behavior toward Zelensky — which is significant when you consider that bribery is an action that is explicitly mentioned in the Constitution as an impeachable offense.
During Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump, the president’s allies, including Giuliani, often pointed out that “collusion” was not itself a crime. The same arguments haven’t carried over super well to the impeachment inquiry, but the point stands: Pelosi is clearly choosing her words carefully as the details about Trump’s alleged misconduct come to light.
The incriminating details: Pelosi first used “bribery” in reference to reports that Trump withheld $400 million in congressionally approved defense aid for Ukraine to pressure Zelensky into launching politically helpful investigations. Taylor’s testimony Wednesday “corroborated evidence of bribery uncovered in the inquiry, and that the president abused his power and violated his oath by threatening to withhold military aid and a White House meeting in exchange for an investigation into his political rival,” Pelosi said, calling the scheme “a clear attempt by the president to give himself an advantage in the 2020 election.”
Pelosi laid out the facts as she saw them in blunt terms: “The bribe is to grant or withhold military assistance in return for a public statement of a fake investigation into the elections. That's bribery.”
Pelosi is not the only powerful Democrat using that phrase to describe Trump’s actions. Earlier this week, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) explained to NPR that the way the Constitution is written, the word bribery could absolutely encapsulate Trump’s actions. "As the Founders understood bribery, it was not as we understand it in law today. It was much broader," Schiff said. "It connoted the breach of the public trust in a way where you're offering official acts for some personal or political reason, not in the nation's interest."
In her weekly gaggle, Pelosi made it clear that the House has not officially decided to move forward with impeachment while continuing to float the idea that Trump had attempted to bribe Ukraine. "We haven't even made a decision to impeach. That's what the inquiry is about,” she said. “What I am saying [is] that what the president has admitted to, and says is 'perfect' — I say it's perfectly wrong. It's bribery."
What we still want to know: It appears that Pelosi and her caucus are floating the bribery charge as an easy-to-understand crime to present to American voters. If the populace is able to be convinced that Trump acted unethically — if not committed a crime outright — it would help make the political case the only reasonable option is to impeach him.
How the bribery claim plays before the public will take some time to shake out. But this step of moving toward identifying a specific set of charges begs the question of whether the House Judiciary Committee is beginning to envision exactly how they would codify Trump's actions in any hypothetical articles of impeachment.
There are only a few weeks left before Congress breaks for the holidays. When session resumes in the near year, it’ll be the blink of an eye before the presidential elections begin in earnest; the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses take place Feb. 3. With that timeline in mind, we are likely to see the House begin to move fast with the hope that the impeachment process does not hurt Democrats’ presidential changes.
3. Brad Parscale says public hearings have proved to be the ultimate fundraising tool.
The takeaway: On Thursday, Parscale tweeted that the president had raised more than $3 million dollars Wednesday alone — the first day of the public impeachment hearings. The revelations highlight Democrats’ greatest fear: that the investigation could actually strengthen Trump’s support.
The incriminating details: As lifelong public servants and diplomats deliver testimony that appears damaging for Trump, the president and his team are managing to turn the experience into a lucrative moment of fundraising. Parscale has suggested that the impeachment inquiry is actually a good thing — at least when it comes to raising money and inspiring grassroots enthusiasm.
The Associated Press reported that Trump campaign spokesman Rick Gorka said that "pushback efforts" against the impeachment proceedings "have generated nearly $10 million in free press in the states." While it is not clear exactly how Gorka calculated the dollar amount for this windfall, it is arguable that in a highly polarized media climate, all press is good press — especially amidst an impeachment investigation whose outcome, and lasting political consequences, depends on convincing the American people.
This deluge of money is troubling for Democrats, who have watched as Trump and the Republican National Committee have raised eye-popping amounts of money. In the third quarter of this year alone, Trump and the RNC raised $125 million combined. At the end of August, the GOP’s national arm had $53.8 million on hand, while the DNC had just $8.2 million, Politico reported.
What we still want to know: While Trump and the Republicans have proven to be formidable fundraisers, we will not be able to see the full picture until Federal Elections Commission filing deadlines at the end of December. Additionally, though Trump has had a huge fundraising advantage against any prospective Democratic opponent thus far, that could change as the field eventually winnows down and a nominee eventually emerges by June of next year. When that happens, Democratic dollars will be spread among far fewer candidates, and could coalesce into a formidable sum of their own.
WEEK OF NOV. 4
The key players this week:
- Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The California lawmaker has been central to the ongoing impeachment inquiry, leading the investigation, calling witnesses, and earning the frequent ire of the president.
- Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. As a longtime Republican donor and Trump appointee, the main offering of his initial testimony was that he said the president was “crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind” with Ukraine. In revised testimony this week, though, he blew up that line — which had been central to the president’s defense.
- John Bolton, the former national security adviser. Bolton left the Trump administration in September, and at the time it was thought that the president’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban were the final straw, after a series of disagreements over North Korea and Iran. But new information about dealings with Ukraine over the summer sheds new light on his departure.
1. Adam Schiff announces public hearings will begin next week.
The takeaway: After the House voted last week to establish the rules and terms of the impeachment inquiry, it thrust the investigation into a new phase. That began this week with the public release of transcripts from closed-door depositions, and it will continue next week as certain witnesses are called to testify for the second time — but this time before the public.
“These open hearings will be an opportunity for the American people to evaluate the witnesses for themselves,” Schiff said. With the inquiry now in a more public phase, Republicans will have increased ability to call their own witnesses, while Democrats are gambling they can make a case to the public that will bolster their political and electoral hopes.
The incriminating details: The transcripts released this week have put a finer point on many of the details revealed to the press in recent days, following the confidential testimonies of various witnesses. So far, investigators released the 375 pages of Sondland’s original October testimony, along with a three-page addendum provided this week (more on that below); the 324 pages provided by Bill Taylor, the U.S.’s top diplomat in Ukraine; the 340 pages detailing the words of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the only witness who had first-hand knowledge of the Trump-Zelensky call; and the whopping 446 pages provided by Fiona Hill, the administration’s policy expert in Ukraine and the surrounding region.
While much from their depositions had already been made public via media reports, the official transcripts shed some light on the specifics offered by each person. The average person probably isn’t going to pore through nearly 1500 pages of legalese, but the transcripts will provide news reporters with direct quotes that they can put in front of readers. For Democrats, it’s all about making a case that voters can understand — and one that’s clear enough to justify this investigation in the first place, especially in a highly contentious election year.
What we still want to know: With public hearings set to begin next week, Democrats are gambling that their witnesses will be able to make the public get on board with the impeachment inquiry. But while the testimonies so far have made a splash in political circles, the reality is that aside from Bolton, none of the major witnesses are necessarily household names. For example, Taylor’s deposition is troubling for Trump because Taylor is a career diplomat who has worked for every administration since 1985 — but that only really matters to people who know that about him. To the average American, will watching a 72-year-old man in glasses and a suit talk about intricate foreign policy details sway their view of this president?
That’s why Democrats have especially sought to bring Bolton to Capitol Hill. He’s their best chance at putting a recognizable name in headlines, as he worked under the Reagan and Bush administrations and has a memorable mustachioed presence. But they may not be able to notch that win, either — we’ll get to that later.
2. Gordon Sondland updates his testimony — blowing a hole in Trump’s defense.
The takeaway: Since the beginning of the Ukraine inquiry, Trump has steadfastly maintained one stance: “No quid pro quo.” His evidence for this has varied — he wanted Ukraine to investigate general “corruption,” there can’t be a quid pro quo if the other side doesn’t know it’s being bribed, people should just read the transcript because the call was perfect — but Sondland’s initial 10-hour testimony last month provided one of his biggest defense lines. But in an updated statement provided to investigators Monday, Sondland confirmed that he had explicitly informed Ukrainian officials that provision of military aid was tied to their country opening up investigations that would be politically beneficial to Trump.
The incriminating details: As a political appointee, Sondland stood apart from many of the inquiry’s other witnesses who are career diplomats or government officials. That’s why when his original testimony was more favorable to Trump, it wasn’t particularly surprising — and why his reversal is all the more damning.
In his initial deposition, Sondland acknowledged that Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, was leading a foreign policy backchannel with Ukraine. He was adamant, however, that Trump had been “crystal clear” that there was no quid pro quo “of any kind” with Ukraine — a line Trump has touted time and time again as the backstop of his defense. On Monday, Sondland reversed that position, telling investigators that he’d merely been relaying what Trump had told him, not necessarily stating what he, Sondland, personally believed. He additionally explicitly acknowledged telling Ukrainian officials what was up: “I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
As we’ve said, Trump has repeatedly tried to paint his insistence on a Biden investigation as merely part of a larger “anti-corruption” stance. So what Sondland said Monday was that nearly $400 million of congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine was contingent upon that “anti-corruption statement” — aka, Zelensky publicly announcing a Biden probe. Sondland said that hearing about other witnesses’ testimonies had “refreshed [his] recollection” of the situation, which feels particularly notable given how many Democrats pointed out his frequent memory lapses the first time around.
What we still want to know: Sondland’s update didn’t provide new information, per se, but rather moved the ambassador more in line with his colleagues in diplomacy. Taylor had detailed in his own deposition how he eventually learned the aid money (as well as a White House meeting) was being held up in exchange for Trump-friendly favors from Zelensky, while Vindman, a national security expert working on Ukraine policy, offered his own first-hand knowledge of the Trump-Zelensky call and outlined why it “worried” him. Sondland has merely revised his testimony to more closely reflect theirs.
What remains to be seen is whether other wobbly Trump supporters may do the same. Yes, Sondland donated to Trump, but he had backed Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio before hopping on the president’s gilded coattails. Staunch pro-Trumpers like Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator, may continue to plug their ears to inconvenient revelations. But Sondland’s reversal opens up the question of whether someone like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who so far has tried to straddle the line between Trump faithful and dutiful civil servant, might opt to be fully honest at Trump’s expense.
3. John Bolton teases knowledge of “many relevant meetings and conversations” about Ukraine.
The takeaway: After a week of intrigue about whether or not he’d speak to House investigators, Bolton’s lawyer told lawmakers that he’d talk — but only if a judge ruled that Bolton should disregard White House objections to testify. In his letter to the House, Bolton’s lawyer wrote that it makes sense investigators want to speak to him because he “was personally involved in many of the events, meetings, and conversations about which you have already received testimony, as well as many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed.” Spicy!
The incriminating details: House Democrats have sought Bolton’s testimony for weeks, but he no-showed on a scheduled deposition Thursday because he wants a court to decide whether he should listen to the legislative branch (Congress), which wants him to meet with investigators, or the executive branch (Trump), which does not. As Trump’s national security adviser throughout the summer, Bolton would presumably have been intimately involved with the Ukraine affair.
In fact, multiple witnesses have mentioned Bolton during their own depositions, describing him as intensely troubled by Giuliani’s backchannel negotiations with Ukraine. Bolton described the linkage of the aid money and White House meeting to investigations as a “drug deal,” per Taylor’s testimony, while Hill testified that Bolton saw Giuliani as “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” And that’s just what’s come out so far.
The Washington Post points out that while Bolton may be positioning himself as a key witness damaging to Trump, though,“he may have more to explain than other witnesses on whether he could have done more to stop a scheme he seemed to view as a shakedown.” He’s long held hard-line foreign policy views — including toward Russia, the looming figure in America’s Ukraine policy — but as a top White House national security official he also may have shirked a responsibility to stop what was unfolding in front of him.
What we still want to know: Democrats had initially signaled they wouldn’t pursue a subpoena to compel Bolton to appear, instead planning to paint Bolton’s absence as evidence Trump was obstructing their investigation — which is itself an impeachable action. But with the tantalizing knowledge that Bolton may have some bombshells to share, they may change their tune. The problem is that issuing a subpoena may open a protracted legal battle — something Democrats want to avoid so that the impeachment inquiry won’t drag into the 2020 election — and by dangling key information while forcing the judicial matter, Bolton has put Democrats in an uncomfortable spot.
Bolton’s lawyer made clear that Bolton wants a court to rule that he, specifically, should defy the White House to speak with investigators. The lawyer signaled that Bolton wouldn’t be swayed by a pending ruling about whether the White House counsel, Don McGahn, must testify, because Bolton’s testimony would include sensitive national security information that someone else’s would not. The challenge is clear: “If the House chooses not to pursue through subpoena [Bolton’s] testimony,” Bolton’s lawyer wrote, “let the record be clear: That is the House’s decision.”
WEEK OF OCT. 28
The key players this week:
- Alexander Vindman, an active duty lieutenant colonel in the Army and the ranking Ukraine expert on the National Security Council. He migrated from Ukraine at the age of 3 and received a Purple Heart after being injured by an IED while serving in Iraq. As a member of the NSC, he listened firsthand to the infamous July 25 call.
- Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker. She’s a key architect of the Democrats’ impeachment strategy. She called the Thursday vote to establish rules for the impeachment inquiry — the first time that the House has gone on record about the Trump impeachment.
- Tim Morrison, formerly the top Russia adviser on the National Security Council. He stepped down shortly before his testimony to House impeachment investigators Thursday. A former Naval Reserve intelligence officer and a lawyer, he is known as a conservative foreign policy hawk.
1. Alexander Vindman offers the first firsthand testimony of the Ukraine call.
The takeaway: As one of the government’s foremost experts on Ukraine, Vindman testified that he was deeply concerned by Trump’s call with Zelensky. He also testified that the White House edited out damning phrases from the call in the version of the transcript it released to the public. As a decorated Iraq war veteran, active duty soldier, and national security official with firsthand knowledge of the Zelensky call, his testimony carried extra weight.
The incriminating details: Vindman is a nonpartisan official with an unimpeachable military background. That’s hard to attack. Flailing Republicans, trying to undercut and distract from the substance of Vindman’s testimony, ended up smearing a war hero with bizarre claims that he was a double agent because he was born in Ukraine. Many prominent Republicans ended up backing away from these claims; Utah Sen. Mitt Romney blasted the attacks as “absurd.”
Vindman was so disturbed by Trump pressuring Ukraine to smear Biden that he reported it to his superiors at the NSC on two occasions, he told investigators. "I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government's support of Ukraine," Vindman said in his opening statement.
Additionally, according to The New York Times, Vindman testified that the officially released summary transcript omitted several key details, including that Trump claimed on the call to have recordings of Biden talking about Ukraine and that Zelensky specifically talked to Trump about Burisma, the Ukranian gas company that Biden’s son Hunter did work with. This implies that the White House understood just how damning these details were, and wanted to intentionally avoid them when they released the transcript.
What we still want to know: We need to see exactly which words and phrases were omitted from the transcript. Republicans including Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson have claimed that the edits wouldn’t sway him from the belief that Trump’s conduct was not impeachable, but that’s something the American people ought to be able to judge for themselves, too.
2. Nancy Pelosi holds a House vote, launching the inquiry into a more public phase.
The takeaway: The House voted 232-196 — almost exactly along party lines — to endorse the impeachment rules that Pelosi set forward. (Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, the Republican-turned-independent Trump critic, also voted to continue the process.) Two Democrats, both in swing districts that heavily supported Trump in 2016, voted against the rules, as did every Republican. That will allow investigators to interview some witnesses in public, rather than behind closed doors as had been the case thus far.
The incriminating details: On one level, the vote is routine, establishing the procedures and guidelines by which witnesses will be called to testify before the House. But it’s also deeply symbolic, as it’s the first time that a vote endorsing the Trump impeachment inquiry has been entered into the public record in the House. Only six weeks ago, such an outcome appeared unlikely, with many Democrats in moderate districts fearful of endorsing something as controversial as impeachment. Now, Pelosi has united the party behind the proceedings.
Expect Republicans to engage in increasingly Jackass-tier stunts as the investigation goes public. Last week, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz led a quixotic charge into a secure room where investigators were interviewing witness Laura Cooper, a Pentagon official in charge of Ukraine policy. The incident was designed to disrupt the process rather than defend against the substance; with more of the investigation happening in public, a live TV platform is only likely to encourage this defense strategy.
Still, the fact that so many Democrats voted in favor of the resolution indicates that even moderates largely feel confident enough in the facts they’ve gathered to move into a crucial new phase of the inquiry, where they will begin calling witnesses publicly. Republicans have attacked the secrecy of it all, but with more of the investigation set to happen before the public eye, they’ll have to come up with new lines of attack.
What we still want to know: Much depends on how many witnesses agree to testify in public. If Democrats are able to present a steady stream of highly regarded officials describing clear misconduct by the president and his lackeys, they’ll be able to drown out Republican complaints about process and other attempts to derail their inquiry. U.S. diplomat Bill Taylor, a key witness, has said that he would "fulfill his duty" and testify in public if asked, according to CNN. Others, like former National Security Adviser John Bolton, have said they won’t testify willingly, and will require a subpoena. If a critical mass of key witnesses agree to testify, though, the resulting political theater is more likely to break through to the general public than the leaked reports that have emerged so far.
3. Tim Morrison’s deposition gives the Trump defense some hope.
The takeaway: Tim Morrison is the first person appointed by Trump to testify in the inquiry. He resigned from his position on the National Security Council shortly before appearing before the House. Taylor had previously described Morrison’s role in the events surrounding the July 25 call, testifying that when the two were discussing the military aid to Ukraine being withheld, Morrison told him that the “president doesn’t want to provide any assistance at all.”
Taylor also said that on Sept. 7, Morrison described to him a conversation he’d had with U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland that had given him a “sinking feeling.” On the call, Sondland said that Trump wanted Zelensky to “go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference,” according to Taylor.
Unlike some of the other witnesses, Taylor is an openly partisan Republican known for his hawkishness, and he was a Trump appointee. So it’s not altogether surprising that his testimony was more favorable to Trump than that of others. "I want to be clear, I was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed [on the July 25 call]," he testified.
The incriminating details: Some Republicans have portrayed Morrison’s testimony as a win for the president. In addition to saying he felt nothing illegal had occurred, Morrison reportedly said that he felt that the transcript released by the White House was accurate, contradicting Vindman’s statement. “Morrison’s testimony is very damaging to the Democrat narrative,” said North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the former leader of the House’s right-wing Freedom Caucus.
But Republicans framing Morrison’s testimony as 100% positive for the president may need to adjust their rose-colored glasses. The Washington Post reported that Morrison confirmed the substance of Taylor’s testimony, saying that he did tell Taylor that Trump was seeking to withhold a White House visit for Zelensky, as well as military aid, until Zelensky agreed to investigate Biden and supposed 2016 election interference by Ukraine. He also confirmed the Sept. 7 phone call about his “sinking feeling.”
In other words, Morrison, a right-wing Trump appointee, confirmed the overarching details of the suspected quid pro quo at the center of the impeachment investigation. Furthermore, while Morrison may have said he didn’t feel that Trump’s conduct was illegal, per the Post he was still troubled enough by it to file reports about the call to the National Security Council — just as Vindman had done.
What we still want to know: As the impeachment inquiry moves into its public phase, Republicans will likely use Morrison’s refusal to characterize the president’s conduct as illegal as a cudgel to attack the investigation. This could be a double-edged sword for them, however: If they hang a lot of importance on Morrison, they are committing themselves to defending the quid pro quo that he corroborated. So far, the president’s defenders have strenuously denied the existence of any such arrangement.
Morrison’s testimony could potentially cause Republicans to paint themselves into a corner of arguing that yes, the president withheld military aid to pursue domestic political goals, but no, that’s neither illegal nor impeachable. It could be a strong enough argument to rally Republican support in the Senate, where Democrats would need to win over some GOP votes to remove the president from office, should an impeachment trial take place. Whether it can convince the American public to back the Republican Party at the ballot box in 2020 is another matter entirely.
WEEK OF OCT. 21
The key players this week:
- Bill Taylor, an American diplomat. He’s a career foreign service official who has served under every president since 1985, including as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush. Under Trump, he was the top diplomat in Ukraine, officially in charge of directing American strategy in the country.
- Laura Cooper, a top Pentagon official. As a deputy assistant secretary of defense, she was charged with overseeing U.S. policy in Ukraine, as well as other regional powers like Russia and the Western Balkans.
- Matt Gaetz, a Republican congressman from Florida. He’s been a staunch defender of the president — and in turn has benefited from Trump’s frequent praise.
1. Bill Taylor’s Ukraine testimony blows up Trump’s main defense.
The takeaway: Taylor testified to House impeachment investigators on Tuesday. The session happened behind closed doors, but his 15-page opening statement was acquired by the media. It’s incredibly detailed — it reportedly took him the better part of an hour to read aloud — and what it reveals is decidedly not good for Trump’s case.
The incriminating details: Mic broke down the five biggest takeaways from Taylor’s opening statement here. His testimony was bad for Trump in all sorts of ways; for starters, Taylor has worked for every president since 1985, so it’s hard to paint him as a partisan looking to take Trump down.
Above all, the biggest problem for Trump is how Taylor made clear that there were two channels working on the administration’s Ukraine policy: one “regular” channel, which involved Taylor and other State Department officials, and another “irregular” channel led mainly by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer who has no official position in U.S. government. Giuliani, joined by U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland and former diplomat Kurt Volker in the “irregular” channel, was working to pressure Ukraine’s president to open a series of investigations that would benefit Trump politically, using $400 million in aid money as leverage.
The aid money is key here. The impeachment inquiry has centered on whether Trump inappropriately withheld aid money from Ukraine until Zelensky agreed to open the investigations. Trump has argued alternately that he withheld the money:
- because he feels Europe does not contribute enough to Ukrainian defense;
- because he wanted the country to investigate vague “corruption,” which is his right as president;
- but that actually it couldn’t have been an inappropriate bribe because Zelensky didn’t know it was being intentionally withheld.
Taylor stated clearly that people working in the “irregular” channel for Trump understood that the aid money would only be given if Zelensky agreed to publicly open investigations into Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. He further confirmed that the Ukrainians learned the money was being withheld, and why, which undermines Trump’s defense that it couldn’t be a bribe if they didn’t know it was happening.
What we still want to know: Most of the information thus far has come from Taylor’s written opening statement. But he spent nearly 10 hours being deposed behind closed doors, so there’s surely more he told lawmakers in the confidential setting. Some Republicans, like South Dakota Sen. John Thune — the No. 2 Republican in the upper chamber — have already acknowledged that what’s been publicly reported from Taylor’s testimony did not bode well for Trump. “The picture coming out of it,” Thune told reporters, “is not a good one.”
2. Matt Gaetz and a group of GOP lawmakers derail the closed-door testimony of Laura Cooper.
The takeaway: Gaetz, in a stunt essentially engineered for Fox News, led a group of more than 20 Republican congressmen to disrupt Cooper’s closed-door testimony Wednesday. The idea was to call attention to what Republicans see as an unjust process; because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not held a vote on the full House floor to authorize the impeachment inquiry, Republicans as the minority party do not have subpoena power to call their own witnesses or seek information. Additionally, only representatives who sit on the investigating committees have access to the information revealed in the closed-door depositions.
The incriminating details: Cooper’s testimony focused mostly on policy minutiae. Democrats had sought her input because any disbursal of aide to Ukraine would have been done under her supervision. Per CNN, “several lawmakers say her testimony helped show that the Ukraine aid deviated” from the “normal process” of granting military aid that had already been appropriated by Congress. Cooper defied a request from the Trump administration that she refused to testify.
Gaetz’s stunt succeeded in delaying Cooper’s testimony by five hours. But in the process, the GOP lawmakers possibly jeopardized national security by bringing cell phones into the SCIF — sensitive compartmented information facility — where the interview was taking place. Such devices are not permitted in those secure areas, and The Daily Beast reported that the room was being “swept for electronic surveillance devices” as a result of the breach.
What we still want to know: Some see stunts like Gaetz’s, alongside House Republicans’ attempt to censure Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is leading the impeachment investigation, as evidence that Republicans can’t defend the president on the substance of the investigation so they’re attacking the process instead. Pelosi had declined to bring impeachment before the full House so as to avoid putting vulnerable Democrats on the spot in an election year, but as the GOP zeroes in on its attack line and the probe threatens to stretch throughout the fall, it’s unclear whether Pelosi may shift her thinking.
3. Republicans start to question Trump’s strategy.
The takeaway: Trump has so far declined to establish an impeachment “war room” — a dedicated team in charge of handling the tricky legal and public maneuvers of battling an impeachment inquiry — instead opting to be his own best messenger. But after inconsistencies in the White House’s stance, including a disastrous showing by acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney last week, some Republicans are starting to wonder whether it’s time the administration develop a more cogent strategy.
The incriminating details: President Bill Clinton had a team of such experts in place during his impeachment process so that he could, ostensibly, focus on the main business of running the country while that staff handled the administration’s messaging. Trump has instead been his White House’s “only empowered communicator, a one-man war room responding to developments hour by hour,” The New York Times said. That’s meant that much of the administration’s response has been characterized by the president’s Twitter feed.
On Thursday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — one of Trump’s fiercest supporters on Capitol Hill — told reporters that he’d spoken with Mulvaney about “getting a messaging team together.” He’d said Wednesday that the White House was “missing” a “coordinated effort to put somebody in charge of developing a message and delivering it.” An adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign similarly said he “would love to see more strategy.” Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has disputed some of the president’s defense, saying he had never told spoken to Trump about his July 25 phone call with Zelensky as Trump had claimed.
What we still want to know: Trump had made Giuliani one of his top defenders in the inquiry’s early days, but his lawyer has only gotten more ensnared in the investigation over time. With the lack of coherent messaging from the top, Republicans have started to show signs of division, between those who have acknowledged that the facts don’t look great for Trump, those who have urged the president to rethink his strategy, and those who will never break with him. If the White House doesn’t roll out consistent talking points, it’s possible the door could stay open for skeptical lawmakers to shy away from defending Trump.
WEEK OF OCT. 14
1. Two more Trump associates testify to Congress.
As House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry churns on, more and more Trumpworld affiliates are being called to testify. On Monday, former national security official Fiona Hill met with congressional staff and offered two main disclosures. First, she said that in a July 10 meeting with Ukrainian officials, U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland mentioned probing the Bidens in a way that left “no doubt that he wanted the Ukrainians to look into” the family, per Vox. The meeting apparently so spooked John Bolton, the former national security adviser who left his post last month, that he subsequently asked Hill to alert a White House lawyer to the discussion.
Hill’s second notable revelation was that she reportedly asked Sondland — the American envoy to the European Union — who had directed him to lead the administration’s Ukraine strategy, given that it wouldn’t naturally be part of the portfolio for someone in his position. Sondland reportedly replied that he was acting on orders from the president.
Sondland himself also met with House investigators this week, after his scheduled appearance last week was blocked by the State Department. In his opening remarks, obtained by The Wall Street Journal, Sondland confirmed the central role of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, in directing the affairs in Ukraine. “It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland reportedly said, distancing himself from Giuliani by adding that he “would not have recommended” that Giuliani “be involved in these foreign policy matters,” but that it came at “the president’s explicit direction.” The ambassador also indicated that Giuliani dangled a White House visit for Zelensky — but only if the Ukrainians launched a Biden investigation.
But while Sondland apparently tried to put distance between his stance and the president’s, his testimony did not go unquestioned. Sondland had “a lot of memory lapses,” one lawmaker who was present quipped to NBC News, while Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) said that “some of the things that he says he doesn’t remember, it would be very hard to believe he didn’t remember … unless he has the worst memory, or is, you know, far more incompetent than one would think an ambassador to the European Union should be.”
2. Nancy Pelosi declines to call a full House vote on impeachment — and dials back Mitch McConnell’s ambitious timeline.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that she would not call a full chamber vote to authorize the impeachment inquiry against Trump. Pelosi officially announced the inquiry was underway last month, but rather than initiate the process via a vote on the House floor, she simply directed six House committees to continue their investigations under the umbrella of a formal impeachment inquiry.
Politico reported that there was some disagreement within Pelosi’s leadership team as to whether to hold the vote. If the full House did approve the inquiry, it would grant Republicans subpoena power to call their own witnesses or seek information, something can’t do now as the minority. It would have additionally forced vulnerable Democrats (and Republicans) to go on the record with their stance on impeachment, a politically risky move with an election looming next year. In announcing her decision, Pelosi said, “We’re not here to call bluffs. We’re here to find the truth.” A vote would, however, have undermined one of the White House’s central reasons for refusing to cooperate with the probe.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday told members of his caucus that he expected the House to bring articles of impeachment by Thanksgiving, per Vox, with a trial ideally concluding by the end of the year. Pelosi, however, pumped the brakes on that schedule, saying that “the timeline will depend on the truth-line.”
3. Mick Mulvaney confirms — then tries to un-confirm — a central piece of the Ukraine scandal.
While the president was in Texas, the vice president and the secretary of state were in Turkey, — and the energy secretary was in his prolonged state of almost-but-not-quite-resigning — Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was left to face reporters. At a rather eye-opening press briefing on Thursday, in an attempt to defend Trump’s actions with respect to Ukraine, Mulvaney ended up confirming a central tenet of the Democrats’ inquiry: that Trump used aid money as leverage to pressure the country into investigating false claims of corruption by the Bidens.
ABC News’s Jon Karl initially questioned Mulvaney about Trump’s offhand encouragement of China to investigate the Bidens — on claims that are, again, specious. Mulvaney responded by saying that Trump has never been a fan of giving foreign aid, adding that Trump “did not like” that a White House analysis determined that “near zero” European dollars flow to Ukraine for “lethal aid” while the U.S. gives millions. “Those were the driving factors,” Mulvaney said, but unfortunately for him he didn’t stop there.
“Did he also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the [Democratic National Committee] server?” he continued, referring to a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine colluded with Democrats during the 2016 election. “Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it, and that’s why we held up the money.” Karl interjected to confirm that Trump had mentioned wanting an investigation into the Democratic server when directing Mulvaney to freeze the aid money, and Mulvaney responded that yes, Trump wanted a “lookback” into 2016, “and that is absolutely appropriate.”
Karl, stunned, replied, “To be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo. It is: Funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happens as well.” Mulvaney was undeterred: “We do that all the time with foreign policy,” he said. “Get over it.” Apparently unable to “get over it” himself even hours later, Mulvaney attempted to reverse his comments Thursday evening, saying “there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election.”
WEEK OF OCT. 7
1. Two men suspected of helping Rudy Giuliani's shadow operation in Ukraine were arrested in D.C.
On Wednesday, two associates of Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney, were arrested. Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were taken into custody at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and charged with campaign finance violations. The two were allegedly scheming to funnel foreign money to politicians in the United States, focusing much of their efforts on trying to influence relations between the U.S. and Ukraine.
Parnas and Fruman were reportedly involved in a plan, along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, to pressure the president of Ukraine to replace members of a natural gas company owned by the state with Americans and others more friendly to the industry. The two are also accused of donating money to a member of the House while attempting to get the congressman to remove the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from her post. (Perry, for his part, was hit with a subpoena Thursday from House Democrats seeking information about Trump's infamous July phone call with Zelensky.)
Why does all of this matter for the impeachment inquiry? Parnas and Fruman were business associates of Giuliani, who was working on Trump's behalf to encourage the Ukrainian government to open up an investigation into Biden's son Hunter. Giuliani has described the two men as "fixers" and said in an interview that they "helped me find people" when asked about his relationship with them. He also admitted to playing a role in the ouster of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch — a goal he apparently shared with Parnas and Fruman. Giuliani was not mentioned in the indictment against Parnas and Fruman, but The Washington Post reported that federal agents are looking into his dealings with the two alleged criminals.
2. Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testifies before the House.
Meanwhile, Yovanovitch testified to impeachment investigators Friday. She was abruptly removed from her post earlier this year, and during the closed-door session Friday, she reportedly told investigators that a State Department official said she had "done nothing wrong" and that her removal from her position was unwarranted. According to The New York Times, Yovanovitch testified that her ouster was “based, as far as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”
Yovanovitch served as the U.S. envoy to Ukraine from Aug. 29, 2016 until May 20, 2019 when she was suddenly asked to return to the U.S. — despite receiving a request from the State Department to extend her service through 2020. Her removal from the position apparently came because Trump "lost confidence" in her, though she told investigators that there had been “a concerted campaign against me, and that the department had been under pressure from [Trump] to remove me since the summer of 2018.”
While it took some time for Yovanovitch to be dismissed, the end of her time as ambassador was foreshadowed earlier this year, when in an interview Ukraine's then-Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko claimed that his country's government had cooperated with Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign in an effort to undermine Trump. Lutsenko, who is under investigation himself for possible abuses of power, alleged per The Hill that Yovanovitch was "interfering with his ability to prosecute corruption cases."
Yovanovitch denied ever being involved in efforts to hinder corruption investigations in Ukraine, a claim that State Department officials support. The agency has also called Lutsenko’s allegations against Yovanovitch “an outright fabrication.” The former ambassador also said she played no role in the withholding of American aid, which was destined for Ukraine before being frozen by Trump in an apparent effort to get the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens. Her indictment of the president and his foreign policy dealings could serve to fuel investigations into possible wrongdoings committed by Trump and his associates.
3. U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland agrees to face House investigators, defying White House.
Following Yovanovitch's testimony Friday, another ambassador has agreed to speak with impeachment investigators next week. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, has agreed to face members of the House next Thursday. Sondland became a person of interest in the Ukraine investigation following the release of text messages that show he exchanged messages with Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, regarding the Trump administration's desires in the country. Sondland is believed to have played a role in setting up the call between Zelensky and Trump.
Sondland's testimony is of particular interest because of the Trump administration's attempts to keep him from speaking to investigators. Earlier this week, the State Department ordered Sondland not to testify despite being served a subpoena. While Sondland will finally speak next week, he is still refusing to release documents requested by House investigators, claiming that they are property of the State Department. His communications with other diplomats may play a role in determining whether Trump attempted to withhold aid in a direct attempt to push a foreign government to investigate a political opponent in Biden.