Trump impeachment narrative gathers steam as diplomats fill in details

In the first week of public impeachment hearings, three witnesses, all veteran U.S. diplomats, added details of what they knew of President Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a plan whose unraveling threatens his presidency.

While the fundamental partisan dynamics of the inquiry continue to hold — Democrats who control the House appear poised to impeach the president, while Republicans in the Senate are unlikely to convict him — this week’s developments shed new light on the months-long effort by the Trump administration to procure investigations from a foreign government.

Bill Taylor and George Kent

While much of the testimony given by Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, repeated what the public had learned from the transcripts of their closed-door depositions, Taylor quickly added a new piece of evidence.

In his opening statement, Taylor recounted how a staffer came to him to relay a conversation he had overheard between Trump and Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union. The call took place on July 26, the day after Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son Hunter.

On the July 26 call, which Sondland placed on a cellphone in a Ukrainian restaurant, Trump asked Sondland for a status update on “the investigations.”

“Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine,” Taylor testified. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for.”

Career foreign service officer George Kent and top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 13. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
George Kent and Bill Taylor testify on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Kent echoed Taylor’s criticism of the president and his allies for pressuring Ukraine to pursue what he called “private agendas.”

“It was unexpected and most unfortunate, however, to watch some Americans, including those who allied themselves with corrupt Ukrainians in pursuit of private agendas, launch attacks on dedicated public servants advancing U.S. interests in Ukraine,” Kent testified. “In my opinion, those attacks undermined U.S. and Ukrainian national interests and damaged our critical bilateral relationship.”

Republicans on the committee largely steered clear of the question of whether seeking an investigation into Biden from Ukraine’s government was improper. Instead, they noted that no such investigation had ever taken place. Trump’s defenders pointed out that Ukraine eventually received the nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid that witnesses said was held up to put pressure on Kyiv.

Pelosi alleges ‘bribery’

On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held her first press conference since the start of public impeachment hearings. She made headlines by stating that the House now had evidence that Trump had committed “bribery,” an impeachable offense.

“The devastating testimony 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 — a clear attempt by the president to give himself an advantage in the 2020 election,” Pelosi told reporters.

Pelosi also chided the president for refusing to allow members of the executive branch to testify in the inquiry.

“If the president has something that is exculpatory — Mr. President, that means you have anything that shows your innocence — then he should make that known,” Pelosi said. “So far we haven’t see that.”

‘Very hard on my family’

At a Thursday campaign rally in Louisiana, Trump blasted the impeachment inquiry and made news by speaking about the toll it was taking on his own family.

“Impeachment to me is a dirty word,” Trump said while campaigning in Bossier City for Republican Eddie Rispone, who is running against incumbent Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, adding, “It has been very hard on my family.”

One night earlier, following the first day of public testimony in the impeachment inquiry, Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, threw a book party for the president’s eldest son, Donald Jr., whose book “Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us” debuted in the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

Marie Yovanovitch

Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, delivered powerful testimony Friday about what she called a “smear campaign” against her by President Trump and his allies, leading up to the president’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky.

In that call Trump singled out Yovanovitch, who he had recalled from Kyiv in May, saying she was “bad news” and that “she’s going to go through some things.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 15. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
Marie Yovanovitch testifies on Friday. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Yovanovitch said she took those words as “a threat.”

“It was a terrible moment,” she told lawmakers about her reaction to reading Trump’s comments. “A person who saw me actually reading the transcript said the color drained from my face. I think I even had a physical reaction. I think, you know, even now, words kind of fail me.”

As Yovanovitch testified, Trump lashed out at her on Twitter.

“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors,” Trump wrote, adding, “They call it ‘serving at the pleasure of the President.’ The U.S. now has a very strong and powerful foreign policy, much different than proceeding administrations. It is called, quite simply, America First! With all of that, however, I have done FAR more for Ukraine than O.”

After becoming aware of the president’s tweets, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., interrupted his counsel’s questioning and read them to Yovanovitch, giving her the opportunity to respond.

“I don’t think I have such powers, not in Mogadishu, Somalia, and not in other places,” Yovanovitch said. “I actually think that where I’ve served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better for the U.S. as well as for the countries that I’ve served in.

“Ukraine, for example, where there are huge challenges, including on the issue that we’re discussing today of corruption, huge challenges, but they’ve made a lot of progress since 2014, including in the years that I was there,” added Yovanovitch. “I think, in part, I mean the Ukrainian people get the most credit for that, but a part of that credit goes to the work of the United States and to me as the ambassador in Ukraine.”

As the hearing recessed, Republican members were left to defend Trump’s remarks, which Schiff portrayed as “witness tampering.”

“The witness is testifying,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “She wouldn’t even know about the quote if Mr. Schiff hadn’t read the tweet.”

But not all Republicans on the committee were as kind to Trump.

“I disagree with the tweet,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y. “I think Ambassador Yovanovitch is a public servant, like many of our public servants in the foreign service.”

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that Trump’s tweet “was not witness intimidation, it was simply the President’s opinion, which he is entitled to. This is not a trial, it is a partisan political process.”

When testimony resumed, Republicans stressed in their questioning that it was Trump’s right to fire Yovanovitch, who still holds a position at the State Department and has taken a residency at Georgetown University.

Roger Stone convicted

As the House Intelligence Committee took a lengthy recess following Yovanovitch’s response to Trump’s tweets, news broke that a federal jury had found the president’s longtime political adviser Roger Stone guilty of lying to Congress and witness tampering in relation to a 2017 House Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The charges against Stone, who faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 6, were brought by special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee by Russian intelligence officers were later published by WikiLeaks. Former Trump campaign officials Rick Gates and Steve Bannon testified at the trial that they viewed Stone as their conduit to WikiLeaks in an effort to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

Roger Stone sits in a vehicle while leaving federal court in Washington on Friday. (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)
Roger Stone leaves federal court in Washington on Friday. (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)

Trump himself drew the parallel between Stone’s conviction and the impeachment hearings, tweeting a long list of his perceived enemies, including the Intelligence Committee chairman and Mueller.

“So they now convict Roger Stone of lying and want to jail him for many years to come. Well, what about Crooked Hillary, Comey, Strzok, Page, McCabe, Brennan, Clapper, Shifty Schiff, Ohr & Nellie, Steele & all of the others, including even Mueller himself? Didn’t they lie?” Trump tweeted. “A double standard like never seen before in the history of our Country?”

More closed-door depositions

The day of Yovanovitch’s public testimony, the committee held a closed-door deposition with David Holmes, the counselor for political affairs who overheard Sondland’s July 26 cellphone call with Trump in which the president asked for a status update on “the investigations.” Holmes told the committee that he heard Trump ask Sondland, “So, he’s going to do the investigations?”

“Zelensky’s going to do anything you ask him,” Sondland replied, according to Holmes.

Office of Management and Budget official Mark Sandy was scheduled for testimony Saturday. The first OMB employee to defy White House instructions not to testify, Sandy is expected to fill in details on the process by which the Trump administration delayed military aid that Congress had approved for Ukraine.


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