Congress

Impeachment news roundup: Nov. 18

Trump says he’ll consider testifying ahead of a packed hearing schedule this week

House Intelligence Committee Republican members Elise Stefanik and Jim Jordan talk during the  hearing on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump with former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch on Friday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats want to get grand jury materials from former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation in part to see if President Donald Trump lied in written answers, an attorney said Monday.

House General Counsel Doug Letter made the comments while arguing before a federal appeals court in Washington, that the House should get access to the normally secret materials as part of its impeachment investigation. A lower court ordered the Justice Department to turn over the materials, and the Trump administration has appealed.

“We have at least two people who already have been convicted of lying to Congress about this, and what are they lying about? They’re lying about things that go directly to the Mueller report,” Letter told the three-judge appeals court panel Monday.

“Did the president lie, was the president not truthful, in the responses to the Mueller investigation?” Letter said. “I believe, if I’m correct, the special counsel said the president has been untruthful in some of his answers.”

Letter specifically pointed to a Mueller report redaction, hidden from the public because it was part of the grand jury materials, which refers to Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager.

“Another issue here is: Was possibly the president’s responses inconsistent with things that would be in grand jury transcripts involving Manafort,” Letter said.

The attorney later added: “The Manafort situation, I think, shows so clearly that there is evidence that, very sadly, that the president might have provided untruthful answers, and this, therefore, is obviously a key part of an impeachment inquiry.”

Here’s the latest on the impeachment inquiry:

Deposition transcripts released: The House committees leading the impeachment inquiry released transcripts of their closed-door depositions of David Hale, under secretary of State for political affairs, and David Holmes, a foreign service officer who works for William Taylor, the U.S. envoy to Ukraine.

Holmes has emerged as a key witness since Taylor told the Intelligence Committee in public testimony last week that his aide overheard a call between Gordan Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Trump in which the president asked about the status of investigations he wanted Ukraine to open.

"While Ambassador Sondland’s phone was not on speaker phone, I could hear the president’s voice through the ear piece of the phone. The president’s voice was very loud and recognizable, and Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume," Holmes said.

Sondland, making the call from Ukraine after a meeting with Andriy Yermak, a senior adviser to the country's president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, told Trump that Zelenskiy "loves your ass," Holmes said.

"I then heard President Trump ask, quote, So he’s going to do the investigation?' unquote. Ambassador Sondland replied that, 'He’s going to do it,' adding that President Zelenskiy will quote, 'Do anything you ask him to,'" Holmes said.

Holmes said he did not take notes of the conversation but has a "clear recollection." 

"This was an extremely distinctive experience in my foreign service career," he said. "I’ve never seen anything like this, someone calling the president from a mobile phone at a restaurant, and then having a conversation of this level of candor, colorful language. There’s just so much about the call that was so remarkable that I remember it vividly."

Holmes said in his deposition, which was conducted Friday, that he first told Taylor about the phone call on Aug. 6 but Taylor testified Wednesday that Holmes had only told him about the call the Friday before that hearing.

That conversation did occur, as Holmes testified that he again raised the matter to Taylor as he was preparing to leave Ukraine for the public hearing.

“I was in his office, and I said, you know, I'm thinking this might be relevant. It's been weighing on me the last couple days, just, you know, this discussion of firsthand information and of, you know, freelancing and all that. I'm thinking this might be relevant.”

Holmes said Taylor wasn’t the only person he told about the call. “I mentioned this call repeatedly to a lot of people,” he said.

Johnson’s letter: Sen. Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote to House Republicans on the impeachment inquiry about what he describes as “first-hand information and resulting perspective.”

The Wisconsin Republican used the letter to question whetherArmy Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, director for European affairs at Trump’s National Security Council, was actually expressing the views of the Trump administration during a country briefing in conjunction with the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Johnson was the only senator on the trip to the inauguration.

“I believe that significant number of bureaucrats and staff members within the executive branch have never accepted President Trump as legitimate,” Johnson wrote.

And then there were nine: The House Intelligence Committee announced an additional witness who will testify in open hearings this week, bringing the total to nine. David Holmes, a political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv who overheard Gordon Sondland’s phone call with Trump, is scheduled to appear Thursday alongside Fiona Hill, who was previously scheduled.

Pelosi responds: Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a “Dear Colleague” letter to House Democrats on Monday did what she has declined to do in recent interactions with reporters — responded to Republican arguments about why Trump shouldn’t be impeached.

“The weak response to these hearings has been, ‘Let the election decide.’ That dangerous position only adds to the urgency of our action, because the president is jeopardizing the integrity of the 2020 elections,” Pelosi wrote.

“There are also some who say that no serious wrongdoing was committed, because the military assistance to Ukraine was eventually released,” the California Democrat added. “The fact is, the aid was only released after the whistleblower exposed the truth of the president’s extortion and bribery, and the House launched a formal investigation.”

Don’t go there: One of Trump’s top supporters on Capitol Hill advised the president not to testify before the House impeachment panel, arguing that he should “focus on the issues of the country” instead of addressing claims that he abused his office for political benefit.

“It would be a ‘heck no’ from me as far as whether or not he should testify,” Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York said in an interview on Fox News.

Trump would be “lowering himself to Adam Schiff’s level,” Zeldin said, referring to the House Intelligence Committee chairman leading the impeachment inquiry.

To testify or not to testify: President Donald Trump tweeted Monday morning he will “strongly consider” testifying in House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.

Pelosi suggested such a move on a Sunday morning political talk show, telling CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the president “could come right before the committee and talk, speak all the truth that he wants if he wants.”

Trump responded this morning, writing: “I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!”

He left himself ample wiggle room, saying he might take up Pelosi on her notion that he could offer written testimony — and he never agreed to any form of testimony during the inquiry.

Courtesy to the court: The Supreme Court on Monday temporarily delayed until at least Thursday afternoon the enforcement of a House Oversight and Reform Committee subpoena to accounting firm Mazars USA for Trump’s financial records.

The move from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is an uncontroversial procedural step related to scheduling, University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck said. The order preserves the status quo only until the justices can vote on whether to grant a request from Trump’s attorneys to freeze the subpoena during the court battle.

Trump’s attorneys asked that Mazars not turn over the documents to House Democrats before the justices can hear Trump’s appeal of a lower court ruling that orders Mazars to do so. A vote on that request would probably happen Friday, Vladeck said.

“Not only does today’s order tell us nothing about whether the Court will end up taking this case; it tells us nothing about whether the full Court will agree to put the subpoena on hold past this Friday,” Vladeck tweeted.

“That’s why the Chief Justice could enter it on his own—it’s housekeeping.”

Roberts stayed enforcement of the committee subpoena until 3 p.m. Thursday and ordered the House to file a response to the Trump request before that time.

House Democrats wrote the justices earlier Monday to say that, as a courtesy to the Supreme Court, they would agree to such a short administrative stay to give the Supreme Court time to consider the request from Trump’s attorneys.

Shift in strategy: The president’s defenders on Capitol Hill appear ready to pivot their strategy. Last week, House Republicans sought to chip away at the credibility of impeachment witnesses’ testimony by claiming it was all second- and third-hand information and that no one who testified publicly had direct contact with Trump.

With the Trump-appointed Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland slated to testify on Wednesday, that will likely change.

Now, the GOP has returned to its position that Trump did nothing illegal, that he was simply harnessing the powers of the executive branch to urge Ukraine to get to the bottom of, from his view, legitimate fears of corruption involving former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, and other Democrats. Ultimately, GOP leaders have argued, Trump lifted the hold on a $391 million military aid package without a pledge from Ukraine to launch the requested investigations.

“The Ukrainians did nothing to — as far as investigations goes — to get the aid released,” Rep. Jim Jordan, a top Republican on the impeachment panel, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "There was never this quid pro quo that the Democrats all promise existed,” Jordan said.

Central figure: Sondland was one of the president’s primary point men conducting the parallel foreign policy in Ukraine to pressure its new president to investigate Trump's political rivals as the U.S. withheld military aid and a bilateral White House meeting.

Sondland had frequent contact with Trump, including a phone call in July overheard by a State Department official who testified in closed session last week that Sondland told him after the call that Trump cared more about “investigations” into his political foes than any other issue in Ukraine. National security experts widely regard Ukraine as the primary buffer separating Russia from the western world.

While Sondland has testified that the president explicitly told him not to seek a “quid pro quo,” he has also conceded that he told an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a Sept. 1 call that the military aid package and White House meeting were “likely” conditioned on Ukraine announcing investigations into the Bidens and Democratic collusion with Ukraine in the 2016 presidential election.

Multiple other witnesses have testified that they believe Trump solicited a quid pro quo for a period of over a month, even though the administration ultimately unfroze the military aid package in late September under public pressure from lawmakers and other critics.

Full plate: The Intelligence Committee will hear from eight witnesses over three days this week before Congress begins its Thanksgiving break.

On Tuesday, Jennifer Williams, the State Department official who has served as a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, and Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, director for European affairs at Trump’s National Security Council who went to White House lawyers with concerns after listening to Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy, will testify in the morning. Williams was also on that call.

Trump spent part of his day Sunday attacking Williams after portions her deposition was released on Saturday, calling her a “Never Trumper” as he has with other foreign service officers whose testimony seemed to suggest Trump and his deputies were pressuring the Ukrainian leader to investigate his political rivals.

On Tuesday afternoon, investigators will hear from two witnesses called by Republicans on the Intel committee: Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, the former senior NSC director for Europe and Russia policy.

Sondland is scheduled to testify Wednesday morning. In the afternoon the committee will hear from Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs, and David Hale, the undersecretary of State for political affairs.

Democrats want Cooper to testify about how she raised concerns to senior officials about the legality of holding the Ukrainian aid package. Republicans want Hale to testify on his knowledge about the decision to recall former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who testified on Friday.

[Trump ignites firestorm during impeachment hearing — with just two tweets]

On Thursday, Fiona Hill, the former NSC senior director for Europe and Russia, will testify. Democrats say she can provide details about concerns that senior White House officials raised about efforts before the July 25 Trump-Zelenskiy call.

Weekend update: Schiff released two more transcripts over the weekend of depositions from Trump administration officials taken earlier behind closed doors: Ex-National Security Council adviser Timothy Morrison and State Department aide to Vice President Mike Pence Jennifer Williams.

Morrison told lawmakers that Sondland had told him the release of the military aid package was contingent upon Zelenskiy publicly announcing the investigations into the Bidens and alleged Democratic collusion with Ukrainians in the 2016 presidential election. Sondland also told Morrison that he was acting at Trump’s direction.

“He related to me he was acting — he was discussing these matters with the president,” Morrison told lawmakers in the unsealed transcript.

Morrison repeatedly referred to Sondland as a “problem” for national security officials who were trying to establish a strong relationship with the new Ukrainian president based on a shared interest in combatting Russian military and soft aggression there, as well as rooting out legitimate corruption in the country.

Williams testified that she was on Trump’s July 25 call with Zelenskiy where he asked for a “favor” from his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Burisma, the energy company on whose board Hunter Biden sat while his father was vice president.

“I believed those references to be more political in nature and so that struck me as unusual,” Williams told lawmakers. She later said she believed those requests related more to Trump’s “personal political agenda” and not the U.S.’s national security interest.

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