Congress

Impeachment news roundup: Oct. 31

Another insider testifying on Ukraine behind closed doors, House passes impeachment resolution, investigators summon Bolton

Christopher Anderson, center, former aide to former U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations Kurt Volker, arrives for a closed door meeting to testify as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump’s top Russia aide on the National Security Council testified under subpoena before House impeachment investigators on Thursday, corroborating crucial elements of another key witness’ deposition outlining concerns senior Trump officials had about the president’s interactions with Ukraine.

But Timothy Morrison, the NSC’s senior director for Europe and Russia, also told lawmakers that he “was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed” between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on the now-infamous July 25 phone call in which Trump appeared to request that Ukraine investigate his domestic political rivals in exchange for military aid and a meeting at the White House.

Morrison, a known ally of former national security adviser John Bolton, is expected to leave his post in the Trump administration soon, multiple media outlets reported.

Trump fired Bolton in September — or Bolton resigned, depending on who you ask. He has also been summoned to testify before the impeachment panel. Bolton is “not willing to appear voluntarily,” his lawyer told the New York Times, but he could leave the door open to giving a deposition if he is subpoenaed.

And the House on Thursday passed a rules package that will determine the format of the public phase of the impeachment proceedings. Republicans unanimously rejected the proposal.

Here’s the latest on the impeachment inquiry:

Morrison’s moment: Morrison is the second impeachment witness who was also on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy that is at the center of the impeachment probe.

The outgoing NSC aide corroborated most factual details of the account given last week by acting Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, though the two officials' interpretations of the legal consequences of Trump's actions appeared to diverge.

Taylor mentioned Morrison more than a dozen times last week in his opening statement, which has been published by multiple media outlets. 

In a series of conversations in September, according to Taylor’s opening statement, Morrison informed Taylor that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had told Ukrainian officials that the Trump administration intended to withhold military aid until Zelenskiy's government issued a public statement that Ukraine would investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, and Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden sat.

Biden is a leading candidate to be the Democratic nominee to face Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Taylor said in his deposition last week that Morrison later described a “sinking feeling” when he was briefed on a subsequent conversation between Sondland and Trump. In that conversation, Trump reportedly told Sondland that he wasn’t seeking a quid pro quo from Ukraine — but then continued to insist that the U.S. withhold the military aid until Zelenskiy announced the requested investigations.

Morrison did not believe that Trump said “anything illegal” during his July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy, he told impeachment investigators Thursday, multiple outlets that have obtained his opening statement have reported.

Nevertheless, Morrison believed the transcript of the call might leak to the press, receive negative coverage, and damage the U.S.'s relationship with Ukraine. He was subsequently involved in discussions about how to suppress the transcript, he told lawmakers on Thursday, according to CNN.

Unlike many of the previous witnesses, Morrison has had multiple direct, one-on-one conversations with the president during his time on the NSC. It will be more clear how he handled assertions of executive privilege over certain conversations once a transcript of his testimony is published during the public portion of the impeachment proceedings.

Morrison, a top deputy to Bolton, is resigning from his post soon to “pursue other opportunities,” according to a senior U.S. official, the Washington Post reported. He has been considering leaving “for some time,” the official told the Post.

Invitation: The committees conducting the impeachment investigation invited Bolton to answer questions next Thursday, but the former national security adviser’s attorney told congressional investigators that he wouldn’t appear without a subpoena, several news outlets reported.

Bolton resigned in September over differences with Trump over several foreign policy positions, including a planned drawdown of troops from Afghanistan.

Next week: Four witness are scheduled to testify in closed depositions before impeachment investigators on Monday, according to an official working on the inquiry.

  • John Eisenberg, a national security counsel at the White House and legal adviser to the NSC
  • Robert Blair, assistant to the president and senior adviser to acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
  • Michael Ellis, senior associate counsel to the president and deputy legal adviser to the NSC.
  • Brian McCormack, associate director for natural resources, energy and science at the Office of Management and Budget.

Kupperman suit: A federal judge set oral arguments Dec. 10 in a lawsuit from former NSC official Charles Kupperman about whether he should comply with a House Intelligence Committee subpoena in the impeachment inquiry.

U.S. District Senior Judge Richard J. Leon set the relatively speedy schedule in what he called a matter of great importance to the country. He indicated he wanted to rule by late December or early January.

Leon declined a request from a Justice Department lawyer for some relief from a briefing deadline right after Thanksgiving weekend.

In a case of this importance, you “roll up your sleeves and get the job done,” Leon said.

Ground rules: House Democrats adopted the resolution that will govern the public portion of their impeachment inquiry, but no Republicans joined them in supporting the measure despite requesting the probe be conducted transparently.

In a rare move for the speaker showing the seriousness of the vote, Nancy Pelosi presided over the chamber as the House adopted the resolution, 232-196.

Minutes after the House approved the impeachment measure, Trump weighed in — as he has all week — on Twitter, writing: “The Greatest Witch Hunt In American History!”

The Trump-Pence reelection campaign sharply criticized the measure, saying “voters will punish Democrats who support this farce and President Trump will be easily re-elected.”

“Every American can see this for what it is: an attempt to remove a duly-elected president for strictly political reasons by a strictly partisan, illegitimate process,” campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement . “Today’s vote merely proves that the entire impeachment process was a sham from the beginning and Nancy Pelosi can’t legitimize it after the fact.”

Parscale’s statement followed one from White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham in which she contended Trump “has done nothing wrong” and again declaring Democrats’ inquiry “illegitimate.” “With today’s vote, Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats have done nothing more than enshrine unacceptable violations of due process into House rules,” she said.

Nothing personal: Pelosi described today’s vote as a means to go “further” in the inquiry that she launched last month. The California Democrat reiterated that Democrats have still not made a decision on whether to vote on articles of impeachment charging Trump with high crimes and misdemeanors.

“This isn’t about anything personal with the president,” she said. “This isn’t about politics … partisanship. It’s about patriotism”

Pelosi acknowledged that the vote likely won’t stop the White House from claiming the impeachment inquiry is illegitimate.

“The facts are what they are. They try to misrepresent them,” she said. Pelosi said the procedures are fair and provide the president and his team with an “expanded opportunity” to bring forward any exculpatory evidence.

“These rules are fairer than anything that have gone before in terms of an impeachment proceeding,” the speaker claimed, without elaborating further.

More details: State Department Ukraine expert Catherine Croft and her predecessor Christopher Anderson gave depositions on Wednesday providing more context and corroborating details on how senior Trump officials viewed the administration’s policy toward Ukraine, which was driven in large part by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney informed senior administration officials, including Croft, in a video conference on July 18 that the U.S. would be withholding military aid from Ukraine, Croft told impeachment investigators on Wednesday, according to a draft of her opening statement obtained by multiple media outlets.

“The only reason given was that the order came at the direction of the President,” Croft told the panel.

Investigators expected her to provide more details on efforts from those outside the White House to recall then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, a longtime goal of Giuliani and the cabal of advisers outside of official State Department channels who allegedly influenced the president’s decision-making in Ukraine.

Anderson provided more context to previous witness testimony that Bolton was wary of Giuliani’s influence on Trump in the region, including details of a meeting where Bolton told other officials that Giuliani “was a key voice with the President on Ukraine which could be an obstacle to increased White House engagement.”

Round Two: Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, is willing to return to the Capitol to testify in a public impeachment hearing, CNN reported Wednesday, citing an anonymous source familiar with Taylor’s thinking.

In testimony last week, Taylor drew a direct link between the withholding of military aid to Ukraine and requests from the White House for Zelenskiy to open up anti-corruption probes into Trump’s political rivals, Democratic lawmakers said.

That allegation, first made public last month after an unidentified whistleblower filed a complaint about the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy, has been the central focus of the impeachment inquiry.

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 30: Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to Russia in Dirksen Building on Wednesday, October 30, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan testified during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to Russia on Wednesday that he believed President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had sought to “smear” the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine to get her removed from her post. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Yovanovitch “smeared”: A top State Department official who has been tapped to be Trump's new ambassador to Russia corroborated on Wednesday Yovanovitch’s testimony earlier this month that she was recalled after a concerted “smear” effort by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his allies close to the president.

At a confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez asked Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, Trump's pick to be the next ambassador to Russia, if he thought Giuliani had been “seeking to smear Ambassador Yovanovitch, or have her removed.”

“I believed he was, yes,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also asked about his opinion on a U.S. leader asking a foreign government to investigate a domestic political rival as Trump is accused of doing.

“Soliciting investigations into a domestic political opponent — I don’t think that would be in accord with our values,” Sullivan told the committee.

Trump’s taxes: The Oversight Committee on Wednesday again urged a federal appeals court in Washington to immediately order accounting firm Mazars USA to turn over eight years of Trump’s financial records, in part for the “accelerating impeachment inquiry.”

“The Committee needs the subpoenaed information now precisely because it takes time to exercise the legislative and oversight powers that the Committee has invoked and this Court has recognized,” House lawyers wrote in a court filing.

Trump’s lawyers have asked the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to reconsider an Oct. 11 decision by a three-judge panel of that court. The panel backed the committee’s subpoena and Trump’s lawyers want the appeals court to pause enforcement of that subpoena as they continue the court battle.

The committee lawyers told the D.C. Circuit that it is “quite unlikely” that the Supreme Court would consider this case or entertain the argument from Trump’s lawyers that there was “an impermissible law-enforcement purpose” behind the subpoena.

“There is no reason to further delay the Committee’s receipt of the documents it subpoenaed from Mazars six months ago in connection with its urgent investigations,” House lawyers wrote.

Ethics complaint: Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s staunchest defenders in Congress, submitted an official complaint to House Ethics Committee on Wednesday regarding Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, who is leading the impeachment probe.

The Florida Republican cites Schiff’s comments at a Sept. 26 hearing characterizing the July phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine at the center of the impeachment inquiry as a violation of parliamentary precedent barring lawmakers from accusations that the president has committed a crime.

Gaetz also claims that when he was barred Oct. 14 from accessing an impeachment inquiry deposition, Schiff was in violation of the 116th Congress’ rules on deposition authority.

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