House impeachment investigators are taking a break through Sunday from taking depositions before picking back up Monday with interviews of four new witnesses.
After three weeks of closed-door depositions, a picture has begun to calcify about President Donald Trump and some of his top aides’ attempts to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate the president’s domestic political rivals in exchange for military aid and a meeting at the White House.
Those allegations, first outlined in a whistleblower complaint that emerged in public reports in late September, have largely been corroborated by at least nine witnesses so far, most notably acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, National Security Council Ukraine officials Fiona Hill and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and Laura Cooper, the top Defense Department official overseeing Ukraine policy.
Taylor and other witnesses — notably Hill and former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled in May — outlined their concerns over a parallel shadow foreign policy on Ukraine run by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and executed by such Trump-appointed officials as Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Multiple witnesses have testified that since at least May, Giuliani has been working outside official State Department channels to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens as well as widely dismissed allegations of collusion between Ukraine and Democrats during the 2016 election.
On July 18, ahead of the now-infamous July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy, Mulvaney announced to senior administration officials that the U.S. would suspend a nearly $400 million military aid package to Ukraine. That aid package was later greenlighted in September, but not before unsuccessful attempts by Volker and Sondland to pressure Zelenskiy’s government into publicly announcing investigations into Giuliani’s conspiracy theories.
Sondland, whom other officials have said was a willing participant in Giuliani’s shadow foreign policy operation, testified that he did not know Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and that their names were never used in his conversations with the president. Other witnesses, such as Taylor, have contradicted some of Sondland’s claims.
At least one official, former NSC senior director for Europe and Russia Timothy Morrison, told lawmakers that he “was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed” between Trump and Zelenskiy, but that it jeopardized the Ukraine-U.S. alliance and had the potential for bad optics at home.
House Democrats signaled this week that they might soon be ready to pivot to public impeachment hearings after voting this week on a resolution laying out the format for the public portion of the impeachment proceedings. The House Judiciary Committee also released its rules for proceedings this week.
On Monday, investigators will continue taking closed-door depositions. Among those scheduled to testify are a top aide to Mulvaney as well as NSC lawyer John Eisenberg, who received multiple complaints from agency aides about the actions of Giuliani and his cabal in the administration.
Here is the latest on the impeachment inquiry:
A warning: Trump again warned House Democrats their impeachment probe will cost them their majority.
“The public is watching and seeing for themselves how unfair this process is. Corrupt politicians, Pelosi and Schiff, are trying to take down the Republican Party. It will never happen, we will take back the House!” Trump tweeted Friday in a series that began with him live-tweeting a Fox News morning show. The president, however, did not provide any polling data to support his claim.
Work in progress: Republican Study Committee Chairman Mike Johnson, R-La., said he does not have concerns that if witnesses from the intelligence community, diplomatic corps and military testify in open hearings and come under attack from the president and others that public trust in those institutions could erode.
But he warned that impeachment is instead eroding trust in Congress.
“We’re still an experiment on the world stage, a constitutional republic. We’re only 243 years into this we don’t know how long it can last,” Johnson said in an interview for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.”
Johnson said that Trump aired his frustration with the impeachment at a meeting with a dozen members of the RSC at the White House this week.
“The president vented some of his frustration to us,” he said. He said that Republicans describing the impeachment process as a “sham,” is “an actual summary of what’s happened here,” and not “an epithet.”
Slumping support in the GOP: An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Friday shows a split over impeachment and Trump’s approval rating remaining steady, but below 40 percent.
Notable in the findings his approval among Republicans — a career-low of 74 percent compared to a career-high 87 percent in July.
As to how each side is handling the impeachment inquiry, 58 percent said they disapproved of the way Trump is handling the investigation, and 50 percent disapproved of congressional Democrats’ tactics.
More than half — 55 percent — thought Trump did “something wrong” in his dealings with Ukraine and 47 percent said what the president is accused of is “seriously wrong.” A third thought he did nothing wrong, and 10 percent were undecided.
Six in 10 of those polled thought it was inappropriate for Trump to involve Giuliani in dealing with Ukraine.
Tactical shift: The White House and its Republican allies on Thursday slightly shifted their counter-impeachment messaging to one that more closely resembles that of President Bill Clinton’s West Wing messaging during his own House investigation.
Trump’s message and those of top aides and GOP lawmakers appear to be aligned: The investigation is preventing work on policy matters and harming the economy — and, by extension, the American public.
Catch-22: A federal judge on Thursday 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.
Kupperman’s lawyer, Charles Cooper, told Leon that his client is in “a classic Catch-22” between the committee’s subpoena and an order from the White House not to testify. He said Kupperman is “indifferent” to which side wins, he just wants to “do what is right under the Constitution.”
Cooper also represents former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has been invited to testify but not been subpoenaed. Under questioning from Leon, Cooper said that there would be no need to extend the court schedule because the issues would be the same.
Setting procedure: The impeachment resolution passed Thursday by the House specifically directs five House committees to continue investigating whether Trump used his office to try to coerce the Ukrainian government to investigate former the Bidens.
The measure grants House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff significant influence over the inquiry, allowing the California Democrat lengthy periods of uninterrupted questioning of witnesses in future public hearings, the ability to release transcripts of private hearings and depositions and the power to block Republicans from calling witnesses.
It also outlines the remaining phases of the impeachment inquiry. Since Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the formal start of the inquiry last month, the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs panels have been conducting closed-door witness depositions.
Soon the Intelligence panel will bring some witnesses back to testify in a public setting. The resolution sets up the procedures for those hearings.
Thursday’s testimony: Morrison said he believed the transcript of the call between Trump and Zelenskiy might leak to the media, receive negative coverage, and damage the United States’ 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.
Next week: Besides Eisenberg, three other witnesses are scheduled to testify in closed depositions before impeachment investigators Monday, according to an official working on the inquiry.
- 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.