The third day of public impeachment hearings temporarily transformed President Donald Trump into a history professor as he and his surrogates tried to discredit government witnesses and panned House Democrats.
Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who oversees European matters at the National Security Council, told the House Intelligence Committee that Trump’s talk on a July 25 call with Ukraine’s president of his government investigating U.S. Democrats was “inappropriate” and a “partisan play.” He also panned attacks on other witnesses as “callow and cowardly,” appearing to criticize his commander in chief. Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, called that telephone conversation “unusual” because Trump was focused on a domestic political matter.
The president, for the first time in several days, was face-to-face with reporters during a Cabinet meeting while the two officials were still at the witness table a mile away. He resisted directly criticizing the two, but he did offer a history lesson — his interpretation of it, anyway.
“I just got to watch — and the Republicans are absolutely killing it. They are doing so well. Because it’s a scam. It’s a big scam,” the president said. “They’re doing something that the founders never thought possible and the founders didn’t want.”
Except the authors of the Constitution did think it possible that a chief executive might abuse his or her power and need to be admonished by the House — and possibly removed by the Senate. That’s why they put language handing broad impeachment powers to the House and the power to remove from office to the Senate.
Here are three takeaways from team Trump’s reaction to the third day of public impeachment hearings.
Those names have dominated both the closed-door impeachment depositions and the public hearings. There’s another senior U.S. official who was involved in Ukraine policy — and had direct talks and meetings with Zelenskiy — whose name largely has stayed out of the headlines the past two weeks: Pence.
Whether she intended to or not, Williams offered Pence plenty of cover Tuesday.
Like Vindman, Williams listened in on the July 25 call. Asked if she talked to the vice president or anyone else about it, she replied under oath: “I didn’t speak to anyone after the call.”
When Schiff pressed her on whether the VP, during a meeting with Zelenskiy, brought up a Ukrainian energy firm that once employed Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, she said Burisma Holdings Limited never came up.
Did Pence talk to the new Ukrainian leader about the probes of Democrats that Trump wanted him to conduct? “He never brought up those investigations,” Williams said of Pence.
U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, who will testify Wednesday morning, did so with Zelenskiy after that very meeting. Where was the VP? “The vice president moved on with his schedule immediately after his meeting with President Zelenskiy,” Williams said.
Those statements came after Pence’s office on Monday evening tried putting notable distance between him and his adviser: “Jennifer Williams is on a current detail from the State Department that began April 1,” Pence spokeswoman Katie Waldman wrote in an email. “No, she doesn’t directly report to the Vice President.”
Her email then included select passages from the transcript of her private testimony to the House Intelligence Committee that appeared to paint Pence in a positive light or Williams as too disconnected from the Trump team’s interactions with Ukrainian officials to have knowledge of the American leader’s intent.
The vice president’s office appeared pleased with her testimony.
“[Williams] affirmed that the Vice President focused on President Zelenskiy’s anti-corruption efforts and the lack of European support and never mentioned former Vice President Joe Biden, Crowdstrike, Burisma, or investigations in any communication with Ukrainians,” Pence’s national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, said in a statement.
The president might not have rebutted the witness’s accounts of events in real-time, but he did take a few shots at them — including suggesting Vindman leave his military dress blues in the closet when he comes to work at the NSC.
“I don’t know him. I don’t know, as he says, ‘lieutenant colonel,” Trump told reporters. “I understand somebody had the misfortune of calling him ‘mister,’ and he corrected them. I never saw the man. I understand now he wears his uniform when [he] goes in. No, I don’t know Vindman at all.”
About two officials who testified last week, State Department official George Kent and acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, Trump also tried painting them as too disconnected from himself to know much: “I don’t know who Kent is. I don’t know who Taylor is.”
“I don’t know any of these people,” Trump said, “other than I have seen one or two a couple of times.”
As GOP lawmakers questioned Vindman about closed-door testimony from other witnesses who worked with him questioning his judgment, the White House pounced.
“Tim Morrison, Alexander Vindman’s former boss, testified in his deposition that he had concerns about Vindman’s judgment,” read a tweet from the official White House Twitter account.
The Rudy rubicon
U.S. officials testified again Tuesday that they collectively formed a positive and hopeful view of the then-newly elected Zelenskiy, who ran as an anti-corruption reformer. But they were unable to convince Trump, despite repeated efforts.
“It was clear to me that, despite the positive news and recommendations being conveyed by this official delegation about the new president, President Trump had a deeply rooted negative view on Ukraine rooted in the past,” Kurt Volker, Trump’s former special envoy to Ukraine, told the committee Tuesday afternoon.
“He was receiving other information from other sources, including Mayor Giuliani, that was more negative, causing him to retain this negative view,” Volker said, then describing officials’ failed attempts to “nail down” a date for a Trump-Zelenskiy meeting.
So vexing was trying to bridge the perceived chasm the former New York City mayor had built between them and the president that Volker felt he had only one choice.
“After weeks of reassuring the Ukrainians that it was just a scheduling issue,” he said, “I decided to tell President Zelenskiy that we had a problem with the information reaching President Trump from Mayor Giuliani.”
It was one they never solved, however.
Even though Giuliani’s role has forced Trump to field questions by reporters about his involvement and calls from critics that he fire his attorney, the man known simply as “Rudy” remains a player in the impeachment saga.
As the hearing was kicking off, Giuliani announced he has concluded none of the testimony offered last week by current and former Trump administration officials would be admissible in a Senate impeachment trial. “The first 3 ‘star witnesses’ (the State Department permanents) had absolutely ZERO admissible evidence and NO evidence of any criminal activity,” Giuliani tweeted.
The first 3 “star witnesses” (the State Department permanents) had absolutely ZERO admissible evidence and NO evidence of any criminal activity. Nothing they said would be admissible in a court of law or, presumably, in an impeachment presided over by the Chief Justice of the US.
— Rudy Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) November 19, 2019