Congress

Impeachment news roundup: Nov. 15

Ousted ambassador to Ukraine defends herself against ‘smear campaign,’ Trump attacks her during testimony

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Friday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was removed from her post by President Donald Trump, spent much of her opening statement before the House Intelligence Committee on Friday dismissing allegations that she worked against the president while in her post in Kyiv.

[Former ambassador to Ukraine talks of Foreign Service ‘degradation’ under Trump]

Yovanovitch told the committee that she never told U.S. embassy employees to ignore Washington’s orders because Trump would soon be impeached, that she did not work on behalf of the Clinton campaign in 2016, and that she has never spoke with Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, whom Trump wanted Kyiv to investigate for his lucrative position at a Ukrainian gas company.

[Here are the members of the House Intelligence Committee]

“Partisanship of this type is not compatible with the role of a career foreign service officer,” she said.

Yovanovitch is the third diplomat to testify during open hearings related to the impeachment inquiry. On Wednesday, her replacement in Kyiv and another diplomat testified that Trump removed her after his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani conducted a “smear campaign” against her.

[Ousted ambassador gives deeply personal account of firing by Trump]

Here is the latest on the impeachment inquiry:

‘Useless’: Stephanie Grisham, the top White House spokeswoman, dubbed Friday’s hearing “useless and inconsequential.”

“Zero evidence of any wrongdoing by the President was presented. In fact, Ambassador Yovanovitch testified under oath that she was unaware of any criminal activity involving President Trump,” she said in a statement. “She was not on the July 25 phone call and had no knowledge about the pause on aid to Ukraine. It is difficult to imagine a greater waste of time than today’s hearing.”

Trump taxes: As expected, Trump’s attorneys asked the Supreme Court on Friday to stop a House Oversight and Reform Committee subpoena to accounting firm Mazars USA for eight years of his financial and tax records.

Warning: The House Ethics Committee issued a memo about breaches of security and warning lawmakers of potential consequences in response to efforts by House Republicans to access the secure facility in the basement of the Capitol during a closed-door impeachment deposition on Oct. 23.

The memo, from Ethics Chairman Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, and ranking member Kenny Marchant, a Texas Republican, stopped short of identifying the specific incident or launching any inquiries into the incident.

‘President’s opinion’: Grisham, Trump’s top spokeswoman, said in a statement her boss’ tweet in which he contended that things “turned bad” in countries in which Yovanovitch was posted during her testimony Friday morning “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 — or to put it more accurately, a totally illegitimate, charade stacked against the President,” she said.

Procedural posturing: After a midday recess, Republicans launched their time for questioning with controversy, intentionally violating rules and pushing back against them and procedures for the impeachment inquiry adopted by the House in October.

Ranking member Devin Nunes yielded time to New York Rep. Elise Stefanik for questioning — a direct violation of the rules. The first 45 minutes of questioning are designated for Nunes and his counsel. Democrats were held to the same rules for the first 45 minutes, with questions only from Schiff and the Democratic counsel.

Schiff interrupted to note the departure from the rules.

“What is the interruption for this time?” Stefanik shot back. “It is our time.”

Schiff banged his gavel and outlined the limitations on yielding time in the first phase of questioning. Nunes and Stefanik pushed back, saying that Schiff was barring members of Congress from asking questions. 

“You’re gagging the gentlelady from New York?” asked GOP counsel Steve Castor.

Eventually Nunes and Stefanik relented, and Nunes turned questioning over to counsel.

All members of the committee have five minutes each to question Yovanovitch. Members can yield to each other during that time, as a number of Republicans did on Wednesday to especially dogged questioners Jim Jordan and John Ratcliffe.

Getting personal: Trump fired off two tweets as Yovanovitch testified that attempted to discredit her.

“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,” he wrote.

“It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors. They call it ‘serving at the pleasure of the President,’”

Trump didn’t comment Wednesday during the testimony of acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor or senior State Department official George Kent.

Near-real time: Minutes after Trump tweeted his thoughts on Yovanovitch, Schiff read it aloud in the hearing and asked her to respond to it. The former ambassador stammered a bit, then said, “I don’t think I had such powers.”

“Where I served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made them better. For both the United States and the countries I served in,” she said.

“It’s very intimidating,” Yovanovitch said of Trump’s tweets. “I can’t speak what the president is trying to do, but I think the effect is intimidating.”

The exchange appears to be the first time an impeachment hearing witness has been asked to respond to a sitting commander in chief’s tweets in near-real time.

Defending himself: Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin said if Schiff wanted Yovanovitch to respond to Trump’s tweet he should have provided her an opportunity to read all of it versus just reading select portions.

“The president is going to defend himself,” Zeldin said, noting that if Democrats are going to bring up the references to Yovanovitch in the July 25 call they should have asked her to respond to Zelenskiy’s negative comments about her in addition to what Trump said.

A different take: “The president wakes up every day and tries to figure out how he can interfere with justice. That’s his M.O.,” Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin said when asked to respond to Trump’s tweets.

No comment: Asked if the president’s intent in sending the “turned bad” tweet about Yovanovitch’s career was to influence her testimony, a White House official involved in the communications response effort shook his head and put up his hands — but did not deny it was.

“We don’t have a comment on that,” the official said.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone declined to comment when reporters asked if the president committed witness intimidation as he left a meeting with Principal Deputy Press Secretary J. Hogan Gidley.

Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney did the same as he left Grisham’s office.

“You guys having fun?” he asked as he headed quickly down a hallway.

Irrelevant: Republican members didn’t take the same tack at Trump, but they said that Yovanovitch’s testimony was irrelevant to making a case against the president.

“She’s a very nice lady. And I think she’s very diligent and earnest and she presents as very professional,” Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry said. “Unfortunately for her, I think she’s being used by Mr. Schiff.”

Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina complained that the Democrats’ line of questioning was overly focused on Yovanovitch’s feelings and reactions to events, rather than a recollection of facts.

“[Democrats] must have asked her no less than six times — how did you feel about that? And so that’s what we’re getting a response to,” he said.

“This is an impeachment of Rudy Giuliani, but last time I checked, he’s not the president,” Meadows said.

Focus group: The Republican National Committee bashed Democrats after a Washington Post report described how the party has polled words like “quid pro quo,” “extortion” and “bribery” in relation to the president and his team’s pressing Ukraine for investigations.

After polling showed “bribery” was deemed the “most damning,” the Post reported, Democratic lawmakers this week started using that word to describe what Trump appears to have done rather than the more legalistic “quid pro quo.”

“The impeachment of the President will be determined by testing various accusations on focus groups in key House battlegrounds. (Just as our nation’s Founders intended!),” Matt Wolking, a RNC communications official, said in a blast email.

“Holy cow”: At the start of the hearing, several Republicans tried to raise points of order and unanimous consent requests.

Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, who is conducting the hearing, initially declined to recognize Rep. Elise Stefanik but then allowed her to state a point of order questioning whether he would interrupt and object to minority questions as she said he did during Wednesday’s hearing. Schiff did not answer, saying that was not a proper point of order.

As other Republicans tried to follow up with procedural motions, Schiff declined to recognize any of them. "Holy cow," Rep. Jim Jordan responded.

Counterprogramming: As Friday’s hearing was beginning, the White House released a transcript of a phone call between himself and Zelenskiy that preceded July 25 call at the center of the inquiry in which Trump appears to pressure Zelenskiy to investigating the Bidens.

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, read the transcript during his opening statement. Schiff thanked Trump for releasing the transcript and called on him to release other documents related to the investigation that the administration has stonewalled. 

April call: The earlier call took place in April shortly after Zelenskiy was elected and, according to the summary, includes Zelenskiy inviting Trump to his inauguration and Trump promising to send “very, very high level” representatives and inviting Zelenskiy to the White House. The White House meeting has not happened.

The memo recaps a short call in which Trump congratulates Zelenskiy on his election. There is no mention of the Bidens or corruption, but Trump does mention that he hosted the Miss Universe contest in Ukraine.

The call was marked as “unclassified, for official use only.” The July 25 call was classified as “Secret/Originator Controlled/No Foreign Nationals.”

Exoneration: Grisham said release of the White House-crafted summary of Trump’s first call with Zelenskiy should exonerate him.

“The President took the unprecedented steps to declassify and release the transcripts of both of his phone calls with President Zelensky so that every American can see he did nothing wrong,” she wrote.

Tuning out: The White House continued portraying President Trump as “too busy” — as he put it Wednesday — to tune into House Democrats’ impeachment hearings.

“The President will be watching Congressman Nunes’ opening statement, but the rest of the day he will be working hard for the American people,” Grisham said in a statement issued as Yovanovitch was delivering her opening statement.

Closed-door testimony: Investigators will also hear today from David Holmes, an aide to Taylor, who allegedly overheard Sondland’s talking with Trump over the phone about the status of “the investigations.”

Taylor told  told lawmakers on Wednesday that one of his aides overheard the call a day after the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy at the center of the inquiry in which Democrats say Trump pressured Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens in exchange for a delayed $400 military aid package to Ukraine.

Coming Saturday: Mark Sandy, a high-ranking career official at the Office of Management and Budget, is expected to testify behind close doors in the impeachment inquiry Saturday.

“If he’s subpoenaed he will appear,” Barbara Van Gelder, his attorney, said late Thursday. Gelder said she expects him to be subpoenaed.

Sandy, deputy associate director of OMB’s national security division, implemented an initial hold on Ukraine aid last summer. Subsequent holds were signed by Michael Duffey, associate director of National Security Programs and a political appointee at the agency. Administration officials said in the past that OMB counsel had cleared the placing of the holds.

Duffey has defied requests for his testimony, citing a White House order not to talk to investigators.

Eye-to-eye: The Trump administration and House Democrats found something to agree with in the impeachment inquiry—that former National Security Council official Charles Kupperman’s lawsuit should get tossed.

Kupperman filed the lawsuit last month asking the courts to decide whether he should comply with a House subpoena or follow a White House directive not to testify.

But the Intelligence Committee withdrew the subpoena earlier this month and will not reissue it, in part to avoid a lengthy court fight that would slow their impeachment inquiry. So in separate filings late Thursday, the Justice Department and the Intelligence Committee told a federal judge that Kupperman’s suit should be tossed as moot because he faces no consequences for not appearing for the deposition.

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