Congress

Impeachment news roundup: Nov. 6

Taylor transcript released, Schiff announces first public hearings, No. 3 State Department official testifying on ambassador’s ouster

President Donald Trump cited the testimony of former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, shown here arriving for his Oct. 3 deposition, as proof that House Democrats are conducting a “witch hunt.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democratic impeachment investigators Wednesday unsealed testimony of one of their potential star witnesses, William Taylor, who alleged some of President Donald Trump’s closest advisers sought a quid pro quo from Ukraine to advance the president’s political interests.

Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told lawmakers at his deposition earlier this month that some top officials in the Trump administration, led from the outside by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, pressured Ukraine to publicly announce anti-corruption investigations into the Bidens and other Democrats in exchange for the U.S. unfreezing $400 million in military aid.

The transcript of Taylor’s testimony also contains nuggets on how House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff was quick to repel Republican protests about process, and why he limited when and how Republicans could review witness testimony. 

 

The chairs of the three committees leading the impeachment inquiry —Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight — have now released transcripts from five key witnesses: Taylor, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, former State Department official Michael McKinley, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, and former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker.

Sondland's testimony released Tuesday included a notable revision that confirmed Taylor's account that the Trump administration sought a quid pro quo from Ukraine.

Schiff also announced Wednesday that impeachment investigators will begin holding public hearings with witnesses next week. Taylor and State Department official George Kent are slated to testify Nov. 13.

Meanwhile, the third-highest ranking official at the State Department gave his impeachment deposition Wednesday. The official, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, was expected to testify that political considerations fueled the department's decision not to strongly defend Yovanovitch from efforts by Trump and Giuliani to oust her from her post in Ukraine.

Hale was the first witness this week to show up for his slated closed-door hearing. Nine others — all current or former Trump administration officials — have skipped or are expected to skip their depositions.

Hale was expected to tell impeachment investigators that he tried to distance himself from the fracas swirling the possible ouster of Yovanovitch, declining to either shield her from Trump or encourage her dismissal, The Associated Press reported.

Here is the latest on the impeachment inquiry:

Taylor transcript: House impeachment investigators Wednesday released the transcript of Taylor's testimony in which the acting ambassador to Ukraine claims that the administration sought a quid pro quo from Ukraine to boost Trump's political standing.

Taylor outlined an "irregular, informal channel" of diplomacy to Ukraine whose main objective was to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to commit to investigating Giuliani's conspiracy theories about the Bidens and Ukrainian election interference in 2016.

That parallel agenda was fueled by Giuliani and advanced from within the administration by Sondland, Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Taylor testified.

The full transcript of Taylor's testimony can be found here.

'I would quit': Taylor elaborated on a previously released text message he sent to Sondland describing a "nightmare" scenario where Zelenskiy would issue a public statement committing to the investigations into the Bidens and Democrats Trump wanted but then didn't subsequently receive the security assistance being withheld.

Taylor told lawmakers that Russia would have relished such an outcome and that he would have quit had the situation played out that way.

"The nightmare was [Zelenskiy] would mention those two [investigations], take all the heat from that, get himself in big trouble in this country and probably in his country as well, and the security assistance would not be released,” Taylor said.

“The Russians want to know how much support the Ukrainians are going to get in general, but also what kind of support from the Americans," he said. "So the Russians are loving, would love, the humiliation of Zelensky at the hands of the Americans, and would give the Russians a freer hand, and I would quit.”

Taylor previously described his hesitation to return to his position as envoy to Ukraine after Yovanovitch was recalled, saying he only agreed to do so under the circumstances that the U.S. continued to provide strong support to Ukraine in its defense against Russia.

He said the scenario he described would be equivalent to throwing Ukraine under the bus and that he wanted no part of that.

Zelenskiy ultimately resisted the pressure to issue a statement announcing probes into the Bidens and 2016 election interference. The Trump administration eventually unfroze the military aid package in September after receiving substantial criticism for withholding it in the first place.

Taylor's warning: Taylor warned Zelenskiy and his chief of staff, Andrei Bohdan, at a Sept. 13 meeting in Ukraine that launching the investigations Trump was seeking would be a bad idea. The meeting occurred two days after the hold on U.S. security assistance was lifted.

“I had just said to President Zelenskiy, bipartisan support of Ukraine in Washington is your most valuable strategic asset, don’t jeopardize it. And don’t intervene — don’t interfere in our elections, and we won’t interfere in your elections," Taylor told congressional investigators.

"I had just said that to President Zelenskiy, and on the way out I said the same thing to Andriy Yermak. And the body language was such that it looked to me like he was still thinking they were going to make that statement.”

Taylor was referring to Sondland telling him that Zelenskiy committed to announcing the investigations in a CNN interview. Although the security assistance had been released, a White House meeting Trump had promised Zelenskiy had still not been scheduled.

See yourself to the door: The transcript of Taylor's testimony provides a fly-on-the-wall view of how Schiff responded to protests by Republican lawmakers over his format for impeachment proceedings.

At one point during Taylor's testimony, the top Republicans on the committees leading the impeachment probe complained to Schiff that he was violating House deposition rules by only allowing them to read transcripts of the proceedings in the presence of a Democratic staff member.

Schiff readily offered a reason.

"The one transcript that the minority was able to download and print was leaked to the press promptly. That's a problem, and that is part of the reason we have to maintain the security of the transcripts," the California Democrat said.

Schiff interrupted Taylor's testimony at another point to tell unauthorized Republicans who had entered the room to leave. Only lawmakers and authorized staff on the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees have been allowed inside the Secure Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) where investigators are taking depositions.

"If I could just interrupt. And I don't know all the members so I apologize. Only members of three committees and their staff and committee staff are authorized to be present. If there is any Member here who is not a member of the three committees, they need to absent themselves," Schiff said.

Taylor's testimony came one day before more than a dozen House Republicans staged a sit-in at the secure deposition room and disrupted testimony for hours by refusing to leave.

Going public: In addition to Taylor and Kent's appearance at a public hearing Nov. 13, Schiff announced former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch will testify two days later.

“Those open hearings will be an opportunity for the American people to evaluate the witnesses for themselves, to make their own determinations about the credibility of the witnesses, but also to learn first hand about the facts of the president's misconduct,” Schiff said.

Schiff suggested closed-door depositions will conclude before the public hearings begin. “We still have some remaining depositions to do, which we’ll be conducting over the next couple days,” he said.

Lone wolf: Hale is the only witness to appear before the impeachment panel so far this week. The undersecretary of State for political affairs testified for six hours Wednesday.

He was expected to shed more light on the State Department’s upper-level decision-making surrounding the recall of Yovanovitch from Ukraine in May, according to the AP.

Yovanovitch testified in October that she was very concerned about the influence of Giuliani on the administration’s policy in Ukraine and his efforts to have her removed from her post.

Hale was expected to tell lawmakers that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thought it would not be politically expedient to publicly defend Yovanovitch from Trump because it might show a disconnect between the president and the top diplomats under him, the AP reported.

Multiple State Department officials, including McKinley, whose impeachment testimony was unsealed Monday, urged department brass to defend Yovanovitch through a public statement.

McKinley resigned in protest as higher-ups at the State Department rebuffed his repeated efforts to bolster Yovanovitch. McKinley thought the department was being used to “procure negative political information for domestic purposes,” he told lawmakers.

Hale was expected to tell lawmakers Wednesday that Pompeo’s decision not to challenge Trump on Yovanovitch’s recall was “politically smart” for the department in the long run, the AP reported.

More no-shows: Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought, State Department counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, and Perry are not expected to appear before the impeachment panel Wednesday despite being on the schedule to testify.

Lawmakers want to ask Vought what he knows about the administration’s decision to freeze nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine that is essential to rebuffing Russian aggression there. Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine and annexed the Ukrainian-controlled Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The conflict is still raging.

Perry, Sondland and Volker were known among some State Department officials as the “Three Amigos” who acted as Giuliani’s enablers within the White House to pursue his political agenda in Ukraine.

“Basement chamber”: As both sides seek to get voters’ attention and sway public opinion in their favor on the impeachment inquiry, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway turned to some graphic rhetoric.

During a gaggle with reporters outside the White House, she accused Schiff and other Democrats of “growing mushrooms in … Schiff’s basement chamber.”

The committees leading the probe are conducting depositions in a secure room in the basement of the Capitol Visitor Center. Republican lawmakers also have been participating in the same room. Trump has been cryptically and derisively referring to the “basement” for several weeks, implying Democrats are doing something nefarious down there.

Crossed a line: Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Wednesday that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “stepped over the line” Tuesday when he said that if an impeachment trial vote were held in the Senate today, the president would be acquitted.

“In the Senate, we’re beginning to get that germ, that germ of coming to conclusions before we hear all the facts, before the trial occurs. That germ is spreading, that nasty germ,” Schumer said.

Schumer said senators should wait for the facts to come out and for a trial to begin in the Senate before coming to conclusions in the case. He criticized his Senate colleagues who have said they won’t read transcripts from the House investigation because they don’t trust the process.

Fiona Hill v. Sondland: The lawyer for Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top National Security Council adviser on Russia and Eastern Europe, disputed Sondland’s characterization of his communications with her.

In his testimony released on Tuesday, Sondland told lawmakers that his relationship with Hill had “always been very cordial.” Their families even met up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, earlier this year for “a nice drink or coffee or something,” Sondland said. He did not recall Hill ever expressing concerns to him about his handling of Ukraine and Giuliani’s influence in U.S. diplomatic relations with the country, he testified.

None of that is true, Hill’s lawyer said Wednesday.

“Sondland has fabricated communications with Dr. Hill, none of which were over coffee,” Lee Wolosky, Hill’s attorney, tweeted. “Dr. Hill told Sondland what she told lawmakers — the lack of coordination on Ukraine was distastorous [sic], and the circumstances of the dismissal of Amb Yovanovitch shameful,” he wrote.

Slipping support: A Morning Consult/POLITICO poll surveying nearly 2,000 registered voters between Nov. 1 and 3 found support for impeachment dropped 4 percentage points from a poll conducted between Oct. 11 and 13. The November poll found support for the House impeaching Trump is at 47 percent, still higher than the 43 percent who said they were opposed. The poll has a 2 percentage point margin of error.

Another view: A FiveThirtyEight project tracking impeachment polls shows that on average support for impeachment has been largely stagnant for the past month, hovering around 49 percent.

What we learned Tuesday: In his original deposition in October, Sondland largely defended Trump, saying he recalled “no discussions” mentioning potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. It was not until much later that he realized there was a connection between Burisma and the Bidens, he said.

But he revised his initial testimony significantly, amending it to say he told a top Ukrainian official that the country would “likely” not receive military aid unless it announced investigations into Trump’s political rivals, according to the transcript released Tuesday.

In his amendment, Sondland said his recollections were “refreshed” after reviewing opening statements from diplomats Taylor and Tim Morrison.

Volker’s transcript includes testimony that clashes with that of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council. Volker blamed a senior Ukrainian defense official for derailing a July meeting with then-national security adviser John Bolton, But Vindman testified that the meeting was going well until Sondland brought up certain investigations Trump wanted the Ukrainian government to open into domestic political rivals and Bolton at that point cut the meeting short.

His transcript also conflicted with that of Sondland’s amended testimony as Volker declared “there was no linkage” between the aid package and a meeting between Trump and Zelenskiy and a Ukrainian investigation into Democrats.

Trump on Wednesday thanked the former envoy for his testimony.

What else we learned: Diplomats involved in U.S. relations with Ukraine realized they had “a Giuliani problem;” and that partisan bickering between members of the committees shows the level of mistrust between the two sides.

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