Impeachment witnesses tested Republican defenses of Trump 1 by 1
While it remains highly unlikely that the culmination of the House impeachment inquiry will lead to a conviction of Donald Trump by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, the testimony in the House Intelligence Committee hearings has made it harder to sustain some of the many defenses offered on his behalf.
While Trump was quick to declare victory even before the hearings were over, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled that other witnesses could still be called.
“We aren't finished yet; the day is not over," Pelosi said during her weekly press conference, adding that you "never know what testimony of one person may lead to the need for testimony of another."
Pelosi decried "the sad tragedy” of “the behavior of the president and the defense of that behavior by the Republicans."
The inquiry is centered on the president’s efforts, conveyed through his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, to coerce the government of Ukraine to announce investigations that he thought would help his 2020 campaign, including of his potential opponent Joe Biden, and Biden’s son Hunter. Part of the pressure on Ukraine involved the temporary withholding of military aid, according to various witness accounts and the narrative advanced by Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
To be sure, by blocking the testimony of acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Giuliani himself, the White House kept the public from learning the circumstances under which the administration restored the aid on Sept. 1. That was just two days after it became known that a whistleblower had alerted Congress to investigate the president’s exchanges with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Democrats say the timing was not a coincidence.
But the witnesses who did appear helped clarify many other matters, and poked holes in many of the arguments put forth by Trump and his defenders. These are some of the talking points that are less tenable as of this week:
The ‘perfect’ call
Since the whistleblower report stemming from Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky was first reported, he has strenuously argued that it was not just proper, but “PERFECT.”
While not many Republicans have gone that far, they have made the case that what Trump told Zelensky was not unusual. Ahead of Wednesday’s testimony, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., for instance, dismissed Trump’s conversation with Zelensky as “a friendly call with the Ukrainian president.”
But others who heard or were told about the call were dismayed, alarmed or even shocked by it. That included two national security officials who were on the line for the call itself, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and vice presidential aide Jennifer Williams.
On Tuesday, Williams called the call between the two leaders “unusual” and “inappropriate” because it “involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.” She added that the call shed light on Trump’s decision to withhold nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid.
Vindman went even further.
“It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent,” Vindman testified.
While Williams did not discuss the call with her colleagues at the National Security Council or with Vice President Mike Pence, Vindman took his concerns to NSC lawyers. Both Williams and Vindman testified that they recalled Burisma, the Ukrainian natural gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served, being mentioned on the call, but the summary provided by the White House did not include that reference.
In his opening statement at Tuesday’s impeachment hearing, Nunes dismissed testimony given the previous week by Bill Taylor, acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine; George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs; and Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Like Trump, Nunes noted that none of the three had firsthand knowledge of the president’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian president.
“What you saw were three diplomats who dislike the president’s Ukraine policy, discussing secondhand and thirdhand conversations about their objections,” Nunes said.
Moments later, that alibi became old news, when Vindman and Williams delivered their firsthand accounts of the call. Democrats, meanwhile, have shown that Trump’s efforts to secure a public announcement from the Ukrainian president of an investigation of the Bidens had begun months before the July 25 call.
David Holmes, the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, described a lunch meeting with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on July 26, the day after Trump’s call with Zelensky.
From the restaurant, Sondland placed a call on his cellphone to the White House.
“The president’s voice was very loud and recognizable, and Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume.” Holmes said he heard Trump ask, “So he’s going to do the investigation?”
“He’s gonna do it,” Sondland replied, adding that Zelensky “loves your ass,” and would do “anything you ask him to.”
Holmes said he was prompted to come forward by reports that Republicans on the Intelligence Committee were dismissing much of the testimony as “hearsay.”
“I came to realize I had firsthand knowledge regarding the events on July 26 that had not otherwise been reported,” Holmes testified.
Trump cared about Ukrainian corruption
During the first week of testimony, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a tenacious defender of the president, proposed that Trump froze U.S. military aid to Ukraine to conduct a review of whether the newly elected President Zelensky was sincere about ending corruption.
“Corruption is not just prevalent in Ukraine. It’s the system. Our president said, ‘time out, time out, let’s check out this new guy,’” Jordan said.
But last May, Trump recalled Marie Yovanovitch, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who had built a reputation in the State Department as an anticorruption crusader. Giuliani had complained she was standing in the way of his efforts to promote an investigation of the Bidens.
In her testimony, Yovanovitch described her firing as a setback in the fight against graft.
“Perhaps it was not surprising that when our anticorruption efforts got in the way for the desire for profit or power, Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old corrupt rules sought to remove me,” Yovanovitch testified. “What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them, and that working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. ambassador.”
Sondland also cast doubt on the claim that Trump had sought to root out corruption in Ukraine, testifying that Trump “doesn’t give a s*** about Ukraine,” and that all that mattered to him was getting a public announcement that Kyiv was launching an investigation of Biden — not even that it had to be pursued.
“They would have to announce that they were going to do it,” Sondland said. "I never heard ... anyone say that the investigations had to start or be completed.”
When Schiff pressed Sondland on that point, the witness clarified his answer. “He had to announce the investigations; he didn’t have to actually do it as I understand it.”
‘No quid pro quo’
For weeks, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., has made Trump’s case that during his July 25 phone call with Zelensky, he never floated a quid pro quo, trading U.S. military and political support for the investigations the White House wanted.
Weeks before the impeachment inquiry began, Stefanik asserted, “There is nothing impeachable in the transcript. There was no quid pro quo.”
Sondland’s revised deposition answers, as well as his testimony before the Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, threw cold water on that claim.
“I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland said in his opening statement. “As I testified previously with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
Sondland went on to place responsibility on both Trump and Giuliani.
“Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” he testified. “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election DNC server, and Burisma.”
Sondland implicated others in the administration as well. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
In some ways this is no surprise, given that Mulvaney said as much in a startling White House press conference last month when pressed by ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl over his description of why military funding was withheld from Ukraine.
Karl: But to be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo. It is, funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happened as well.
Mulvaney: We do — we do that all the time with foreign policy.
But further testimony by David Holmes, a career U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, continued to undercut the president’s defense, calling attention to the protracted and intense efforts by Trump to seek an investigation of Biden.
“Sir, we’ve been hearing about the investigations since March — months before [the July 25 call] — and President Zelensky had received a congratulatory letter from the president saying he would be pleased to meet him following his inauguration in May,” Holmes said during a contentious exchange with Jordan. “And we had been unable to get that meeting. And then the security hold came up with no explanation.”
Holmes believed that the reason U.S. assistance was withheld was clear to the Ukrainians.
“And I’d be surprised if any of the Ukrainians — we discussed earlier, you know, they’re sophisticated people — when they received no explanation for why that hold was in place, they would have drawn that conclusion.”
Ukrainians didn’t know military aid was withheld
A notable GOP defense of the president is that he couldn’t have been using U.S. military aid to pressure Ukraine if Zelensky’s government hadn’t even realized Trump had put a hold on the funds.
This point was made most frequently over the past two weeks by Jordan.
“So it gets held up for 55 days, gets held up on ... July 18 and then is released on Sept. 11. But it seems to me more important than the 55-day pause is the 14 days when Ukraine realized the aid was held up on [Aug. 29],” Jordan said. “So aid gets held up on August — I mean, Ukraine learns aid is held up on Aug. 29. And then, of course, released on — released on Sept. 11.”
But Wednesday’s testimony by Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense, cast doubt on Jordan’s timeline. She stated that she had learned that Ukrainian officials were likely aware that military aid had been cut off as early as July 25 — the day of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky. Cooper cited two emails her office received on that date.
“One was received on July 25 at 2:31 p.m. That email said that the Ukrainian Embassy and House Foreign Affairs Committee are asking about security assistance,” Cooper said in her opening statement. “The second email was received on July 25 at 4:25 p.m. That email said the Hill knows about the FMF [Foreign Military Financing] situation to an extent and so does the Ukrainian Embassy.”
Cooper also detailed other Ukrainian concerns about the delivery of the military aid.
“On July 25, a member of my staff got a question from a Ukraine Embassy contact asking what was going on with Ukraine security assistance,” Cooper testified.
“I was informed that the staff member told a Ukrainian official that we were moving forward with USAI [Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative], but recommended that the Ukraine Embassy check in with State regarding the FMF,” Cooper added.
Shortly after Cooper testified, the White House pushed back on her assertions.
“This is just an assumption based on Ukraine bringing up the aid. Simply discussing the aid in no way means they knew it was being withheld,” the White House said in an email.
Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in 2016 U.S. election
Still fuming over special counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusion that Russia sought to influence the 2016 presidential election in his favor, Trump and his GOP allies have offered up an alternative theory that Ukraine, not Moscow, was the real culprit, and that their assistance benefited Hillary Clinton. This theory has cropped up often during the impeachment inquiry, as when Jordan questioned Kurt Volker, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine.
“Oh, by the way, in the president’s mind, he did think Ukraine was trying to influence the 2016 election,” Jordan noted, excusing that belief as entirely rational given supportive statements Ukrainian officials had made about Clinton.
In testimony Thursday, Fiona Hill, a top National Security Council official, excoriated the GOP members of the committee who she said were spreading Russian propaganda.
“Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” Hill told lawmakers.
“These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes,” Hill added. “President [Vladimir] Putin and the Russian security services operate like a super-PAC. They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives.”
As if to prove Hill’s point, a day earlier, Putin addressed the subject at a conference in Moscow. “Thank God nobody is accusing us anymore of interfering in the U.S. elections,” Putin said. “Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”
As of Friday morning, there was little sign that Hill’s message had gotten through to Trump, who appeared on “Fox & Friends” to repeat the discredited conspiracy theory that a hacked computer server belonging to the Democratic National Committee now resides in Ukraine.
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