The latest on the Trump impeachment inquiry
After a week of riveting transcripts, Democrats are turning to the most public phase of their impeachment probe yet: open hearings.
Behind the scenes the preparations are exhaustive with one House Democratic leadership aide telling CNN that that the focus has been on everything from preparing lines of questioning and thinking through rebuttals to Republican talking points to hashing out a social media strategy that can be executed in real time.
The aide told CNN that the preparations are a “much bigger operation” and that the “coordination is on a whole other level” compared to what transpired before former special counsel Robert Mueller came to Capitol Hill to testify about his Russia investigation. There, Democrats sought to recapture momentum and change the public’s perception of a report that had been out for months. This time, Democrats view the moment is more urgent.
“The momentum is behind us for this. The objective for Mueller was harder, you were trying to recapture the momentum. This is an investigation we led, we obtained the information, we distilled the information,” the aide said.
Even during the current recess, rank-and-file members received daily talking points this week, an effort to help them boil down the essence of the hundreds of pages of transcripts. Even the schedule for next week has been carefully curated.
First, the spotlight will be on the top diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor and State Department official George Kent. The leadership aide said the aim of their testimony is to paint a full picture of the events that transpired. Taylor — who took meticulous notes — is seen by Democrats as an iron clad witness who came to believe through conversations with National Security Council official Tim Morrison and US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland that “everything,” as Taylor said in his opening statement, was conditioned on Ukraine announcing public investigations into Trump’s political rivals. Kent is viewed by Democrats as someone who can shed light on the role the President’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani played in Ukraine.
“They tell as much of the story upfront and that was part of the objective,” the leadership aide told CNN. “The first hour of a hearing and the first hearing has got to be a blockbuster.”
On Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, a three-decade career diplomat who was removed from her post in the spring, will testify. She is the first political casualty of Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine, a witness Democrats hope can display the toll that the President’s personal lawyer’s shadow foreign policy played there.
One Democratic member who has taken part in the depositions, told CNN that next week will be an opportunity for the public to see that the witnesses “are credible, apolitical, detailed, true patriots, and very specific about exactly what has transpired. The story that will be told, based on the facts, will show the President broke the law and that the set up and cover up are both far more extensive than originally thought."
Meanwhile, Republicans are preparing to submit their list of requested witnesses for public hearings. They have already publicly said they would like to hear from the whistleblower, something Democrats are expected to reject.
With public hearings slated for next week, the House of Representatives is wasting no time in the ongoing impeachment investigation into President Trump.
Here are the key developments from today:
- Mick Mulvaney did not appear for testimony: The acting White House chief of staff defied a subpoena from the House and did not show up for his closed-door testimony today. He cited "absolute immunity." Mulvaney dramatically confirmed last month that Trump froze nearly $400 million in US security aid to Ukraine partially to pressure the country into investigating Democrats — and proceeded hours later to deny having said so.
- White House officials blame Mulvaney for quid pro quo: White House officials Fiona Hill and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman told lawmakers that Mulvaney coordinated the effort to use military aid to Ukraine as leverage for investigation in his boss's political opponents, according to deposition transcripts released today.
- What we learned from Hill: The White House's former top Russia expert testified that she was shocked by the transcript of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian leader, calling Trump’s push for investigations “pretty blatant.” She also said Trump’s advisers “spent a lot of time” trying to convince him that the theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election was false.
- What we learned from Vindman: The National Security Council's Ukraine expert testified that there was "no ambiguity" ahead of Trump's July call with his Ukrainian counterpart that the Ukrainians would have to start an investigation into Trump's political rival in order to secure a US-Ukraine meeting. He also said he had raised concerns about the July 25 call to NSC lawyers, and that the process that was used for placing the call transcript on a highly secure server was abnormal.
- Lawyers hint at John Bolton's "relevant" information: Bolton's lawyer said the former national security adviser has significant insights into matters being probed by the impeachment investigators. But Bolton’s attorney said his client will not testify until a court resolves whether he must obey a subpoena.
In today's episode of "The Daily DC: Impeachment Watch" podcast, CNN Political Director David Chalian looks at:
- The transcripts from interviews with Fiona Hill, President Trump's former top Russia adviser, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council's top Ukraine expert
- New evidence that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is at center of Ukraine deal
- How President Trump is distancing himself from Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland
- Why Rudy Giuliani was running “shadow foreign policy”
- Ukraine’s plan to cozy up to Trump administration
Chalian is joined today by CNN congressional reporter Lauren Fox and Mark Mazzetti, a CNN contributor and investigative correspondent for the New York Times.
Fiona Hill, President Trump's former top Russia adviser, was asked by Republican counsel about the allegation that Ukraine or Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Democrats.
She was clear that Ukraine did not interfere in the 2016 election.
“…I am very confident based on all of the analysis that has been done…that the Ukrainian Government did not interfere in our election in 2016,” she said.
Pressed about the January 2017 Politico article at the center of the allegation, Hill said, “I’m aware of the reporting, but that doesn’t mean that that amounts to an operation by the Ukrainian Government.”
Fiona Hill, President Trump's former top Russia adviser, described to lawmakers what she knew about the security aid to Ukraine that was withheld.
Hill said she was not told why the military aid to Ukraine was being held up but that “it actually came as a direction from the Chief of Staff’s office.”
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council's top Ukraine expert, described that before the July call between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Trump, “Ukrainians were looking for clarity on [Rudy] Giuliani’s role.”
“There were concerns about (how Giuliani) …. could be undermining the consensus policy. But frankly, up until that call, you know, in certain regards he was acting as a private citizen advancing his own interests to a certain extent,” Vindman said.
He added: “It wasn’t until that call that it became, that he was pulled into kind of an official role."
Lt. Col Alexander Vindman said it “doesn’t take a rocket scientist” to understand why Trump would want to damage his political opponent, Joe Biden.
“Do you think the President was trying to get the Ukrainian Government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden?” someone asked.
“Look … Counsel … It’s all in the future,” Vindman said. “I guess, look, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where the gain would be for the President in investigating the son of a political opponent.”
Fiona Hill, President Trump's former top Russia adviser, testified that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council's top Ukraine expert, was “very upset” about the way ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland was discussing a presidential meeting in front of the Ukrainian delegation at the White House on July 10.
“He [Vindman] said that these are obviously not issues that the National Security Council was dealing with, should not deal with,” said Hill, recounting a conversation she had after the fact with Vindman.
Hill also said Vindman was “really uncomfortable with where the conversation was, and that’s also because it was in front of Ukrainians, that it was basically Ambassador Sondland getting very annoyed that he already had an agreement with the Chief of Staff for a meeting between the Presidents on the basis of these investigations.”
Vindman, she said, was “alarmed” that Sondland had mentioned meeting with Rudy Giuliani and discussing a presidential meeting in front of the Ukrainians.
Fiona Hill, President Trump's former top Russia adviser, testified that she was "extremely concerned" about Rudy Giuliani's activities.
"I was extremely concerned that whatever it was that Mr. Giuliani was doing might not be legal, especially after, you know, people had raised with me these two gentlemen, [Lev] Parnas and [Igor] Fruman," she said.
Hill said she spoke to her colleagues based in Florida, including the director for the Western Hemisphere.
“He'd mentioned that these people were notorious and that, you know, they'd been involved in all kinds of strange things in Venezuela and, you know, kind of were just well-known for not being aboveboard,” Hill said. “And so my early assumption was that it was pushing particular individuals' business interests.”
Hill said former diplomat Amos Hochstein told her in May that a number of Ukrainians had complained to him about Giuliani discussing investigations and to change the board of Naftogaz, Ukraine's geopolitically important state-owned oil and gas company.
Hill said in late May, after former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch had been removed, “it became clear” that Giuliani was pushing Ukrainians to open an investigation focused on Burisma.