Congress

Impeachment news roundup: Nov. 19

Congressional investigators hearing from two aides who listened in on Trump’s July call with Zelenskiy

Jennifer Williams, left, special adviser for Europe and Russia to Vice President Mike Pence, and Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, are sworn in Tuesday before testifying in the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House Intelligence Committee heard Tuesday afternoon from two witnesses called by Republicans on the panel in its impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, the National Security Council’s former senior director for Europe and Russia policy both gave testimony Tuesday afternoon.

[Trump ally grills key witnesses in impeachment inquiry on whistleblower]

The GOP sought testimony from Morrison because he’s one of the few witnesses who was on Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy and was involved in discussions about the security assistance. 

Republicans say Volker has “firsthand knowledge” about Ukraine matters being reviewed in the probe, including discussions with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

Earlier Tuesday, two officials who also listened in on the July 25 phone call in which Trump appeared to ask his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden testified Tuesday morning about the unusual nature of the call.

Jennifer Williams, the State Department official who has served as a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, said she thought the call was unusual “because, in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter,” she said.

On the advice of her counsel, Williams said she wouldn’t answer House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff’s opening questions regarding a September call between Pence and Ukrainian officials but would provide an answer to Schiff’s questions in a classified hearing.

Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, a Ukraine expert at the National Security Council, testified that Trump and Zelenskiy discussed Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, on the call. The company, though, was not mentioned by name in a White House-released transcript of that call.

Republicans had requested that Morrison be put on the same panel as Vindman, who had worked under Morrison, but Democrats had them testify at different times Tuesday.

Both Williams and Vindman are testifying under subpoena, Schiff announced in his opening statement.

Here is the latest on the impeachment inquiry:

All a hoax: Ohio GOP Rep. Brad Wenstrup said he suspects that members of the Intelligence community, which includes the FBI, CIA, NSA and others, who worked on the report that universally concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election may have propagated the idea that the Trump campaign worked directly with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

“Some of the people that have come up with those conclusions are some of the very people that we’re going to find out, if we haven’t already, were deeply involved in this whole Russian collusion hoax,” Wenstrup told Volker at the open impeachment hearing Tuesday.

Magic minutes: Ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., continued his attacks on the process laid out by the House for the open impeachment hearings Tuesday. For the first time during the public hearings, Schiff added another staff round before moving to member questions. This one was shorter, just 15 minutes per side.

“Do you expect any more of these magical 15-minute motions that you’ve come up with in the back?” Nunes asked.

Schiff agreed that the extra minutes of questions may be magical, but reminded Nunes that the questioning format is included under the House-adopted resolution outlining procedure for the hearings.

The Gordon Problem: Morrison said that he pointed out “the Gordon problem” in discussions with Dr. Fiona Hill regarding Ambassador Gordon Sondland.

“I decided to keep track of what Ambassador Sondland was doing,” Morrison said.

Pence the protector: The office of Vice President Pence continued giving the president cover over the July 25 call with Zelenskiy, this time via a statement from his national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg.

“I heard nothing wrong or improper on the call. I had and have no concerns,” he said. “Ms. Williams was also on the call, and as she testified, she never reported any personal or professional concerns to me, her direct supervisor, regarding the call. In fact, she never reported any personal or professional concerns to any other member of the Vice President’s staff, including our Chief of Staff and the Vice President.”

McGahn testimony: House Democrats asked a judge Tuesday to decide quickly whether former White House Counsel Don McGahn must testify, because they want him to appear before the Judiciary Committee during the next phase of the impeachment inquiry.

“Given that the House’s impeachment inquiry is proceeding rapidly, the Committee has a finite window of time to effectively obtain and consider McGahn’s testimony,” House General Counsel Doug Letter wrote in a filing.

 

The Judiciary Committee anticipates holding hearings after the ongoing House Intelligence Committee hearings have ended, “and would aim to obtain Mr. McGahn’s testimony at that time,” Letter wrote. That Judiciary Committee portion could come as soon as December.

The committee filed a lawsuit to enforce its subpoena of McGahn to testify about what he told former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into potential obstruction of justice by Trump.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the federal district court in Washington heard oral argument on that case Oct. 31 and said either side should let her know if they needed a ruling more quickly.

View from the White House: The White House criticized the first impeachment proceeding session of the day, with White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham saying in a statement that “we learned nothing new in today’s illegitimate ‘impeachment’ proceedings.”

“However, buried among the witnesses’ personal opinions and conjecture about a call the White House long ago released to the public, both witnesses testified the July 25 transcript was ‘accurate’ and nothing President Trump has done or said amounts to ‘bribery’ or any other crime,” Grisham said.

Impeachment appetite: Two polls released Tuesday show the House’s impeachment hearings are having minimal impact on public sentiment, with one conducted over the weekend revealing that opposition to impeachment is growing among independents.

‘Killing it’: Trump told reporters during a Cabinet meeting at the White House that he watched some of Tuesday’s hearing, saying “Republicans are absolutely killing it.”

The president called the impeachment inquiry “a big scam.”

He lashed out at Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the inquiry and his proposed trade deal with Canada and Mexico, about which she has been negotiating with his top global trade representative to assuage Democratic concerns.

“I think the woman is incompetent,” Trump said, according to a pool report. “The woman is grossly incompetent. All she wants to do is focus on impeachment.”

But the speaker and other top Democrats have indicated an agreement between Pelosi and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is near and the proposed pact could be on the House floor as soon as next month.

Witness intimidation: Democratic Rep. Jim Himes suggested Trump committed witness intimidation with his Sunday evening tweets about Williams.

She told the lawmaker the social media post “certainly surprised me,” adding: “I was not expected to be called out by name.”

The president was similarly accused by Schiff on Friday when he live-tweeted criticism of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. He later told reporters that he, like all American citizens, has the right to express his free speech rights.

Premature: Democratic Caucus leaders Hakeem Jeffries and Katherine Clark on Tuesday continued to push back on the notion that they have set any timetable for their impeachment inquiry and said speculation about timing of a Senate trial is premature because the House hasn’t decided yet whether to recommend articles of impeachment.

“This is not about scheduling convenience or the right political time,” Clark said.

Asked if he thinks Trump might force a shutdown to distract from impeachment or to express his displeasure to the probe, Jeffries said, “Anything is possible with respect to this president but the hope is that Donald Trump learned the lesson that shutdowns will not end well for a president who uses the American people as bargaining chips to advance his own personal gain.

“That would be almost the equivalent of what we are investigating right now as it relates to the Trump-Ukraine scandal.”

Asked if Trump supports the House-crafted continuing resolution that would fund the government through Dec. 21, a senior administration official replied: “The president is expected to sign it.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer also reiterated that Democrats have not set a timeline for the impeachment inquiry, saying their pace at which their probe advances will be dictated solely by the evidence that continues to emerge.

“Neither polls nor elections are going to change our timing,” the Maryland Democrat said.

Cross examination: House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs of Arizona, a loyal front-row attendee of the impeachment hearings, tweeted a suggestion that Vindman was the source of leaks about the Trump-Zelenskiy call while he was being questioned about it by Democrats.

Nunes later asked both Vindman and Williams whether they had discussed the call with members of the media and both replied they had not.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, asked Vindman directly if he had ever leaked information.

“I never did. Never would. That is preposterous, that I would do that,” Vindman responded.

Lighter moment: Tension in the hearing room was broken when Vindman responded to a question about which languages he spoke.

Russian, Ukrainian, “and a little bit of English,” he said, to laughter and smiles from lawmakers and those in the audience.

This afternoon: Investigators will hear from two witnesses called by Republicans on the Intel committee: Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, the former senior NSC director for Europe and Russia policy.

Volker and Morrison each told lawmakers they were frustrated by the influence the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani had over his thinking on Ukraine. At Trump’s direction, Volker tried to work with Giuliani to in an attempt to get the administration’s parallel Ukraine policy “in the box.”

And while Morrison told lawmakers he was “not concerned that anything illegal was discussed” on the July 25 call, he was very critical of the president’s European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland for his role in Giuliani’s pressure campaign against Ukraine.

Rudy’s take: Giuliani tweeted Tuesday morning that 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.

Circling back: House Democrats want to get grand jury materials from former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation in part to see if Trump lied in written answers, an attorney said Monday.

House General Counsel Doug Letter made the comments while arguing before a federal appeals court in Washington, that the House should get access to the normally secret materials as part of its impeachment investigation. A lower court ordered the Justice Department to turn over the materials, and the Trump administration has appealed.

“We have at least two people who already have been convicted of lying to Congress about this, and what are they lying about? They’re lying about things that go directly to the Mueller report,” Letter told the three-judge appeals court panel.

Letter specifically pointed to a Mueller report redaction, hidden from the public because it was part of the grand jury materials, which refers to Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager.

“The Manafort situation, I think, shows so clearly that there is evidence that, very sadly, that the president might have provided untruthful answers, and this, therefore, is obviously a key part of an impeachment inquiry,” the Democrats’ attorney said.

Trump’s taxes: U.S. District Court Judge Carl Nichols ordered late Monday that Trump should be immediately notified if House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal requests the president’s tax returns under a New York law that allows the state to provide those tax returns to Congress.

Further, Nichols ordered that the president’s tax returns should not be delivered to Neal for a period of 14 days, during which time the court can decide whether Neal’s request is lawful.

“Weak response“: Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a “Dear Colleague” letter to House Democrats on Monday responded to Republican arguments about why Trump shouldn’t be impeached.

“The weak response to these hearings has been, ‘Let the election decide.’ That dangerous position only adds to the urgency of our action, because the president is jeopardizing the integrity of the 2020 elections,” Pelosi wrote.

“There are also some who say that no serious wrongdoing was committed, because the military assistance to Ukraine was eventually released,” the California Democrat added. “The fact is, the aid was only released after the whistleblower exposed the truth of the president’s extortion and bribery, and the House launched a formal investigation.”

That Sondland call: Transcripts of their closed-door depositions of David Hale, undersecretary of State for political affairs, and David Holmes, a foreign service officer who works for William Taylor, the U.S. envoy to Ukraine, were released Monday.

Holmes emerged as a key witness after Taylor told the Intelligence Committee last week that his aide overheard a call between Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Trump in which the president asked about the status of investigations he wanted Ukraine to open.

“While Ambassador Sondland’s phone was not on speaker phone, I could hear the president’s voice through the ear piece of the phone. 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.

“I then heard President Trump ask, quote, ‘So he’s going to do the investigation?’ unquote. Ambassador Sondland replied that, ‘He’s going to do it,’ adding that President Zelenskiy will quote, ‘Do anything you ask him to,’” Holmes testified.

Questioning the witness: Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote to House Republicans on the impeachment inquiry questioning whether Vindman was actually expressing the views of the Trump administration during a country briefing in conjunction with the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Johnson was the only senator on the trip to the inauguration.

“I believe that significant number of bureaucrats and staff members within the executive branch have never accepted President Trump as legitimate,” Johnson wrote.

The rest of the week: The Intelligence Committee will hear from five more witnesses over three days this week before Congress begins its Thanksgiving break.

Sondland is scheduled to testify Wednesday morning. In the afternoon the committee will hear from Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs, and David Hale, the undersecretary of State for political affairs.

Democrats want Cooper to testify about how she raised concerns to senior officials about the legality of holding the Ukrainian aid package. Republicans want Hale to testify on his knowledge about the decision to recall former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who testified on Friday.

On Thursday, Fiona Hill, the former NSC senior director for Europe and Russia, will testify. Democrats say she can provide details about concerns that senior White House officials raised about efforts before the July 25 Trump-Zelenskiy call. And Democrats announced Monday that David Holmes, a political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv who overheard Sondland’s phone call with Trump, will testify alongside Hill.

This story was corrected to clarify Ohio GOP Rep. Brad Wenstrup’s comments on the intelligence community during an open impeachment hearing. 

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