White House

Trump ignites firestorm during impeachment hearing — with just two tweets

‘Be quiet!’: Agitated president lashes out at reporter‘s questions about tweet

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney answers questions during a briefing at the White House on October 17. He and other staffers were caught off guard by President Donald Trump's tweet attacking a senior U.S. diplomat as she testified in the impeachment proceeding. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was fired  by President Donald Trump had just begun her public testimony in House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. Then came the tweet.

“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,’” he wrote in a follow-up tweet. It broke with his strategy from Wednesday, when he did not attack two witnesses who testified together, Acting Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor or senior State Department official George Kent.

House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff pounced, turning the tweet into one of the biggest flash points of the two public hearings.

“What effect do you think that has on other witnesses’ willingness to come forward and expose wrongdoing?” he asked Yovanovitch.

She replied by calling the tweet “very intimidating.”

“I want to let you know, ambassador, that some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously,” Schiff told the witness.

[Impeachment latest: Ousted ambassador defends herself against ‘smear campaign’ as Trump tweets attacks]

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham claimed in a statement that the president would watch only the opening statement from Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Intelligence Committee Republican. Yet, Trump appeared to watch well past when the California Republican was finished speaking.

‘Quite injurious’

His two posts upended — yet again — his senior staff’s plans for Day 2 of public impeachment hearings and raised questions about whether the president had tried to intimidate a key witness and influence her testimony.

“If a professor tweets that about Amb. Yovanovich? Yawn,” said Mark Rom, a Georgetown University public policy and government professor. “If President Trump tweets that, it’s all in a day of no work.”

Kenneth Starr, who led the Clinton-era Watergate investigation, appeared mystified by Trump’s decision to attack such an important witness in his own impeachment inquiry while she was testifying on live television.

“Extraordinarily poor judgement,” Starr told Fox News. “Obviously this was quite injurious.”

Starr’s words could be heard on a television hanging on a West Wing wall as acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone huddled with Grisham and her press staff.

That duo, and other officials, moved from Grisham’s office to a nearby one used by her top deputy, J. Hogan Gidley, as they tried to craft a response to the tweet. It took them three-and-a-half hours to respond.

Grisham, Trump’s top spokeswoman, said in a statement her boss’s “turned bad” tweet “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. “There is less due process in this hearing than any such event in the history of our country. It’s a true disgrace.”

About an hour before that statement hit reporters’ inboxes, one official entered Grisham’s office and let out a long groan. Mulvaney appeared to want little to do with questions about the “turned bad” tweet.

“You guys having fun?” he asked, quickly heading down a hallway. When he returned about 30 minutes later for another meeting, he ignored even more questions, instead offering another joke, this one based on one the 1980 hit movie “Caddyshack.”

“Don’t you people have homes?” he said with a smile, quickly closing Grisham’s office door as he went inside.

But did the president’s tweet violate any witness-tampering laws, which Cornell University notes is punishable by prison time? (For anyone who is not a sitting president; Department of Justice guidelines stipulate a sitting chief executive cannot be indicted.)

“I don't find Trump's tweet witness intimidation. I do find it par for the course,” Rom said.

Starr told Fox: “This isn’t witness intimidation. Doesn’t even come close to that.”

But impeachment is a political, not legal, process. So whether the social media posts rise to a legal threshold is mostly immaterial.

“Given that the president can fire an ambassador without cause, why engage in all this apparent plotting against her?” Rom said. “And now tweeting about her just seems … counterproductive to his case.”

‘Be quiet!’

White House officials did not deny they had a problem.

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.

[Trump goes after Adam Schiff at Louisiana rally for GOP governor nominee]

Others tried to put a positive face on what clearly was an annoyed commander in chief.

Keith Kellogg, Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser, was spotted in the West Wing just after noon. He told reporters he was heading to the Oval Office for Trump’s intelligence briefing.

Of the president, Kellogg said: “He's got a great attitude.”

That threat assessment, compiled daily by the intelligence agencies with whom Trump has often clashed, was slated for noon, according to the White House-released version of the president’s public schedule.

Yet, at 12:13 p.m., the president weighed in on the conviction of his longtime friend and confidant Roger Stone, tweeting that it is nothing more than a double standard that is biased against Republicans.

“Well, what about Crooked Hillary, Comey, Strzok, Page, McCabe, Brennan, Clapper, Shifty Schiff, Ohr & Nellie, Steele & all of the others, including even Mueller himself?” he wrote, revealing his public grudges against political rivals and those who have investigated his presidency and business career.

A couple hours later, the president grew noticeably agitated with reporters’ questions about his tweet. At first, he denied trying to tamper with or influence Yovanovitch and acknowledged he watched some of Friday’s public impeachment hearing “for the first time.”

“Tampering is when Schiff won’t let us have witnesses. … We’re not allowed to do anything. It’s a disgrace what’s happening,” he said. 

As American Urban Radio Networks reporter April Ryan kept pressing the matter, he sharply first told her to “be quiet!” But then he did not deny the notion: “I don’t think so at all.” 

As his aides scurried and groaned, the number of his former staffers and surrogates headed to prison grew by one as his own impeachment inquiry plodded along.

“Reunited and it feels so go,” former Trump 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, a potential GOP Senate candidate in New Hampshire, tweeted of Stone and already convicted former Trump 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort. “Stone and Manafort to re-open new ‘consulting’ firm behind bars.”

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