Politics

What House investigators have learned from Ukraine interviews

More testimony is planned in the coming days

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Two weeks' worth of testimony in the House impeachment probe paints a much deeper and detailed picture into how the President directed his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to effectively supplant US policy in Ukraine — and to push the country toward investigating the President's potential 2020 political opponent.

The testimony shows that Trump played a key role in the US diplomatic effort to push Ukraine to open an investigation that goes well beyond the President's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that formed the basis of the whistleblower complaint.

While that complaint that alleged the President asked Ukraine's leader for assistance investigating his political opponent is what launched the Democrats' impeachment inquiry — and Trump has focused his attacks on the whistleblower and his "perfect" call — Democrats say the evidence they've gathered from current and former Trump administration officials so far has bolstered their case enough.

And it details a picture of an administration that been struggling for months to deal with Giuliani's central role in dictating US-Ukraine policy — with senior US officials stymied by Trump's demand to deal with his personal attorney who had been pursuing probes that could help the president's political interests.

Now they contend they may not even need to talk to the whistleblower anymore.

"The testimony and evidence we've received all supports the central narrative that there was an official policy that was very supportive of Ukraine," said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat. "There were numerous officials trying to keep that policy alive. But it ran into a shadow policy run by the President through Rudy Giuliani that was designed to advance his personal and partisan agenda."

Democrats are gathering information about how Giuliani circumvented the government on US-Ukraine policy, from pushing out US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch in the spring to urging Zelensky to announce an investigation into the 2016 election and Burisma, the company that hired former Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter.

They're also zeroing in on why US security aid to Ukraine had been frozen and whether that was conditioned on Ukraine investigating Trump's 2020 political opponent in a quid pro quo. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney on Thursday said that the hold on aid was connected to Ukraine investigating the 2016 election — arguing that was separate from the Bidens and a legitimate request of a foreign government.

Democrats say Mulvaney is helping to make their case.

"Mr. Mulvaney's acknowledgment means that things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse," said House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, who is leading the impeachment investigation, who called Mulvaney's admission "a phenomenal breach of the President's duty to defend our national security."

Democrats have interviewed six current and former Trump officials are part of the inquiry thus far, and they're teeing up numerous additional witnesses from the State Department, Pentagon and Office of Management and Budget and White House to fill out their case before they decide whether to move forward with impeaching a President for only the third time in US history.

They hope they can wrap up the interviews in the next few weeks before voting on articles of impeachment by Thanksgiving.

Republicans have repeatedly attacked Democrats for holding the impeachment investigation behind closed doors, arguing they are selectively leaking information to paint a misleading case in order to try to remove the President from office.

"Remember this whole thing started, the press all started going crazy, this whole thing was there was somehow some quid pro quo between aid and investigating the Bidens," said Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee who has led the Republican response to the probe. "Of the stuff I can talk about in transcribed testimony, there has not been one bit of evidence to support that."

Added Republican Florida Rep. Brian Mast: "If you're sending one American dollar, one American anything somewhere you should absolutely make sure you understand every single level of corruption that's going on in the place, especially a corrupt place like Ukraine."

Asked if he found Trump's ask for Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, Mast said: "To investigate every level of corruption? Absolutely, that's a responsibility by the administration. I stand by that."

 

Text messages and a 'drug deal'

 

Following the release of the whistleblower complaint and the call transcript last month, Democrats began casting a net around administration officials who focused on Ukraine policy in the administration.

They quickly gained a key piece of evidence from their first witness.

US special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker turned over to Congress encrypted text messages exchanged between US diplomats, Giuliani and top Ukrainian aides. The texts showed there was a link before Trump's call with Zelensky between Ukraine's opening of an investigation to prospect of a meeting between Trump and Zelensky.

"Had breakfast with Rudy this morning-teeing up call w (Zelensky aide Andriy) Yermak Monday," Volker wrote on July 19. "Must have helped. Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation—and address any specific personnel issues—if there are any."

The early win -- getting access to Volker's damning text messages -- was only possible because Volker abruptly resigned after the whistleblower complaint was released in September. Other State Department officials who might have critical evidence have been hampered by the Trump administration's hardline against turning over documents to the House.

Current and former administration officials have filled out the narrative around the text messaging, testifying that Trump had directed officials to work with Giuliani on Ukraine, while Giuliani was pushing renewed scrutiny of the 2016 election that could undermine the Russia investigation and a probe into Burisma and the Bidens.

Giuliani's work with Volker and US Ambassador to European Union Gordon Sondland were a significant point of contention within the Trump administration, according to testimony from the White House's former top adviser on Russia Fiona Hill.

She testified that then-national security adviser John Bolton was so concerned with Sondland pushing for an investigation at a July 10 meeting that he encouraged her to report the encounter to National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg.

In addition, Hill reported that she had overheard Sondland talking about Burisma with Ukrainians officials after that meeting, and she said that Bolton had compared the whole operation to a "drug deal."

Sondland disputed Hill's testimony that there was major disagreement during the meeting with Bolton on Ukraine. But Sondland's testimony also added to the Democrats' case, as he said he was "disappointed" that Trump directed him to work with Giuliani on Ukraine but did so at Trump's insistence.

"Based on the President's direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky ... or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President's concerns," Sondland said. "But I did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani's agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President's 2020 reelection campaign."

 

A quid pro quo?

 

Democrats have a full schedule of witnesses lined up next week from the Pentagon, State Department, Office of Management and Budget and National Security Council. A key piece that has not publicly emerged from the impeachment testimony thus far is how Giuliani's push for an investigation was tied to the freezing of security aid for Ukraine this summer, which came at the direction of the White House.

But acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney's public comments Thursday may have helped Democrats make that connection. Mulvaney said that one of the reasons that the aid was held up was "corruption related to the DNC server" — a reference to the baseless conspiracy theory that Trump has put forward that the Democrats' hacked server was in Ukraine.

"That's why we held up the money," Mulvaney said.

Later Thursday, Mulvaney tried to clean up his comments, saying, "There never was any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the DNC server."

Democrats do believe that Mulvaney's admission of an apparent quid pro quo tying the release of foreign security aid to Ukraine to an investigation into the 2016 election was significant and further evidence advancing the impeachment probe.

But they also argue it isn't essential for the impeachment inquiry to move forward.

"The reality is, as much as there's a lot of focus on a quid pro quo, I just want to remind everyone, you do not need a quid pro quo," said Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat. "The United States asking a foreign leader to interfere in an American presidential election is illegal, un-American, unpatriotic and in it of itself constitutes grounds for impeachment."

 

Yovanovitch ouster key part of testimony

 

After two weeks of witnesses, Democrats have already obtained compelling evidence bolstering another major allegation in the whistleblower complaint: that Trump and Giuliani orchestrated the abrupt removal of the US ambassador to Ukraine for political purposes.

Documents and testimony from witnesses have corroborated the whistleblower's claim that Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, was recalled from Kiev "because of pressure stemming from" unproven allegations that she was part of an anti-Trump conspiracy in Ukraine.

Trump has suggested he doesn't know who Yovanovitch is and isn't sure if he was involved in her removal, "but I heard very, very bad things about her for a long period of time," he said. She was recalled from Kiev in April and her ambassadorship was ended in May.

The investigation has established that Giuliani gave the State Department a packet of materials with discredited information about Yovanovitch and her supposed disloyalty to Trump. The State Department's inspector general shared this with Congress, and the entire episode confirmed that Giuliani was trying to influence State Department personnel decisions from the outside.

Yovanovitch's testimony included a first-hand account of a conversation with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, who informed her in April that Trump no longer wanted her out of Ukraine.

"(Sullivan) added that there had been a concerted campaign against me, and that the (State) Department had been under pressure from the President to remove me since the Summer of 2018," Yovanovitch told lawmakers last week. "He also said that I had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause."

Sondland, a Trump political appointee, told lawmakers Thursday that Yovanovitch was "an excellent diplomat" who was "a delight to work with." He said he was sorry to see Yovanovitch pulled from her post and distanced himself from "any campaign to disparage or dislodge her."

And Michael McKinley, who was a senior adviser to Pompeo, testified that he quit last week because of Pompeo's refusal to publicly defend Yovanovitch from Giuliani's attacks. The former mayor has become a fixture in conservative media and has criticized Yovanovitch for months.

While Democrats continue looking for evidence about a potential quid pro quo regarding US military assistance to Ukraine, they've already come a long way on the Yovanovitch incident.


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