Trump impeachment inquiry: Bill Taylor gives damning testimony, and more
Keeping track of the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Trump's attempts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Vice President Joe Biden is an exhausting task. There are new developments breaking in the story every single day, and the president is regularly trying to distract from the issue by, say, tweeting that the whole thing is akin to a lynching. (Its not.) If you're feeling out of the loop regarding the latest news in the impeachment saga, here are three new developments that will get you up to speed, along with the people you need to know.
The key players:
- Bill Taylor, an American diplomat. Hes a career foreign service official who has served under every president since 1985, including as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush. Under Trump, he was the top diplomat in Ukraine, officially in charge of directing American strategy in the country.
- Laura Cooper, a top Pentagon official. As a deputy assistant secretary of defense, she was charged with overseeing U.S. policy in Ukraine, as well as other regional powers like Russia and the Western Balkans.
- Matt Gaetz, a Republican congressman from Florida. Hes been a staunch defender of the president and in turn has benefited from Trumps frequent praise.
1. Bill Taylors Ukraine testimony blows up Trumps main defense.
The takeaway: Taylor testified to House impeachment investigators on Tuesday. The session happened behind closed doors, but his 15-page opening statement was acquired by the media. Its incredibly detailed it reportedly took him the better part of an hour to read aloud and what it reveals is decidedly not good for Trumps case.
The incriminating details: Mic broke down the five biggest takeaways from Taylors opening statement here. His testimony was bad for Trump in all sorts of ways; for starters, Taylor has worked for every president since 1985, so its hard to paint him as a partisan looking to take Trump down.
Above all, the biggest problem for Trump is how Taylor made clear that there were two channels working on the administrations Ukraine policy: one regular channel, which involved Taylor and other State Department officials, and another irregular channel led mainly by Rudy Giuliani, Trumps personal lawyer who has no official position in U.S. government. Giuliani, joined by U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland and former diplomat Kurt Volker in the irregular channel, was working to pressure Ukraines president to open a series of investigations that would benefit Trump politically, using $400 million in aid money as leverage.
The aid money is key here. The impeachment inquiry has centered on whether Trump inappropriately withheld aid money from Ukraine until Zelensky agreed to open the investigations. Trump has argued alternately that he withheld the money:
- because he feels Europe does not contribute enough to Ukrainian defense;
- because he wanted the country to investigate vague corruption, which is his right as president;
- but that actually it couldnt have been an inappropriate bribe because Zelensky didnt know it was being intentionally withheld.
Taylor stated clearly that people working in the irregular channel for Trump understood that the aid money would only be given if Zelensky agreed to publicly open investigations into Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. He further confirmed that the Ukrainians learned the money was being withheld, and why, which undermines Trumps defense that it couldnt be a bribe if they didnt know it was happening.
What we still want to know: Most of the information thus far has come from Taylors written opening statement. But he spent nearly 10 hours being deposed behind closed doors, so theres surely more he told lawmakers in the confidential setting. Some Republicans, like South Dakota Sen. John Thune the No. 2 Republican in the upper chamber have already acknowledged that whats been publicly reported from Taylors testimony did not bode well for Trump. The picture coming out of it, Thune told reporters, is not a good one.
2. Matt Gaetz and a group of GOP lawmakers derail the closed-door testimony of Laura Cooper.
The takeaway: Gaetz, in a stunt essentially engineered for Fox News, led a group of more than 20 Republican congressmen to disrupt Coopers closed-door testimony Wednesday. The idea was to call attention to what Republicans see as an unjust process; because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not held a vote on the full House floor to authorize the impeachment inquiry, Republicans as the minority party do not have subpoena power to call their own witnesses or seek information. Additionally, only representatives who sit on the investigating committees have access to the information revealed in the closed-door depositions.
The incriminating details: Coopers testimony focused mostly on policy minutiae. Democrats had sought her input because any disbursal of aide to Ukraine would have been done under her supervision. Per CNN, several lawmakers say her testimony helped show that the Ukraine aid deviated from the normal process of granting military aid that had already been appropriated by Congress. Cooper defied a request from the Trump administration that she refused to testify.
Gaetzs stunt succeeded in delaying Coopers testimony by five hours. But in the process, the GOP lawmakers possibly jeopardized national security by bringing cell phones into the SCIF sensitive compartmented information facility where the interview was taking place. Such devices are not permitted in those secure areas, and The Daily Beast reported that the room was being swept for electronic surveillance devices as a result of the breach.
What we still want to know: Some see stunts like Gaetzs, alongside House Republicans attempt to censure Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is leading the impeachment investigation, as evidence that Republicans cant defend the president on the substance of the investigation so theyre attacking the process instead. Pelosi had declined to bring impeachment before the full House so as to avoid putting vulnerable Democrats on the spot in an election year, but as the GOP zeroes in on its attack line and the probe threatens to stretch throughout the fall, its unclear whether Pelosi may shift her thinking.
3. Republicans start to question Trumps strategy.
The takeaway: Trump has so far declined to establish an impeachment war room a dedicated team in charge of handling the tricky legal and public maneuvers of battling an impeachment inquiry instead opting to be his own best messenger. But after inconsistencies in the White Houses stance, including a disastrous showing by acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney last week, some Republicans are starting to wonder whether its time the administration develop a more cogent strategy.
The incriminating details: President Bill Clinton had a team of such experts in place during his impeachment process so that he could, ostensibly, focus on the main business of running the country while that staff handled the administrations messaging. Trump has instead been his White Houses only empowered communicator, a one-man war room responding to developments hour by hour, The New York Times said. Thats meant that much of the administrations response has been characterized by the presidents Twitter feed.
On Thursday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham one of Trumps fiercest supporters on Capitol Hill told reporters that hed spoken with Mulvaney about getting a messaging team together. Hed said Wednesday that the White House was missing a coordinated effort to put somebody in charge of developing a message and delivering it. An adviser on Trumps 2016 campaign similarly said he would love to see more strategy. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has disputed some of the presidents defense, saying he had never told spoken to Trump about his July 25 phone call with Zelensky as Trump had claimed.
What we still want to know: Trump had made Giuliani one of his top defenders in the inquirys early days, but his lawyer has only gotten more ensnared in the investigation over time. With the lack of coherent messaging from the top, Republicans have started to show signs of division, between those who have acknowledged that the facts dont look great for Trump, those who have urged the president to rethink his strategy, and those who will never break with him. If the White House doesnt roll out consistent talking points, its possible the door could stay open for skeptical lawmakers to shy away from defending Trump.
WEEK OF OCT. 14
1. Two more Trump associates testify to Congress.
As House Democrats impeachment inquiry churns on, more and more Trumpworld affiliates are being called to testify. On Monday, former national security official Fiona Hill met with congressional staff and offered two main disclosures. First, she said that in a July 10 meeting with Ukrainian officials, U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland mentioned probing the Bidens in a way that left no doubt that he wanted the Ukrainians to look into the family, per Vox. The meeting apparently so spooked John Bolton, the former national security adviser who left his post last month, that he subsequently asked Hill to alert a White House lawyer to the discussion.
Hills second notable revelation was that she reportedly asked Sondland the American envoy to the European Union who had directed him to lead the administrations Ukraine strategy, given that it wouldnt naturally be part of the portfolio for someone in his position. Sondland reportedly replied that he was acting on orders from the president.
Sondland himself also met with House investigators this week, after his scheduled appearance last week was blocked by the State Department. In his opening remarks, obtained by The Wall Street Journal, Sondland confirmed the central role of Rudy Giuliani, Trumps personal lawyer, in directing the affairs in Ukraine. It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the presidents mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani, Sondland reportedly said, distancing himself from Giuliani by adding that he would not have recommended that Giuliani be involved in these foreign policy matters, but that it came at the presidents explicit direction. The ambassador also indicated that Giuliani dangled a White House visit for Zelensky but only if the Ukrainians launched a Biden investigation.
But while Sondland apparently tried to put distance between his stance and the presidents, his testimony did not go unquestioned. Sondland had a lot of memory lapses, one lawmaker who was present quipped to NBC News, while Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) said that some of the things that he says he doesnt remember, it would be very hard to believe he didnt remember unless he has the worst memory, or is, you know, far more incompetent than one would think an ambassador to the European Union should be.
2. Nancy Pelosi declines to call a full House vote on impeachment and dials back Mitch McConnells ambitious timeline.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that she would not call a full chamber vote to authorize the impeachment inquiry against Trump. Pelosi officially announced the inquiry was underway last month, but rather than initiate the process via a vote on the House floor, she simply directed six House committees to continue their investigations under the umbrella of a formal impeachment inquiry.
Politico reported that there was some disagreement within Pelosis leadership team as to whether to hold the vote. If the full House did approve the inquiry, it would grant Republicans subpoena power to call their own witnesses or seek information, something cant do now as the minority. It would have additionally forced vulnerable Democrats (and Republicans) to go on the record with their stance on impeachment, a politically risky move with an election looming next year. In announcing her decision, Pelosi said, Were not here to call bluffs. Were here to find the truth. A vote would, however, have undermined one of the White Houses central reasons for refusing to cooperate with the probe.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday told members of his caucus that he expected the House to bring articles of impeachment by Thanksgiving, per Vox, with a trial ideally concluding by the end of the year. Pelosi, however, pumped the brakes on that schedule, saying that the timeline will depend on the truth-line.
3. Mick Mulvaney confirms then tries to un-confirm a central piece of the Ukraine scandal.
While the president was in Texas, the vice president and the secretary of state were in Turkey, and the energy secretary was in his prolonged state of almost-but-not-quite-resigning Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was left to face reporters. At a rather eye-opening press briefing on Thursday, in an attempt to defend Trumps actions with respect to Ukraine, Mulvaney ended up confirming a central tenet of the Democrats inquiry: that Trump used aid money as leverage to pressure the country into investigating false claims of corruption by the Bidens.
ABC Newss Jon Karl initially questioned Mulvaney about Trumps offhand encouragement of China to investigate the Bidens on claims that are, again, specious. Mulvaney responded by saying that Trump has never been a fan of giving foreign aid, adding that Trump did not like that a White House analysis determined that near zero European dollars flow to Ukraine for lethal aid while the U.S. gives millions. Those were the driving factors, Mulvaney said, but unfortunately for him he didnt stop there.
Did he also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the [Democratic National Committee] server? he continued, referring to a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine colluded with Democrats during the 2016 election. Absolutely. No question about that. But thats it, and thats why we held up the money. Karl interjected to confirm that Trump had mentioned wanting an investigation into the Democratic server when directing Mulvaney to freeze the aid money, and Mulvaney responded that yes, Trump wanted a lookback into 2016, and that is absolutely appropriate.
Karl, stunned, replied, 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 happens as well. Mulvaney was undeterred: We do that all the time with foreign policy, he said. Get over it. Apparently unable to get over it himself even hours later, Mulvaney attempted to reverse his comments Thursday evening, saying there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election.
WEEK OF OCT. 7
1. Two men suspected of helping Rudy Giuliani's shadow operation in Ukraine were arrested in D.C.
On Wednesday, two associates of Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney, were arrested. Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were taken into custody at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and charged with campaign finance violations. The two were allegedly scheming to funnel foreign money to politicians in the United States, focusing much of their efforts on trying to influence relations between the U.S. and Ukraine.
Parnas and Fruman were reportedly involved in a plan, along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, to pressure the president of Ukraine to replace members of a natural gas company owned by the state with Americans and others more friendly to the industry. The two are also accused of donating money to a member of the House while attempting to get the congressman to remove the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from her post. (Perry, for his part, was hit with a subpoena Thursday from House Democrats seeking information about Trump's infamous July phone call with Zelensky.)
Why does all of this matter for the impeachment inquiry? Parnas and Fruman were business associates of Giuliani, who was working on Trump's behalf to encourage the Ukrainian government to open up an investigation into Biden's son Hunter. Giuliani has described the two men as "fixers" and said in an interview that they "helped me find people" when asked about his relationship with them. He also admitted to playing a role in the ouster of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch a goal he apparently shared with Parnas and Fruman. Giuliani was not mentioned in the indictment against Parnas and Fruman, but The Washington Post reported that federal agents are looking into his dealings with the two alleged criminals.
2. Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testifies before the House.
Meanwhile, Yovanovitch testified to impeachment investigators Friday. She was abruptly removed from her post earlier this year, and during the closed-door session Friday, she reportedly told investigators that a State Department official said she had "done nothing wrong" and that her removal from her position was unwarranted. According to The New York Times, Yovanovitch testified that her ouster was based, as far as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.
Yovanovitch served as the U.S. envoy to Ukraine from Aug. 29, 2016 until May 20, 2019 when she was suddenly asked to return to the U.S. despite receiving a request from the State Department to extend her service through 2020. Her removal from the position apparently came because Trump "lost confidence" in her, though she told investigators that there had been a concerted campaign against me, and that the department had been under pressure from [Trump] to remove me since the summer of 2018.
While it took some time for Yovanovitch to be dismissed, the end of her time as ambassador was foreshadowed earlier this year, when in an interview Ukraine's then-Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko claimed that his country's government had cooperated with Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign in an effort to undermine Trump. Lutsenko, who is under investigation himself for possible abuses of power, alleged per The Hill that Yovanovitch was "interfering with his ability to prosecute corruption cases."
Yovanovitch denied ever being involved in efforts to hinder corruption investigations in Ukraine, a claim that State Department officials support. The agency has also called Lutsenkos allegations against Yovanovitch an outright fabrication. The former ambassador also said she played no role in the withholding of American aid, which was destined for Ukraine before being frozen by Trump in an apparent effort to get the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens. Her indictment of the president and his foreign policy dealings could serve to fuel investigations into possible wrongdoings committed by Trump and his associates.
3. U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland agrees to face House investigators, defying White House.
Following Yovanovitch's testimony Friday, another ambassador has agreed to speak with impeachment investigators next week. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, has agreed to face members of the House next Thursday. Sondland became a person of interest in the Ukraine investigation following the release of text messages that show he exchanged messages with Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, regarding the Trump administration's desires in the country. Sondland is believed to have played a role in setting up the call between Zelensky and Trump.
Sondland's testimony is of particular interest because of the Trump administration's attempts to keep him from speaking to investigators. Earlier this week, the State Department ordered Sondland not to testify despite being served a subpoena. While Sondland will finally speak next week, he is still refusing to release documents requested by House investigators, claiming that they are property of the State Department. His communications with other diplomats may play a role in determining whether Trump attempted to withhold aid in a direct attempt to push a foreign government to investigate a political opponent in Biden.
Trump impeachment inquiry: Bill Taylor gives damning testimony, and more