By Miriam Raftery
November 15, 2019 (Washington D.C.) – The House Intelligence Committee held its first open impeachment hearings this week into allegations that President Donald Trump abused his powers by withholding military aide from the Ukraine and potentially committing bribery for personal gain. The President is accused of pressuring Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
You can view full video coverage and highlights of the impeachment hearings on C-Span at https://www.c-span.org/impeachment/.
Below are summaries and highlights of this week’s testimony, as well as reactions from leading Congressional Democrats and Republicans:
Chairman Adam Schiff opened the impeachment inquiry by noting the strategic importance of the Ukraine to both the U.S. and Russia. “In 2014, Russia invaded a United States ally, Ukraine, to reverse that nation’s embrace of the West and to fulfill Vladimir Putin’s desire to rebuild a Russian empire,” the Democratic Senator stated. Since then, the Ukraine has sought protection from Europe and the U.S. against Russian aggression.
Withholding military aide from the Ukraine to combat Russian separatists benefitted Russia, a hostile power on Ukraine's border, as well as potentially benefitting Trump’s reelection aspirations.
On Wednesday, the committee heard testimony from Bill Taylor, senior U.S. diplomat in the Ukraine, and George Kent, senior State Department official. View Taylor and Kent’s testimony on C-Span.
The President has attacked the impeachment inquiry as a “sham” and “hoax.”
He has defended his July 25 call with Ukraine’s president as “perfect.” A rough transcript released by the White House (based on notes and transcription software) confirms Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic contender in the 2020 presidential election.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday called the call “perfectly wrong,” adding of the President’s actions, “It’s bribery.” The Speaker insisted that offering to grant or withhold military aid in exchange for a public statement harmful to an election rival is bribery.
The rhetoric ratchets up the stakes, since bribery is one of two specific “high crimes or misdemeanors” mentioned in the U.S. Constitution as impeachable offenses (along with treason).
But some Republicans continue to defend Trump, including Senator John Ratcliff of Texas. “"Where is the impeachable offense in that call?" Ratcliffe asked Taylor.
Taylor’s testimony revealed a conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union which Taylor’s aide reportedly overhead in a Kiev restaurant. The call occurred just one day after Trump’s previously disclosed call with Zelenky in which Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Biden at a time when Trump had inexplicably ordered that military aide approved by Congress be withheld.
Taylor testified that there was “no national security reason” and “no good policy reason” to withhold the military aide, contradicting the White House. He added that in his 50 years of public service, he never saw foreign aid contingent on a president’s political or personal interests. In the conversation between Trump and Sondland, the aide told Taylor that Trump asked Sondland for an update on when the Ukranians might announce investigations into Biden.
According to Taylor, Ambassador Sondland later told Taylor’s aide that Trump “cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for” than about the Ukraine.
Associated Press reports that a second U.S. embassy official also overhead the July 26 conversation with Sondland, in which reportedly asked about investigations. Asked about that phone call, Trump as dismissive, stating. “First I’ve heard of it,” Time Magazine reports.
Kent and Taylor’s testimony also documented finding an “irregular channel” to the Ukraine organized by Giuliani that raised alarm among senior diplomats and national security experts. They also voiced concern over Trump’s firing of the U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who has spent many of her 33 years of diplomatic service combatting corruption in the Ukraine.
Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer involved in pressuring the Ukraine to investigate Biden, is also under federal investigation by the New York Attorney’s office he once led, the New York Times reported today. He is reportedly being investigation for possibly violating bribery laws involving a foreign government, as well as violations of campaign finance laws and failing to register as a foreign agent.
On Friday, former Ambassador Yovanovitch defied an order from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to appear. She testified at the impeachment hearing to defend her record. During her testimony, Trump released a volley of Tweets attacking Yovanovitch, claiming that “everywhere” she went matters “turned bad” from Somalia to the Ukraine. She testified she believed she was ousted due to efforts by Giuliani and says she was the target of a smear campaign, receiving a standing ovation from the audience when she finished. (View C-Span video)
She was hosting an event at her Kyiev home honoring an anti-corruption activist killed in an acid attack when she received word of concerns about her security; she was ordered to return to the U.S. and then removed from her post without explanation.
Even Republican Senators seemed flummoxed by her firing and did not attack her credibility during the hearing. Some praised Yovanovitch for her years of service. Politico reports, ““You're tough as nails and you're smart as hell,” said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas)….”You are an honor to the foreign service. You are an honor to your country.”
“I appreciate your years of service and enduring years of moving around the world to dangerous places,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who sympathized with her abrupt removal by comparing it to his own sudden deployment to Iraq in 2005.
Yovanovitch told Chairman Schiff that the President’s attacks while she was testifying were “very intimidating,” prompting Schiff to respond, Some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously.”
Those remarks came on the same day that Trump ally Roger Stone was found guilty on seven federal counts of lying to Congress to protect Trump and witness tampering, including a written death threat texted to a witness during the Congressional hearing on the Mueller report of alleged Trump-Russia ties. Stone could face up to 50 years in federal prison.
Republicans in Congress have shifted their strategy on impeachment. First, leaders demanded an open impeachment proceeding, criticizing Democrats for holding initial stages behind closed doors (as Republicans did during the early stages of President Bll Clinton’s proceedings.)
Later they argued there was no evidence of a quid pro quo. Then evidence mounted that there was, with at least four witnesses in closed door hearings confirming allegations made first by an anonymous whistleblower, reportedly a CIA agent working in the White House.
During the public hearings, Republican Senators challenged testimony as “hearsay” though later speakers scheduled to appear, including Sondland, did have direct access to Trump and may corroborate or refute testimony given thus far. Others reported to have direct knowledge have defied subpoenas and refused to testify, on the Trump administration orders, including White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who confirmed a quid pro quo during a news conference last week but later backtracked on his statement.
It is not yet clear how long the committee proceedings will take. While Republicans are allowed to call witnesses, such request must be approved by the Democrats, a point that Republicans have objected to as unfair.
If the full House votes to impeach, the Constitution mandates that a trial must be conducted by the Senate. There, the advantage shifts to Republicans, who have the majority and can set the rules for the trial.
No president has ever been removed from office, though two underwent impeachment trials: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Johnson was accused of defying a federal law by firing his Secretary of War without Congressional approval. Clinton was approved of lying under oath about an affair with a White House intern. Both acts of wrongdoing were found not serious enough to be “high crimes or misdemeanors” as the Constitution dictates should be the standard for impeachment.
Richard Nixon resigned, however, in 1974 after members of his own party in Congress warned that he would be impeached if he did not step down. Evidence indicated Nixon covered up knowledge of a break in at Democratic party headquarters in the Watergate hotel for political gain during Nixon’s reelection campaign.
To remove Trump from office would require a two-thirds vote of all Senators present during the vote – a high bar that would require some Republican votes. The outcome may hinge on public opinion in closely divided districts represented by Republicans.