House releases first depositions in Trump impeachment inquiry
House committees that have conducted the impeachment inquiry into President Trump behind closed doors for the last six weeks released the first two transcripts of witness testimony Monday even as four other White House officials defied subpoenas and refused to appear.
Among the four was John Eisenberg, a deputy counsel to the president and legal advisor to the National Security Council, thought to be a key witness after others testified that he attempted to conceal records of Trump’s controversial July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by reportedly moving a rough transcript of the call to a highly classified computer server not normally used for that purpose.
The phone call is at the heart of the inquiry into whether Trump improperly sought to use foreign policy for personal gain by pressing Zelensky to investigate Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden‘s son Hunter, to undermine Biden’s 2020 run for the White House.
The four officials’ refusal to testify marked a victory for White House efforts to block the impeachment inquiry after 14 current and former officials from across the administration gave sworn testimony — over White House objections — about Trump’s decision to withhold nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine while pushing its government to dig up dirt on his political opponents.
The two depositions released Monday — of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and Michael McKinley, a former senior aide to Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo — flesh out the concerns of U.S. diplomats in Washington and Kyiv about the White House’s back-channel pressure on Ukraine’s government.
The transcripts also help illuminate the closed-door proceedings, including bickering between Democrats and Republicans, as the inquiry moves toward public hearings, and a potential vote to impeach Trump, in coming weeks.
Yovanovitch, who was abruptly recalled to Washington in May, said her work as U.S. ambassador was undercut for months by Trump’s son Donald Jr., conservative media figures and others as the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, pursued a secret shadow foreign policy, according to the transcript of her nine hours of testimony on Oct. 11.
“If you have the president’s son saying, you know, ‘We need to pull these clowns,’ or however he referred to me, it makes it hard to be a credible ambassador in a country,” she told lawmakers, according to the transcript.
Three House committees — Intelligence, Foreign Affairs , and Oversight and Reform — have interviewed more than a dozen current and former officials since the inquiry was launched on Sept. 24.
While more than 100 lawmakers serve on the committees and could participate, other House members were barred from attending. Republicans argued that the process didn’t give the president due process, and demanded release of the deposition transcripts.
“As more of these transcripts come out, Americans will begin to see that these closed-door interviews have done little to advance the Democrats’ case,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) tweeted after the first two were released Monday. “This unserious impeachment effort will be exposed for what it is: a charade, based on a fairy tale.”
The committees have scheduled several other depositions this week. It’s unclear if John Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security advisor until September, will testify on Thursday, as lawmakers have requested.
One former White House official testified last month that Bolton was so disturbed by the Trump blocking military aid to Ukraine while pushing its president to investigate Biden that he decried it as a “drug deal.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who heads the Intelligence Committee, said he expects to release transcripts Tuesday of Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, two of the key witnesses. Volker served as U.S. special representative to Ukraine until he resigned in September, and Sondland remains U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
Yovanovitch testified that she was recalled to Washington from Ukraine in May after she was targeted by what she called unfounded public criticisms of her, as well as what she called a private effort to remove her.
“Ukrainians were wondering whether I was going to be leaving, whether we really represented the president, U.S. policy, etc. And so I think it was — you know, it really kind of cut the ground out from underneath us,” she said, according to the transcript.
Yovanovitch said she first learned of Giuliani’s involvement in Ukraine late last year and was told in February by a senior Ukrainian official that she “really needed to watch [her] back.”
Yovanovitch said the official linked the effort to remove her to Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two U.S. businessmen who were working with Giuliani in Ukraine and were recently charged with campaign finance violations.
Yovanovitch testified that she was told the State Department wouldn’t issue a statement defending her against Trump Jr., Giuliani and others because it could be “undermined ... by the president,” likely in a tweet.
The transcripts reveal contentious points in the depositions when Republicans and Democrats argued over whether administration or White House lawyers should be allowed in the room, and why Democrats were holding nonclassified material in a room reserved for classified material.
But for the most part, the depositions were conducted by staff lawyers who veered between straightforward, fact-finding questions and queries aimed at strengthening a preferred narrative of motives and events.
McKinley, the former aide to Pompeo, testified on Oct. 16 that he had never before seen the State Department used to collect dirt from foreign governments on a president’s political opponents, according to the transcript of his deposition.
“In 37 years in the Foreign Service and different parts of the globe and working on many controversial issues, working 10 years back in Washington, I had never seen that,” McKinley said.
McKinley said he considered unacceptable the way Yovanovitch, a career Foreign Service officer, was hounded out of her ambassador’s posting. He said he was especially chagrined because senior State Department officials did not come to her defense.
The “engagement of our missions to procure negative political information for domestic purposes,” he testified, “combined with the failure I saw in the building to provide support for our professional cadre in a particularly trying time,” led him to resign last month.
McKinley said he spoke directly to Pompeo three times about the matter. But he said the State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, told him that Pompeo had decided not to release a statement “at this time” in part to “protect Ambassador Yovanovitch [and] not draw undue attention to her.”
“We think she’s a strong, professional career diplomat who’s still on the rolls, who’s still a full-time department employee,” he said. “It shouldn’t be difficult to put out a short statement that’s not political, stating clearly that we respect the professionalism, the tenure of Ambassador Yovanovitch in the Ukraine.”
McKinley stepped down Oct. 11. On Oct. 20, Pompeo appeared to contradict McKinley’s sworn testimony in an interview on ABC News, saying the veteran diplomat had never raised the issue of support for Yovanovitch.
In the months before McKinley left in October, “I never heard him say a single thing about his concerns with respect to the decision that was made” to recall her, Pompeo said. “Not once ... did Ambassador McKinley say something to me during that entire time period.”
The release of the transcripts came as Trump had begun flexing a more aggressive strategy against impeachment, mostly via his personal Twitter account. Over the last two days, he stepped up his attacks on the anonymous intelligence official whose official whistleblower complaint started the investigation.
Although Trump claimed the complaint has not held up, most details have been corroborated by witnesses and the White House memorandum of the July 25 call.
Trump has urged the media and others to unmask the whistleblower while encouraging Republican lawmakers to take a hard line in demanding that he or she testify in person.
The whistleblower has the right under federal law to keep his or her identify secret to avoid retaliation.
Mark Zaid, the whistleblower’s attorney, offered Sunday to have his client provide written answers to questions from Republican lawmakers, but Trump urged them Monday to reject the proposal, claiming the individual “gave false information” in the complaint.
“He must be brought forward to testify,” Trump tweeted. “Written answers not acceptable!”
Trump is familiar with the tactic of providing only written answers.
On advice of his lawyers, he refused to meet with the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential race, giving only carefully vetted written answers instead. His attorneys had feared he might perjure himself if he was interviewed.
Times staff writers Noah Bierman and Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.
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