White House, GOP embraced ‘fictional narrative’ on Ukraine, witness warns as impeachment hearings wrap
Two weeks of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry against President Trump closed Thursday with a collective warning from witnesses: Russia is again trying to sow political discord in the U.S. and interfere in the presidential election in a repeat of its success in 2016.
In marathon days of testimony, a dozen current and former officials recounted in vivid detail how Trump and his aides withheld a White House meeting eagerly sought by Ukraine’s newly elected president and also withheld military assistance from the embattled country. The motive, witnesses said, was to strong-arm Ukraine’s new government into investigating Trump’s political opponents in the last election and the next.
The hearings before the House Intelligence Committee produced extensive new evidence on the pressure campaign set in motion by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and the actions of the trio of government officials Trump designated to work with him.
They do not, however, appear to have swayed any Republicans in the House, who have remained staunchly loyal to Trump. The one Republican member of the intelligence panel who was seen as a possible vote in favor of impeachment made clear Thursday he would not break ranks.
Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) criticized Trump’s request that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “do us a favor” by investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, calling it “inappropriate.” And he termed the administration’s foreign policy “bungling.” But, he said, he had not seen evidence of an impeachable offense.
“An impeachable offense should be compelling, overwhelmingly clear and unambiguous. And it’s not something to be rushed or taken lightly,” Hurd said. “I have not heard evidence proving the president committed bribery or extortion.”
Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), by contrast, declared Trump’s actions worse than those of President Nixon, who resigned as it became clear he would likely be impeached for the cover-up of the Watergate burglary.
“What we’ve seen here is far more serious than a ‘third-rate burglary’ of the Democratic headquarters,” Schiff said. What Trump ordered was “withholding … of military aid to an ally at war — that is beyond anything Nixon did.”
“The difference between then and now is not the difference between Nixon and Trump. It’s the difference between that Congress and this one,” he said, decrying the solid Republican opposition to impeachment.
Schiff would not say whether any further public hearings would be called, although none are currently scheduled. The Intelligence Committee is expected to prepare a report that it would hand off to the House Judiciary Committee, likely after Thanksgiving. The judiciary panel would then write articles of impeachment.
Democrats have hoped to hold a House floor vote on articles of impeachment before the Christmas recess, but that timeline is tight for the slow-moving Congress.
Several senior administration officials have refused to testify and remain unlikely to do so.
White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has defied a subpoena for his testimony. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo has told aides he thinks the impeachment inquiry is intended in part to force him to choose between his own political career and the president, and said he won’t bite, refusing to answer subpoenas for documents or to testify.
Former national security advisor John Bolton has indicated he’d be open to appearing before congressional investigators, but has said he would testify only if a judge rules that a congressional subpoena supersedes a White House order not to comply.
Thursday’s hearing, perhaps capturing a long week’s worth of tension, was the most combative of the week, marked with a tense exchange between Schiff and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), and accusations of “mansplaining” and antisemitism.
The highlight was a warning from Fiona Hill, an expert on Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump’s former top National Security Council Russia expert, who chided the committee’s Republicans without mentioning them by name.
“Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” she said in her opening statement.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” she said. “I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
Over more than six hours, Hill repeatedly clashed with the committee’s senior Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, and other Republicans on the panel who’ve pushed the widely discredited theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election on the Democrats’ behalf.
Some Republican lawmakers have continued to dispute the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community and a bipartisan report from their Senate counterparts that Russia interfered to benefit Trump’s candidacy.
Putin and his aides seek to divide the U.S., Hill said, and “we need to be careful ... not to give them more fodder that they can use in 2020.”
Her testimony and that of the day’s other witness, David Holmes, a top official in the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, rebutted many of the arguments made in defense of the president’s actions toward Ukraine. Several of the Republican members of the committee notably asked them no questions.
Trump’s defenders in Congress have argued that the president’s actions could not have been an abuse because at the time the president spoke with Zelensky, on July 25, the Ukrainians did not know Trump had put a hold on some $400 million in security assistance.
In addition, the Republicans have said, the president ultimately released the money — on Sept. 11 — without the Ukrainians having made a public statement agreeing to conduct the investigations, as Trump had wanted.
Wednesday, however, a Defense Department official, Laura Cooper, testified that Ukrainian embassy officials began contacting her staff and the State Department to ask about the status of the security aid as early as the day of the phone call.
Democrats repeatedly have argued that the release of the assistance came only after Congress began looking into a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s conduct. And, they note, the freeze on the security aid was only part of the pressure campaign.
More than $35 million of the military assistance has yet to reach Ukraine, according to a Pentagon spending document obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
Even after the hold on security assistance was lifted, Holmes said, “there were still things [the Ukrainians] wanted that they weren’t getting,” including a White House meeting between Trump and Zelensky, which was important to the new government as a show of continued U.S. support.
“That still continues to this day,” he said. “The Ukrainians still need us now.”
Holmes became something of an accidental witness for the inquiry when he realized that he had the kind of firsthand knowledge of the president’s push for investigations that defenders of the White House claimed was absent from the inquiry. Republicans have dismissed much of the testimony as hearsay.
Holmes overheard a July 26 phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, while he and Sondland shared an outdoor table at a crowded restaurant in Kyiv.
Holmes said overhearing an unsecured conversation between a president and a top advisor was a “very distinctive experience” in his foreign service career — and the reason he was able to recall so many details without having taken notes.
That, and Trump was very loud. “When the president came on, he sort of winced and held the phone away from his ear,” Holmes said, mimicking Sondland’s actions.
Holmes said he heard Trump’s voice, booming through the cellphone, asking Sondland whether Ukraine would conduct the investigations he wanted.
Sondland replied, “‘Oh yeah, he’s going to do it. He’ll do anything you ask,’” Holmes said, recalling that Sondland told Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass.”
On Wednesday, Sondland had recounted the same call, saying that he and Trump had used “colorful language,” but that he did not recall all of the details Holmes testified to.
Hill had previously told congressional investigators about her own sometimes tense relations with Sondland. At Thursday’s hearing, she said she had been angry with the ambassador, a hotel owner from Portland, Ore., who obtained his post after contributing $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, because he failed to keep her and other officials apprised of what he was doing in Ukraine.
“He said to me, ‘But I’m briefing the president, I’m briefing Chief of Staff Mulvaney, I’m briefing Secretary of State Pompeo and I’ve talked to Ambassador Bolton,’” Hill recounted, “Who else do I have do deal with?’”
She said she realized only later that Sondland was correct in a sense.
“He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security and foreign policy,"she said. “So those two things had just diverged.”
Hill said she had warned Sondland that his mixing of domestic politics with foreign policy would come back to haunt the administration.
“I think this is going to blow up,” she recounted saying. “And here we are.”
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