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Impeachment Inquiry Gains Momentum, Despite Trump’s Efforts to Squelch Testimony

October 15, 2019, 6:36 PM UTC
.Alex Edelman/Bloomberg

Despite President Donald Trump’s declaration that his administration won’t comply with the congressional impeachment inquiry of him, House Democrats’ subpoenas are proving quite effective. Today, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent arrived on Capitol Hill to testify behind closed doors.

Kent was among those who expressed concern about the campaign against former U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, ousted at the apparent urging by the president. The assistant secretary thought she was the victim of a disinformation operation, according to a current State Department official unauthorized to discuss the situation and granted anonymity

Kent’s worries about the “fake news smear” against Yovanovitch started months before she was recalled from her post in May, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press.

In the emails from March, Kent shares with other State Department officials a “daily update of the fake news driven smear out of Ukraine.” The emails include news reports and other commentary, some from U.S. journalists, that “goes after Masha,” as Yovanovitch was known.

Details of Monday’s closed-door testimony from Trump’s former Russia expert on the National Security Council, Fiona Hill, are also emerging.

According to Hill, former national security adviser John Bolton was so alarmed by Rudy Giuliani’s back-channel activities in the Ukraine that he described Trump’s personal lawyer as a “hand grenade who is going to blow everybody up.”

Hill testified for more than 10 hours on Monday. She detailed Bolton’s concerns to lawmakers and told them she had at least two meetings with National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg about the matter at Bolton’s request, according to a person familiar with the testimony who requested anonymity to discuss the confidential interview.

Those meetings took place in early July, weeks before a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump urged Zelensky to investigate political rival Joe Biden’s family and Ukraine’s own involvement in the 2016 presidential election.

A whistleblower complaint about that call, later made public, prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to launch the impeachment inquiry. Giuliani is Trump’s personal lawyer and was heavily involved in the effort to pressure Ukraine on the investigations. (Read a copy of the whistleblower complaint here.)

Hill also told the investigators that she had strongly and repeatedly objected to the removal earlier this year of Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, as ambassador to the Ukraine, according to the person familiar with the testimony. Yovanovitch testified to the impeachment investigators Friday that Trump pressured the State Department to fire her.

Additionally, Hill discussed U.S. ambassador Gordon Sondland and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, the person said, telling the three committees leading the investigation that Bolton also told her he was not part of “whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” an apparent reference to talks over Ukraine. (Trump forced Bolton to resign last month.)

Gordon Sondland next to testify

Sondland is expected to appear for a deposition under subpoena Thursday and will certainly be asked about those talks.

There are five more scheduled this week, mostly with State Department officials, though it is unclear if they will all appear since Trump declared he wouldn’t cooperate with the probe.

Sondland is expected to tell Congress that a text message released earlier this month reassuring another envoy that there was no quid pro quo in their interactions with Ukraine was based solely on what Trump told him, according to a person familiar with his coming testimony.

The cache of text messages was provided by one of the inquiry’s first witnesses, former Ukrainian envoy Kurt Volker, and detailed attempts by the diplomats to serve as intermediaries around the time Trump urged Zelensky to start the investigations into a company, Burisma Holdings, linked to Biden’s son.

While interviews have focused on the interactions with Ukraine, the probe could broaden as soon as next week to include interviews with White House budget officials who may be able to shed light on whether military aid was withheld from Ukraine as Trump and Giuliani pushed for the investigations.

The three committees leading the probe are seeking interviews next week with Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Michael Duffey, another OMB official who leads national security programs, according to a person familiar with those requests. That person wasn’t authorized to discuss the invitations and requested anonymity.

House Democrats’ impeachment timeline

The packed schedule of interviews comes as Democrats are methodically working to pin down the details of Trump’s pressure on Zelensky. Once Democrats have completed the probe and followed any other threads it produces, they will use their findings to help determine whether to vote on articles of impeachment. Pelosi said she wants the committees to move “expeditiously.”

Michael McKinley, a former top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who resigned last week, is scheduled to testify Wednesday. McKinley, a career foreign service officer and Pompeo’s de facto chief of staff, resigned Friday, ending a 37-year career.

The committees are also scheduled to talk to Ulrich Brechbuhl, a State Department counselor, on Thursday. On Friday, the lawmakers have scheduled an interview with Laura Cooper, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. It is unclear if any of those officials will show up after Trump’s vow of non-cooperation.

“Friendly” subpoenas issued witnesses

Because of the Trump administration’s edict, the Democrats have been subpoenaing witnesses as they arrived for their interviews—a move sometimes known as a “friendly” subpoena that could give the witnesses additional legal protection as they testify. Both Yovanovitch and Hill received subpoenas the mornings of their testimony, and Kent was subpoenaed for Tuesday’s interview, officials said.

One witness who may not be called before Congress is the still-anonymous government whistleblower who touched off the impeachment inquiry.

Republicans complained Tuesday that the whistleblower’s identity should be made available.

“The question I keep coming back to is why don’t we know who this individual is?” Rep. Jim Jordan, (R-Ohio) said Tuesday. “I mean they’re basing an impeachment process, trying to remove the president of the United States based on some anonymous whistleblower again with no first-hand knowledge.”

Top Democrats say testimony and evidence coming in from other witnesses, and even the Republican president himself, are backing up the whistleblower’s account of what transpired during Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky. (Read a White House memo of the call here.) Lawmakers have grown deeply concerned about protecting the person from Trump’s threats and may not wish to risk exposing the whistleblower’s identity.

Hunter Biden denies wrongdoing

Hunter Biden, acknowledging his family name created business opportunities, has rejected assertions by Trump that he did anything wrong by engaging in foreign work in Ukraine and China.

But Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, conceded he failed to take into account potential implications for his father’s political career.

“Did I make a mistake? Maybe in the grand scheme of things,” Hunter Biden said in an ABC News interview that aired on Tuesday. “But did I make a mistake based on some ethical lapse? Absolutely not.”

Joe Biden is a front-runner in the 2020 Democratic presidential contest, and the interview with his son aired hours before the fourth Democratic presidential debate.

Hunter Biden said he did not discuss his foreign business dealings with his father. He served on the board of an energy company in Ukraine, Burisma Holdings, a fact he said his father learned from press reports.

The younger Biden was a lawyer at a top Washington law firm with expertise in corporate governance. But he acknowledged on Tuesday that he probably would not have been asked to serve on the board if not for his name.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of things that would have happened in my life if my last name wasn’t Biden,” he said.

Trump and his Republican allies have targeted Hunter Biden for his work in Ukraine and China, making uproven claims of corruption.

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