As Democratic lawmakers in Congress head towards what appears to be a now inexorable march toward impeaching U.S. President Donald Trump, Reuters takes a look at the House Intelligence Committee hearings where witness testimony will provide the backbone of the case that could lead to formal charges within weeks.
Over the fall, the House Intelligence Committee conducted an investigation into whether Trump abused his power to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations that would benefit him politically. After weeks of closed-door testimony, Chairman Adam Schiff presided over televised hearings in which selected witnesses testified publicly.
Shortly after lawmakers return to Congress on December 3, the House Intelligence Committee is expected to release a formal evidence report. The House Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to hold its first impeachment hearing on December 4, will use that report to consider formal charges that could form the basis of a full House impeachment vote by the end of December.
Under the Constitution, the president can be removed from office for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” High crimes and misdemeanors has historically encompassed corruption and abuses of the public trust, as opposed to just indictable violations of criminal statutes.
The top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine – Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state overseeing European and Eurasian affairs, testified.
Taylor described learning that Trump’s officials or agents conditioned nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine and a White House meeting on Ukraine conducting political investigations.
“It’s one thing to try to leverage a meeting in the White House. It’s another thing, I thought, to leverage security assistance, security assistance to a country at war,” said Taylor.
Kent testified that he had been alarmed by efforts by Trump’s personal lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and others to pressure Ukraine into investigating the Bidens and the 2016 election. He said Giuliani ran a successful campaign to push U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch out of her post.
“Over the course of 2018-2019, I became increasingly aware of an effort by Rudy Giuliani and others, including his associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, to run a campaign to smear Ambassador Yovanovitch and other officials at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv (Kiev),” Taylor said.
Republicans pushed back that they had not had a chance to call the whistleblower to testify publicly, and President Donald Trump dismissed the hearings, as a politically-motivated ‘witch hunt.’
“No, I didn’t. I did, did not watch it. I’m too busy to watch it. It’s a witch hunt. It’s a hoax. I’m too busy to watch it,” he told reporters
Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, testified. Described by colleagues as a professional to her fingertips, Yovanovitch was removed from the post in 2019 by Trump in what Schiff claimed was an effort to open an irregular channel to pursue the 2016 conspiracy theory and, most importantly, an investigation into the 2020 political opponent he apparently feared most, Joe Biden.
Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, stressed that corrupt Ukrainians had targeted her and Washington had played into their hands.
“Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me. What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them, and working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. Ambassador. How could our system fail like this?,” she said.
While Yovanovitch testified, Trump launched a Twitter attack on her, an extraordinary moment that Democrats said amounted to witness intimidation.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors,” he wrote on Twitter.
Schiff read the president’s tweets to Yovanovitch, who defended her career.
“I actually think that where I’ve served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better,” she said.
Trump defended his tweets as freedom of speech.
During the hearing, Representative Elise Stefanik, known for being the youngest woman elected to Congress at the time she was elected in 2014 at the age of 30, took center stage as a vocal defender of Trump.
“This is wishful political thinking by the Democrats. This is not the first or last week that they’re going to complain about. But we’re talking about impeachment. And there is not a single fact that is impeachable in terms of this president,” she told journalists.
The White House’s top Ukraine expert, Alexander Vindman, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and two senior White House aides Jennifer Williams and Tim Morrison, testified.
It was the first time that officials from inside the White House publicly expressed their misgivings about a freewheeling pressure campaign that now threatens Trump’s presidency.
Wearing his Army dress uniform, Vindman said Trump had made an “improper” demand of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the July 25 phone call that has become the centerpiece of the Democratic-led impeachment probe.
“I was concerned by the call. What I heard was inappropriate, and I reported my concerns to Mr. Eisenberg. It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent,” he said.
Williams said she was concerned by the political nature of the phone call, which she said was unusual and inappropriate because “it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.”
Morrison said he did not see anything improper in the call but was concerned that its contents could leak, hurting bipartisan support for Ukraine.
Meanwhile, former special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker who resigned hours after Democrats announced he would be called to testify, distanced himself from any investigation into Biden, rejecting allegations of corruption involving Biden and his son, who was a director of Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
“Mayor Giuliani raised — and I rejected — the conspiracy theory that Vice President Biden would have been influenced in his duties as vice president by money paid to his son,” he said, adding that “I did not understand that others believed that any investigation of Ukrainian company Burisma, which had a history of accusations of corruption, was tantamount to investigating Vice President Biden.”
Trump said he did not know the people testifying against him, and dismissed their testimony as hearsay.
“I don’t know Kent is. I don’t know who Taylor is. All these people are talking about — they heard a conversation of a conversation of another conversation that was had by the president. What’s going on is a disgrace and it’s an embarrassment to our nation,” he told reporters.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukrainian and Eurasia; and David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs, testified.
Providing some of the most significant testimony to date, Sondland said he “followed the president’s orders” as he pressured Ukraine to undertake investigations that could boost the president’s November 2020 re-election prospects. Sondland said Trump did not specify what he wanted Kiev to investigate, but told him to work with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer. Giuliani pushed to investigate Burisma, a natural gas company on which Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, served as a director.
“Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the President of the United States. We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we were playing the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose a very important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the president’s orders.”
Sondland said the White House resisted setting up a phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and refused to arrange a coveted Oval Office meeting unless the Ukrainian leader publicly promised to launch investigations sought by the White House.
“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested the White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes,” he said.
Sondland also said he kept senior administration officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney updated about his efforts, and that he notified Vice President Mike Pence in September that the delayed Ukraine aid appeared to be tied to the demand for investigations.
“Everyone was in the loop,” he testified.
He also relayed a conversation he had with the president, which Trump said exonerated him.
“I believe I just asked him an open-ended question Mr. Chairman, what do you want from Ukraine? … And he just said, I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell them – Zelenskiy to do the right thing, something to that effect,” Sondland said, and was quoted later by the president, as he spoke to reporters on the White House lawn.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper said she never discussed a hold on security assistance for Ukraine with the president and never heard from him directly on the matter, but Ukraine had inquired about the delay in security assistance.
“On July 25th, a member of my staff got a question from a Ukraine embassy contact asking ‘what was going on with Ukraine’s security assistance’?” she said.
Under secretary for Political Affairs David Hale said that he and other State Department officials learned that Trump had ordered the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) to withhold aid, and it was the only agency to do support a delay in aid.
“We were told in that meeting by the OMB representative that they were objecting to proceeding with the assistance because the president had so directed through the chief of staff, the acting chief of staff,” he said.
British-born U.S. national security adviser Fiona Hill and political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Kiev David Holmes testified. Chairman of the House’s Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff and the top Republican on the committee, Devin Nunes, presented their closing statements.
Holmes testified about a July 26 phone call in which he said he overheard Trump ask Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, about the status of the investigations.
“I then heard President Trump ask, ”So he’s going to do the investigation?’ Ambassador Sondland replied that he’s going to do it, adding that President Zelenskiy will do anything you ask him to do,” Holmes said of the call, overheard while he was dining with Sondland outdoors at a Kiev restaurant.
Holmes also testified that Sondland said the president’s only interest in Ukraine was the ‘big stuff,’ meaning the Biden investigation.
“Sondland stated that the President only cares about ‘big stuff.’ I noted that there was ‘big stuff’ going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia, and Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant ‘big stuff’ that benefits the President, like the ‘Biden investigation’ that Mr. Giuliani was pushing,” he said, adding that his work started to become overshadowed in March by Trump’s personal lawyer, Giuliani, who was pushing Ukraine to carry out the two probes.
“Over the following months, it became apparent that Mr. Giuliani was having a direct influence on the foreign policy agenda that the Three Amigos were executing on the ground in Ukraine. In fact, at one point during a preliminary meeting of the inaugural delegation, someone wondered aloud about why Mr. Giuliani was so active in the media with respect to Ukraine. My recollection is that Ambassador Sondland stated – quote- “Dammit Rudy. Every time Rudy gets involved, he goes and f—s everything up,” he testified.
Hill, who resigned in July after 2 -1/2 years as the White House’s top expert on Russia and Europe, urged lawmakers not to support the theories that cast doubt on Russia’s election interference, saying she was frustrated in her interactions with Sondland, but eventually understood that he was pursuing a “domestic political errand” of interest to the president while she and others were negotiating foreign policy issues.
“Because he was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security/foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged,” she said, adding that the link between Giuliani, Burisma and the Bidens was clear to her.
“By this point having heard Mr. Giuliani over and over again on television and all of the issues that he was asserting, by this point it was clear that Burisma was code for the Bidens – because Giuliani was laying it out there,” she added.
Hill also recalled that former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has so far refused to testify, distanced himself from Sondland and Mick Mulvaney, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.
“You tell Eisenberg Ambassador Bolton told me that I am not part of this, whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up,” she said.
The leaders of the House Intelligence Committee presented their closing statements, with Republican leader Devin Nunes saying the investigation’s hearings were purely political.
“What you’ve seen in this room over the past two weeks is a show trial. The plain result of three years of political operations and dirty tricks, campaigns waged against this president. And like any good show trial, the verdict was decided before the trial ever began,” he said.
Democratic Chairman Adam Schiff circled back to the phone call, highlighting the president’s words in light of the testimony presented during the hearings.
“But apparently it’s all hearsay. Even when you hear the president, Mr. Holmes, that’s hearsay. We can’t rely on people saying what the president said. Apparently we can only rely on what the president said, and there, we shouldn’t even rely on that either. We shouldn’t even rely on what the president said in the call record. We should imagine he said something else. We should imagine he said something about actually fighting corruption. Instead of what he actually said which was, ‘I want you to do us a favor though.”
Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing and says a July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy, in which he pressed for the probes, was “perfect,” has said that Democrats are seeking to overturn the will of the people in the 2016 presidential election. He told reporters he has come to believe there was no whistleblower who reported the phone call with Zelenskiy.
“What whistleblower? I don’t think there is. I consider it to be a fake whistleblower, because what he wrote didn’t correspond to what I said in any way, shape or form,” he said.
On Wednesday (December 4), the Judiciary Committee in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives will hold a hearing to explain to the public what constitutes an impeachable offense.
The judiciary panel will hear public testimony from four legal scholars on what constitutional basis a U.S. president can be removed from office.
In a defiant response on Sunday night (December 1), the White House informed Democrats that Trump and his lawyers would not participate in Wednesday’s hearing, citing a lack of “fundamental fairness.” But White House counsel Pat Cipollone has not ruled out taking part in future proceedings if Democrats addressed a list of procedural complaints. The committee, which is not expected to consider evidence against Trump until next week, has given the president until 5 p.m. (2200 GMT) on Friday (December 6) to say whether he plans to mount a defense by calling witnesses and introducing evidence.
The Judiciary panel will use the report to consider formal charges that could form the basis of a full House impeachment vote by the end of December.
The House comprises 431 members, 233 of whom are Democrats. As a result, the Democrats could impeach Trump with no Republican support.
If the House approves articles of impeachment, a trial is then held in the Senate. House members act as the prosecutors; the senators as jurors; the chief justice of the Supreme Court presides. Historically, the president has been allowed to have defense lawyers call witnesses and request documents.
The Senate now has 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents who usually vote with the Democrats. Conviction and removal of a president would require a two-thirds majority. So, for Trump to be removed from office via impeachment, in the case of all 100 senators voting, at least 20 Republicans and all the Democrats and independents would have to vote against him.
No president has ever been removed as a direct result of impeachment. One, Richard Nixon, resigned before he could be removed. Two, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, were impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate.
(Production: Kevin Fogarty, Gershon Peaks, Tom Sampson, Greg Savoy, Vanessa Johnston, Arlene Eiras)