Photo credited by Gage Skidmore
After nine weeks, the initial phase of Donald Trump’s impeachment has ended. In what consisted of five days of public testimonials, from current and former officials in and around the White House, plenty of previously unknown information was brought to light. Now, House Democrats say they are convinced they can build a public case, arguing the president has abused his power.
Day 1: Rep. Adam Schiff (Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, D-CA):
Opening the hearing, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) made clear what he saw as the purpose of the impeachment investigation:
“If we find that the President of the United States abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections, or if he sought to condition, coerce, extort, or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his reelection campaign and did so by withholding official acts, a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars of needed military aid, must we simply get over it”?
Day 1- George Kent (senior state official in charge of Ukraine policy) and William Taylor (former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine):
Of the first day’s witnesses, Bill Taylor had the most to say and the most news to break, describing for the first time more of the direct campaign the president waged hoping to start the investigations, according to a recording of the hearing. On July 26, the day after President Trump made the call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, David Holmes (an aide of Taylor’s) was eating at a restaurant with Gordon Sondland (the ambassador to the European Union). While there, Sondland called the president. According to the Holmes’s broadcast testimony, he was able to overhear the president’s voice (loudly) coming from the other side asking Sondland about “the investigations.” The E.U. ambassador responded, “The Ukrainians were ready to move forward.” After hanging up, Taylor’s aide asked Sondland what the president thought about Ukraine? He replied, “President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden,” according to the live testimonial.
Kent also stressed his concerns about the president’s actions. He agreed with the Democrats that “it was wrong to ask other countries to engage in politically associated investigations or prosecutions.”
The Republicans on the committee took issue with the fact that neither Taylor nor Kent had ever actually met or interacted with the president before. They also believe, since the Ukrainians never opened the investigations, the president never committed an impeachable offense in the first place. “He (Ukranian president Zelensky) didn’t do anything because he didn’t have to,” Representative John Ratcliffe (R-TX) commented.
While Democrats argued that Trump’s “pressure campaign” contradicted his anti-corruption message, Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) asked the two witness: “Is it not true that a major problem in the Ukraine has been its misuse of prosecutors to conduct investigations of political opponents?”
Day 2- Marie Yovanovitch (William Taylor’s predecessor as Ambassador to Ukraine):
Instead of breaking news, Yovanavitch’s testimony was personal. She explained how, after being abruptly fired by the president, she felt threatened. The former-ambassador described being “kneecapped” by smears and being fired over the phone at 1 a.m. Following what she saw as “lies” spearheaded by Rudy Giuliani (the president’s personal lawyer) and were pushed by news pundits and the president’s son, she was told in April 2019 to immediately return from Ukraine, as she “no longer had the confidence of the president.”
While Yovanovitch is not directly implicated in the investigation, she did draw direct heat from Trump who said “she’s going to go through somethings,” according to her testimony. His comments were left unexplained. But, she did not take them lightly. “It didn’t sound good, and was very intimidating,” she thought. Yovanovitch believed the effect of the president’s comments, while meant for her, could impact other potential witnesses.
Responding to her testimony in real time, the president went after her record. He tweeted: “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 of her.”
Schiff later described Trump’s tweet as “witness intimidation” (which would be a crime).
The top Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes (CA) took issue with Yovanovitch’s depiction of events. He talked her into admitting that, yes, a president has the right to appoint and dismiss ambassadors at will although, she was left wondering why “it was necessary” to tarnish her reputation. Nunes also highlighted her lack of involvement in the investigation as she was not a part of the July 25 call nor the holding of the military aid.
Day 3- Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (the Director for European Affairs for the United States National Security Council), Jennifer Williams (former advisor to Vice President Mike Pence on Euopean and Russian affairs), Tim Morrison (former advisor to President Trump on Russia and Europe on the White House NSC) and Kurt Volker (former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine negotiation):
Appearing in the morning were Ms. Williams and Colonel Vindman. The two of them as national security officials heard the July 25 as it was happening, and took issue with Trump later describing it as “perfect.”
Listening and concerned, Vindman immediately after reported the call to the National Security Council’s top lawyer:
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was probably an element of shock, that maybe in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out, and how this was likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security.”
Vindman went on to explain why he felt it was his “duty” to report what he heard from the president. Himself believing it was “improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent.”
Williams thought the call was unusual since it was a discussion of a “domestic political matter” and not a foreign one.
During the hearing both Williams and Vindman were unable to name one single national security official who supported the withholding of the Ukraine’s military aid mentioning, that it was at the sole direction of White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Williams also said that during a meeting with Vice President Pence in September, President Zelensky thought that by continuing to withhold the aid, the U.S. was weakening its support for his country and playing into Russia’s hands. Relaying exactly what Zelensky told the VP, she said, “any signal or sign that U.S. support was wavering would be construed by Russia as a potential opportunity for them to strengthen their hand in Ukraine.”
Responding to the both of them, Republicans did not hold back.
Two days before the hearing, the president tweeted. Attacking Willliams he said, “tell her to read BOTH transcripts of the presidential calls and see the just released statement from Ukraine. Then she should meet with the other Never Trumpers and work out a better presidential attack!”
The two most senior aides to Mike Pence also rebutted Williams’s statement. Lt. Gen Keith Kellogg, the VP’s national security advisor wrote in a statement:
“I heard nothing wrong with the call. I had and have no concerns. Ms. Williams was also on the call and as she testified, she never reported any personal or professional concerns to me, her direct supervisor, regarding the call.”
Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short added on Fox News, “she never raised any concerns with me and she never raised any concerns with the vice president.”
House Republicans were skeptical of Vindman’s stances. Born in the Ukraine, they questioned his loyalties as an American citizen, pressing him on three different events in which the director of Ukraine’s national security council offered him a job, specifically, the role of Defense Minister in Kyiv (the country’s capital). Steve Castor, the committee’s Republican lawyer, got him to confirm not only the offers did happen, but that he also repeatedly declined them. Lt. Col. Vindman chose instead to report those discussions to his higher-ups.
The afternoon’s witnesses, Volker and Morrison, were requested to testify by the Republicans believing their testimonies would be beneficial to Trump’s defense; instead, they both made it clear how “unusual” his actions were.
Volker, who was appointed to his job by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, believed the president’s actions went against national security interests. “I don’t think that raising 2016 elections or Vice President Biden or these things I consider to be conspiracy theories should be a party of our national security strategy,” he said to the House Intell. Committee. Despite being the Ukraine’s ambassador at the time, he painted himself as a man on the outside, by missing out of important events, and being unaware of the connection between the release of security aid and the desired investigations.
In his opening remarks, Volker made some corrections to his original private testimony. He was only able to start connecting the dots once other witness came forward. “I have learned many things that I did not know at the time,” he said. At the time, he was working with Rudy Giuliani to seek assurance from within Ukraine that President Trump’s desired investigations would happen.
Throughout this though, Volker made no connection to Burisma being an investigation into Biden and had no idea it was tied to the release of the aid. He mentioned having told the Ukrainians “the opposite,” thinking the aid would be given, with nothing needed in return and that it’d work itself out. “I did not know others were conveying a different message to them,” he added.
Volker also sought to not only make corrections his testimony, but add to it. Specifically, about why his mention of a White House meeting differed from that of other witnesses. The other witness, Fiona Hill and Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, both members of the National Security council, swore that a meeting on July 10 meeting was ended abruptly by the now-former national security advisor John Bolton. Bolton ended that meeting shortly after Gordon Sondland “brought up the investigations.” Volker made no mention of that in his private statement. He recounted, “As I remember, the meeting was essentially over when Ambassador Sondland made a general comment about investigations. I think all of us thought it was inappropriate.”
Volker made it clear that he never made the Burisma-Biden connection during his tenure:
”In hindsight, I now understand that others saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company Burisma as equivalent to investigating former Vice President Biden. I saw them as very different — the former being appropriate and unremarkable, the latter being unacceptable. In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections.”
Opposite him, Morrison did not think the July 25 call was “inherently wrong or illegal,” but was afraid it would be politically damaging if it leaked out. He testified, “I feared at the time of the call on July 25 how its disclosure would play in Washington’s climate. My fears have been realized.” While understanding the importance of the hearing, he asked the committee to “not lose sight” of what he believed to actually be important: “the military conflict underway in Ukraine today.”
Pushing back, Daniel Goldman, the Democrats’s chosen lawyer on the panel, questioned Morrison on whether or not he believed “asking a foreign government to investigate a domestic political rival is inappropriate.” “It is not what we recommend the president discuss,” he replied.
Day 4: Gordon Sondland (Ambassador to the European Union), Laura Cooper (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs) and David Hale (U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs):
European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland was the entire week’s star witness. Speaking to the House, he testified that he and others were told by President Trump to pressure Ukraine to open investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 election. Sondland said he, Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry were hesitant to deal with Giuliani, and only did so after being instructed by the president:
“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 followed the president’s orders.”
He also confirmed that there was in-fact a quid pro quo connecting a coveted White House meeting for Zelensky and the opening of the investigations. When pushed, Sondland did say, however, he never heard that straight from the president’s mouth.
Both Giuliani and Perry took issue with Sondland’s statements. Following the testimony, Giuliani tweeted:
“I came into this at Volker’s request. Sondland is speculating based on VERY little contact. I never met him and had very few calls with him, mostly with Volker. Volker testified I answered their questions and described them as my opinions, NOT demands. I.E., no quid pro quo!”
An Energy Department spokesperson responded on Perry’s behalf:
“Ambassador Sondland’s testimony today misrepresented both Secretary Perry’s interaction with Rudy Giuliani and direction the Secretary received from President Trump. As previously stated, Secretary Perry spoke to Rudy Giuliani only once at the President’s request. No one else was on that call. At no point before, during or after that phone call did the words ‘Biden’ or ‘Burisma’ ever come up in the presence of Secretary Perry.”
Sondland continued to connect yet even more individuals into his situation. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” he testified. He mentioned that in August, he spoke to the vice president over his fear that the investigations were essential to the aid’s release. The E.U. ambassador also said he was in contact with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, keeping him up-to-date on his efforts.
His talks with Pence, Sondland testified, happened just before the VP was set to meet with President Zelensky; supposedly, Zelensky brought up the topic of the aid and was assured by Pence that he would talk with Trump. The vice president’s chief of staff Mark Short denied Sondland’s account outright
“As late as September, Secretary Pompeo was directing Kurt Volker to speak with Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland testified. In response, Pompeo’s spokeswoman denied something that Sondland never mentioned:
“Gordon Sondland never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the president was linking aid to investigations of political opponents. Any suggestion to the contrary is flat out false.”
When pressured, Sondland also spoke more on what exactly the president was hoping to get out of investigations. He believed what mattered most to Trump was simply having Ukrainian officials announce them:
“I never heard anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed. The only thing I ever heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise was that they had to be announced in some form and that form kept changing.”
This point is key to the case that the Democrats are trying to build against the president: that instead of wanting to end corruption, he tried to leverage congressionally approved funds to force a foreign power to help discredit one of his opponents. Democratic counsel Dan Goldman asked Sondland if he agreed “there would be political benefits to a public announcement.” The ambassador replied:
“The way it was expressed to me was that the Ukrainians had a long history of committing to things privately and then never following through, so President Trump, presumably, again communicated through Mr. Giuliani, wanted the Ukrainians on record publicly that they were going to do these investigations.”
Goldman followed that up by questioning him on whether he “heard anyone say that they really wanted them to do the investigations, or just that they wanted to announce them.” “I didn’t hear either way,” Sondland responded.
In his opening statement, Sondland confirmed the call between him and the president on July 26. He also did not challenge David Holmes’s account of events. Holmes, in his testimony, explicitly heard President Trump ask Sondland about the investigations. Sondland then told the president Zelensky would do it, that he “loved your ass” and would do “anything you ask him to,” according to Holmes’s live remarks.
While Sondland confirmed that meeting, he did describe the one on July 10 with Fiona Hill and Lt. Col. Vindman differently than they did. He did not recall it ending over a confrontation about his growing role in policy. “Their recollections of those events simply don’t square with my own or with those of Ambassador Volker or Secretary Perry,” his testimony read.
Following Ambassador Sondland’s sworn statement, House Dems. quickly declared a victory. Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) called the hearing “among the most significant evidence to date,” he said in a press conference after the testimony. He then went on to mock his colleagues attempts to undermine Sondland:
“They seem to be under the impression that unless the president spoke the words, ‘Ambassador Sondland, I am bribing the Ukrainian president,’ that there’s no evidence of bribery. If he didn’t say, ‘Ambassador Sondland, I’m telling you I’m not going to give the aid unless they do this,’ that there’s no evidence of a quid pro quo.”
Schiff then said there was already “a lot of evidence of precisely that conditionally”
The Republicans did not budge. Rep. Mike Turker (R-OH) talked Sondland into admitting he was never told exactly that the aid was related to the president’s wanted investigations:
“No one told you? Not just the president — Giuliani didn’t tell you, Mulvaney didn’t tell you, nobody. Pompeo didn’t tell you? No one on this planet told you that President Trump was tying aid to investigations. Yes or no?”
Sondland responded, “Yes.”
Throughout, the president did everything he could to distance himself from Sondland (a donor he appointed). Before leaving for Texas, Trump made an impromptu statement to the press, bringing up a conversation Sondland testified to having with him. In that conversation, Sondland’s public statements say the president told him, “I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo.” It should be noted, that Sodland recalled this conversation taking place on Sept. 9, days after the House launched its impeachment inquiry.
Ms. Cooper’s testimony later that afternoon provided ample evidence to suggest that the Ukrainian government might have learned about the “freezing” of aid as soon as July 25- a month earlier than had previously been believed. She testified she knew of multiple back and forths between her office and the embassy in Ukraine, focusing on the security aid’s delivery. One of her staff members also received a message about the security aid on the day of the call. The Ukrainian Embassy, she said, was curious about “what was going on with the assistance.” Cooper also made note that around Aug. 6, different members of her staff met with embassy officials who also pressed them on the issue.
The timeline is crucial. The Republicans have, so far, stressed that the Ukrainians did not learn about the hold on their aid until it had been reported by the news on Aug. 28. They believed that it would have been impossible for Trump to leverage the aid over Zelensky since the Ukraine’s president hadn’t known about it being withheld.
Hale to was worried about the aid’s hold up as well as the criticisms towards Yovanovitch. He believed what happened to her was “wrong,” and that she “should have been able to stay and continue to do outstanding work,” Hale said in front of the panel.
Later that day, President Trump tweeted,” This Witch Hunt must end NOW.”
Day 5: Fiona Hill (former White House advisor on Russia) and David Holmes (a counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine):
The last two witness to be called immediately set off to differentiate themselves from Gordon Sondland. Unlike Sondland (who had no experience and was given his job after a million dollar contribution to Trump’s inauguration), both Holmes and Hill attested to being longtime foreign policy experts.
Answering questions by the Republicans, Hill laid out what she saw as the main issue being investigated: the fact that the U.S. was pushing two opposite agendas in Ukraine, and that “those involved viewed theirs as the only one,” according to the New York Times.
She and others grew increasingly worried over Sondland’s growing role and cause, thinking he was operating outside the normal means of communication:
“What I was angry about was that he wasn’t coordinating with us. I’ve actually realized, having listened to his deposition, that he was absolutely right. He wasn’t coordinating with us because we weren’t doing the same thing that he was doing. 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.”
According to Hill, she also believed his goal of forcing Zelensky into announcing the investigations went against longstanding policy.
The day before, Sondland swore in front of Congress that he did not grasp how he could have been apart of “back channel” communication when the channel he was involved with included the president and members of the cabinet.
Hill also spoke of a conversation she had with Sondland, assuring him, “This is all going to blow up.” “And here we are,” she added at the hearing.
In Holmes’s prepared remarks, he provided yet more additional details about the lunch he had with Sondland on July 26, explaining that it was unlike anything he had ever seen or heard of before:
“This was a very distinctive experience. I’ve never seen anything like this in my foreign service career, someone at a lunch in a restaurant making a call on a cellphone to the president of the United States, being able to hear his voice, very distinctive personality.”
He also went into detail on the followup conversation he had with the ambassador once he and the president hung up. Holmes said he then asked Sondland how Trump felt about Ukraine. Sondland replied, “The President doesn’t give a shit about Ukraine. He only cares about big stuff, big stuff that benefits him, like the Biden investigation Giuliani was pushing,” according to Holmes’s sworn testimony.
Trump tweeted later that day, rebuking Holmes’s recollection:
“I have been watching people making phone calls my entire life. My hearing is, and has been, great. Never have I been watching a person making a call, which was not on speakerphone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation. I’ve even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!”
Holmes further attested to what others had said before him: that Giuliani’s sudden involvement in Ukraine was tarnishing America’s goal of helping its fight against Russian aggression. He testified that Giuliani’s takeover started back in March, and of how it kept the U.S. Embassy from doing its job:
“The three priorities of security, economy, and justice, and our support for Ukrainian democratic resistance to Russian aggression, became overshadowed by a political agenda promoted by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a cadre of officials operating with a direct channel to the White House.”
In defending President Trump, elected Republicans have attested that he was just in his pausing the nearly $400 million in military aid due to its systemic corruption; they claim this is why he wanted the investigations.
Hill, lastly, tried to debunk this and other theories that had been circulated by the Republicans. Including, one suggesting it was Ukraine, not Russia, that hacked into the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign’s computer servers. Reiterating what every U.S. intelligence agency has reported, Hill said, “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
Day 5: Adam Schiff (Chairman) and Devin Nunes (Ranking Member):
Closing out the final day of public hearings, Devin Nunes led his party in defense of the president, lambasting Schiff and other Democrats for what he sees as a case that has already been decided:
“What you’ve seen in this room over the past two weeks is a show trial, a planned result of three years of political operations waged against this president. And like any good show trial, the verdict was decided before the trial ever began. After all, after denouncing the president for years as a Russian agent and a threat to democracy, how could the Democrats not impeach him?”
In Adam Schiff’s closing statement, he pressed his case that the evidence against Trump has already been laid out:
“Now, we also heard abundant testimony about the quid pro quo, the withholding of security assistance, which no one can explain. Everyone in the NSC, in the State Department, the Defense Department, everyone supported this. All the reviews that needed to be done to make sure that Ukraine was meeting its anti-corruption standards had been done, and they had found to meet the criteria. The aid should’ve been released, but it was withheld, and no one could understand or get a clear explanation for why, until it became clear to everyone, it’s all about the investigations, it’s all about the leverage.”
Despite the specifics of the continuing impeachment inquiry remaining a mystery, it is clear what the House is set to do next. According to the Associated Press, the Intelligence Committee is now set to compile their findings, and potentially draft articles of impeachment.
In early December, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to launch another set of hearings, where they can then launch formal charges. After that, the AP also reports a full floor vote could take place before Christmas, where, barring some insane circumstances, Donald Trump is likely set to be impeached by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.