Quid pro quo, domestic errands: Takeaways from impeachment
WASHINGTON, DC – President Donald Trump asked a foreign country to investigate a political rival as he enters his reelection campaign. That has been established almost beyond doubt. But Republicans and Democrats agree on little else as they engage in on only the fourth impeachment inquiry in the nation's history.
Here are key takeaways from two weeks of hearings.
THIS FOR THAT
In the most anticipated testimony, Gordon Sondland, the European Union ambassador, repeatedly described the administration’s dealings with Ukraine as a quid pro quo — one thing in return for another.
“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a `quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” Sondland said.
The deal, he said, involved arranging a White House visit for Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in return for Zelenskiy’s announcing investigations of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, and a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Democrat Joe Biden’s son Hunter was a Burisma board member.
That proposed arrangement was pushed by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, who conveyed Trump’s wishes to multiple administration officials.
But in testimony that Republicans sought to exploit, Sondland said no one ever told him military aid to Ukraine was contingent on the country announcing investigations — though he said he came to presume that was the case.
‘EVERYONE WAS IN THE LOOP’
Sondland was central to Trump’s efforts to secure investigations by Ukraine.
But he insisted that this was no rogue effort, and he would not be a fall guy. He testified how officials across the government were aware of Trump’s demand that Ukraine commit to the investigations.
Those officials, he said, included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the White House’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
“Everyone,” Sondland said repeatedly, “was in the loop. It was no secret.” That also included Vice President Mike Pence, he said.
Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, disputed that account and said that Pence never spoke with Sondland “about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations.”
In Brussels, Pompeo dismissed Sondland’s testimony, but didn’t comment on specifics.
‘DOMESTIC POLITICAL ERRAND’
Fiona Hill, a former White House adviser and Russia expert, recounted a tense relationship with Sondland. If other people were supportive of the ambassador’s efforts, Hill very certainly was not among them.
Her testimony vividly outlined the diverging objectives of Trump’s official staff and parallel effort led by Giuliani that also involved Sondland.
“He was being involved in a domestic political errand,” Hill said of Sondland, “and we were being involved in national security foreign policy.”
In one June blowup, when Hill confronted Sondland over his assertion that he was in charge of Ukraine policy, he replied that Trump had given him authority. She was angry and irritated over the lack of coordination and warned him that “this is all going to blow up.”
“And,” she pointedly added, “here we are.”
WHAT DID UKRAINE KNOW, AND WHEN DID IT KNOW IT?
Sondland’s appearance dominated the day, but a Defense Department official named Laura Cooper provided her own subtly tantalizing testimony.
She revealed that Ukrainian Embassy officials had asked about military aid on July 25, earlier than previously known. That could undercut a Republican argument that there couldn’t have been a quid pro quo involving military aid because the Ukrainians didn’t know that the aid was being held up
She said she also has been recently informed that a Ukrainian Embassy contact had asked a member of her staff that same day “what was going on” with the aid.
The July 25 date is significant: it’s the same day Trump spoke by phone with Zelenskiy and pressed for an investigation of Joe Biden.
Cooper told lawmakers she "cannot say for certain" that Ukraine knew the money was being withheld, but she said “it's the recollection of my staff that they likely knew."
‘IT’S LIEUTENANT COLONEL VINDMAN, PLEASE’
With those words, Alexander Vindman, an Army officer and Purple Heart recipient, sought to shut down Republican attacks on his credibility.
Republicans went after him, nonetheless.
Republican Rep. Chris Stewart called Vindman’s uniform a good reminder of his military service but also questioned why Vindman felt it necessary to wear it rather than a suit.
He wanted to know, too, if Vindman always insisted on being referred to by military rank rather than “Mr.” as he did in an exchange earlier with Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee’s top Republican. In that moment, he corrected Nunes and asked to be called “Lt. Col. Vindman, please.”
The committee attacks mirrored the combative approach of the White House, which used its official Twitter account to retweet attacks on Vindman, who continues to work at the White House.
Some Republican attacks struggled to land. After Rep. Jim Jordan suggested that Vindman’s peers questioned his judgment, Vindman read from a glowing performance review that called him “brilliant” and “unflappable.”
Other attacks, including from the White House’s director of social media, sought to imply that Vindman, a naturalized American citizen who was a toddler when his family fled Ukraine, may have dual loyalties.
Under questioning from GOP impeachment counsel Steve Castor, Vindman revealed that he was offered three times the post of Ukraine’s defense minister while attending Zelenskiy’s inauguration, but “immediately dismissed these offers.” He says he notified his chain of command and counterintelligence officials upon returning to the U.S.
Castor questioned whether that created the impression of a conflict, to which Vindman replied, “It's more important what my American chain of command thinks.”
The testimony of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who last spring was abruptly recalled from Kyiv and directed to return home on the next possible flight, was barely underway when Trump ridiculed her on Twitter, saying without evidence that things “turned bad” wherever she went during her decades-long career.
Yovanovitch left no doubt that she interpreted some of the Trump’s cryptic comments about her — “she’s going to go through some things,” he told Ukraine’s president in the July phone call — in the most chilling way.
“It didn’t sound good,” she said. “It sounded like a threat.”
She said the effect of the president’s comments “is very intimidating” not just for her but for others who might be similarly inclined root out corruption.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, read Trump’s tweet to Yovanovitch and suggested it was part of a campaign of “witness intimidation.”
“Well, I want to let you know, Ambassador, that some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously.”
Trump, asked about it later, said, “I have the right to speak. I have freedom of speech.”
THE BIG STUFF’
The July 26 lunch on an outdoor terrace in a Kyiv restaurant started out social enough. There was a bottle of wine and affable chatter about marketing strategies for Sondland’s hotel business.
Then, according to David Holmes, a counselor at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, Sondland said he was going to call Trump to give him an update. The conversation Holmes overheard was loud — and memorable.
At one point, Holmes said, he heard Sondland tell Trump that Zelenskiy “loves your ass.”
“I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’ Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it.’” He said Sondland told Trump that Zelenskiy will do “anything you ask him to.”
When the call ended, Holmes said he asked Sondland if it was true that Trump did not “give a s--t about Ukraine.” Sondland said that it was indeed the case.
“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.”
The British-born Hill is a Russia expert who’s written extensively on the Kremlin, and she made that clear from the outset when she scolded Republican lawmakers for propagating what she said was a “fictional narrative” — that somehow Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Those discredited theories have been advanced by Trump himself, who in a July 25 phone call at the center of the impeachment inquiry asked Ukraine’s leader to investigate the possibility.
Hill said the unwillingness by some to accept Russia’s role has profound consequences at a time when Russia’s security services have “geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election.” Putin, she said, deploys millions of dollars to “weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives.”
“When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each another, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy,” Hill said.
At another point, she implored impeachment investigators — and the country at large — to stop advancing fictions that she said distract from the attention needed to fight Russian interference.
“In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” Hill said.
“IT WAS CRAZY”
On the first day of hearings, Democrats called on Bill Taylor, a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran and career diplomat who was recruited out of retirement to serve as a top diplomat in Ukraine.
Taylor was unsparing, and colorful, in his characterization of making military aid to Ukraine contingent on the country announcing investigations into the 2016 U.S. election.
He was presented with oversized images of a September text message exchange with two other envoys in which he said it would be “crazy” to withhold military assistance to Ukraine in exchange for that nation investigating Trump’s political rival.
Those text messages were the among the first documentary pieces of evidence to become public as part of the House impeachment inquiry and established not only the possible contours of a quid pro quo but also laid bare diplomatic concerns about the Trump administration’s dealings with Ukraine.
“It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do, Taylor said. “It was illogical, it could not be explained, it was crazy.”
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