It was the week when private testimony became public transcripts. And even though many details had leaked beforehand, the release of the damaging impeachment inquiry depositions was brutal for President Donald Trump and his Republican defenders. With public testimony from key witnesses scheduled to begin next week, and the scandal growing ever closer to the West Wing, where does the White House strategy go from here?
We asked our reporters covering the presidency and the impeachment fight to shed some light on what just happened, and what lies ahead.
What did you take away from the release this week of transcripts of closed door interviews and what did we learn that was new?
Natasha Bertrand, national security correspondent: The testimony was consistent and largely damaging. The witnesses whose transcripts were released — Bill Taylor, George Kent, Fiona Hill, Alexander Vindman, Marie Yovanovitch and Michael McKinley — all testified that President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was circumventing normal diplomatic channels to pressure Ukraine into launching political investigations that would be beneficial to the president. The witnesses also all expressed alarm that military aid to Ukraine had been withheld, and that the funds appeared to be at the center of a quid-pro-quo — money for investigations.
Much of this testimony had already leaked out prior to the release of the transcripts. But one thing that jumped out at me was the testimony of Vindman, a top National Security Council specialist on Ukraine, who said that he heard as early as June that a hold may have been placed on the aid — far earlier than the July 18 date that has been reported. He also testified that a top Ukrainian official began asking him about the aid in mid-August, debunking Trump and his allies’ claim that there couldn’t have a quid-pro-quo with the funds because the Ukrainains didn’t know about the freeze.
Nancy Cook, White House reporter: I’m always looking for the White House angle of any story, so what became apparent to me from this week’s transcripts was how much the Ukraine scandal was centered in the West Wing. Both Hill and Vindman’s testimony directly implicated acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney in the hold-up of funds to Ukraine, calling it a quid pro quo. (Mulvaney allies have long feared he could become Trump’s fall guy, and Friday’s release bolstered that theory and undercut Mulvaney, who is not Trump’s favorite staffer right now.)
The transcripts also laid out how helpful former National Security Adviser John Bolton could be to the Democrats if he ends up cooperating with investigators. His name keeps emerging in key anecdotes as a top foreign policy player, who was horrified about the shadow foreign policy on Ukraine. The public transcripts teased that idea out even more.
Sarah Ferris, congressional reporter: The public rollout of the transcripts this week — all 1,000+ pages of them — is so damaging for Trump and his defenders that it’s hard to pick the most damning account. In my mind, the most explosive testimony comes from Gordon Sondland, the EU ambassador who admitted for the first time that he personally told top Ukrainian officials that U.S. aid would be contingent on investigations requested by Trump — revising his own testimony from last month.
Natasha’s right; we did know a lot of these details already. But it’s hard to overstate the importance of these statements being on the record, and how helpful they could be for Democrats to tout over the next few weeks.
Marianne LeVine, congressional reporter: Sondland’s revised testimony stood out the most to me, and seemed to help solidify House Democrats’ case for a quid pro quo. As my colleagues have noted, we already knew many of the key details in the testimony released. One theme that emerged was the damning portrayal witnesses provided of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s State Department. Former Ukrainian Ambassador Maria Yovanovitch told impeachment investigators that she felt threatened by the president, while Michael McKinley, a former adviser to Pompeo, said he resigned over the politicization of the State Department. Will this have any effect on Pompeo’s political future?
Another takeaway from this week is that the depositions so far do not appear to be swaying Senate Republicans, who will decide Trump’s fate in an impeachment trial. Many told us they had not read the depositions and when asked about Sondland’s testimony, several said the White House’s release of its summary of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was enough for them.
As the Democrats approach next week’s first public hearings, what changes in strategy do you expect?
Sarah Ferris: Lawmakers and aides are more convinced than ever that the House will vote on impeachment before Christmas. It’s brought a somber mood to the caucus, with Democrats feeling immense pressure to get the process right. One thing on their minds: How can they handle the public phase of their investigation better than the Mueller probe?
Democratic leaders are working hard to avoid what they saw as the Mueller investigation’s shortcomings: too bogged down in process and easily swallowed by Trump, with the public unconvinced of wrongdoing. This time, Democrats are trying to equip their members with a much clearer focus and a deeper sense of unity as they approach this historic vote. Top Democrats are holding many more caucus-wide briefings and conference calls, as well as individual meetings where Pelosi can hear directly from certain groups, like endangered Dems.
Natasha Bertrand: The impeachment resolution passed in the House late last month set up a structure that departs from the House’s usual practice. The new rules allow for the chair and ranking member of the Intelligence Committee to take as long as 45 minutes each at the beginning of each hearing to question witnesses or direct their staff to. After that, the structure goes back to the regular five-minute, Democrat-Republican back-and-forth. The changes were presumably made in an effort to avoid the kind of disjointed hearings the House Judiciary Committee held earlier this summer, with members interrupting each other every five minutes to begin a new line of questioning and breaking the momentum. Now, Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes will have longer periods of uninterrupted questioning. Also, Nunes will only be able to call witnesses that have Schiff’s sign-off.
Nancy Cook: Democrats are making next week’s hearings public and live on TV. That will kill the key Republican talking point that these proceedings have been conducted in secret in some alleged nefarious way. (More than 45 House Republican members have had access to the closed door testimonies. Now everyone can read the transcripts!) The challenge for Democrats now is to keep the storyline simple, and the public engaged.
They also have to contend with President Trump’s huge megaphone — that prolific Twitter feed — as he narrates his own version of the impeachment proceedings.
Marianne LeVine: Nancy makes a good point that the public impeachment will hurt a key Republican talking point. It will be interesting to see how Senate Democrats handle the latest impeachment revelations. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has largely deferred to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and has emphasized the importance of not reaching a predetermined conclusion before the Senate takes up impeachment. He is, like many Senate Democrats, trying to avoid seeming overtly political.
The White House has seemed quiet this week on the impeachment front, apart from the president’s Twitter feed. What can we expect from Republicans next week as the Democrats start the public portion of impeachment?
Natasha Bertrand: A lot of Trump tweets, and perhaps a fresh round of pleas to GOP lawmakers to go on the offensive on behalf of the president. But there hasn’t been a unified, cohesive messaging strategy so far — the Republican defense from the GOP has ranged from “Trump was too incompetent to pull off a quid-pro-quo,” to “quid-pro-quos are not impeachable” — so it remains to be seen whether anything will emerge before Wednesday.
Nancy Cook: Trump will live Tweet them — or at least, that is the bet of several White House advisers and allies. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell what West Wing aides will do. They have had a hard time constructing a single narrative to fight back against impeachment. This week, they just hired two advisers and communications specialists to bolster their response, so we’ll have to see if that presence makes a difference. So far, Trump is largely dictating the strategy day-to-day and carrying it out by himself, and he is frustrated that more Republicans are not out there defending him. That includes his White House staff, lawmakers, and Republican members of the legal community.
Marianne LeVine: I would expect continued White House outreach to Senate Republicans. The public portion of the impeachment inquiry will be a new test for Republicans, who have attacked House Democrats for holding closed-door hearings. Public hearings are harder to ignore than depositions. Expect Trump’s loudest defenders in the Senate, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), to keep attacking the process and to ignore the hearings. I’ll be curious to see if public hearings affect any members of the GOP caucus who may feel pressure to distance themselves from the White House. Or will Republicans continue to use the line that they need to remain impartial jurors and decline to comment?
How are the Senate leaders preparing for a potential impeachment trial? McConnell and Schumer have yet to hammer out how the Senate will deal with an impeachment inquiry. In a partisan setting- is it going to be a problem to even agree on basic procedure? How is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump’s relationship right now?
Natasha Bertrand: I’ll leave the procedural questions to my Hill colleagues, but will just note that McConnell appears to have already made up his mind on how he’d vote, telling reporters this week that if a trial were held “today,” it would undoubtedly not lead to Trump’s removal. The biggest thing to watch after the public hearings will obviously be whether the diplomats’ and officials’ testimonies move the dial at all on impeachment and removal among the broader public, which could ultimately put pressure on Senate Republicans.
Marianne LeVine: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made it clear the Senate will hold an impeachment trial. But both he and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have yet to sit down and hash out what the process surrounding a trial will look like. How long will the trial last? Which witnesses will be called in? What type of evidence can be used? This could get complicated given that the rules proposal can be amended on the Senate floor. Schumer told POLITICO he didn’t see any reason why he and McConnell wouldn’t come to an agreement. But already we know that partisanship is inevitable. McConnell said this week that there’s no question that if the impeachment trial were held today, the Senate would acquit Trump — a remark Schumer described as “over the line.”
Trump knows he’s going to need goodwill from McConnell and Senate Republicans as the impeachment trial moves forward. So far, the relationship between the Majority Leader and Trump seems solid. Despite some disagreement on foreign policy issues, McConnell and Trump this week celebrated reaching a milestone for both of them — confirming a record number of judges to the federal judiciary.
Sarah Ferris: No doubt this will be a huge decision for McConnell and Schumer. Process and procedure matter so much in Washington, and the way the trial is conducted will shape the way the public understands the case. What witnesses should be called? What evidence should be examined? These ground rules will also set the tone for the proceedings overall, which could even influence whether any GOP senators are truly willing to buck Trump on what could be the biggest political decision of their careers. Still, it’s too early for this conversation to happen, with bigger things occupying the two leaders (like a potential government shutdown this month).
Nancy Cook: President Trump is being very, very deferential to the Senate right now. He knows that his political fate rests in the hands of the Senate, with a potential impeachment trial and vote, so he’s heeding McConnell’s advice, calling senators directly, having them to the White House for lunch. This is big-time wooing. So far, it looks like it is paying off with the majority of Republican senators sticking by him on impeachment.
How are Republicans handling the whistleblower? We’ve seen some attempts to unmask his identity but others are saying we should follow the law. This is one area where we’re seeing a minor distance from Trump.
Natasha Bertrand: The transcripts released this week show a concerted effort to get witnesses, particularly Vindman, to reveal who they spoke to in the intelligence community, presumably as a way to get the name of the suspected whistleblower, who is believed to work at the CIA, into the record. At one point during George Kent’s deposition, the GOP’s chief counsel directly named the suspected whistleblower. Republicans in the Senate have broadly been more cautious, with the notable exception of Senator Rand Paul who has Trump’s ear on national security and foreign policy issues.
Marianne LeVine: Republicans seem to agree that the whistleblower should come forward and testify. But there is some divide over whether the identity of the whistleblower should be publicly released. Conservative news outlets have suggested they know who the whistleblower is – and some Republican senators are listening. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called on the media this week to release the identity of the whistleblower and suggested he might even out the whistleblower himself. But many of his Senate colleagues, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) disagree. When asked about President Donald Trump and Paul’s calls to release the name of whistleblower, several Republican senators said that laws protecting whistleblowers must be followed.
Nancy Cook: President Trump would love to umask the whistleblower and then start to attack that person’s credentials, work history, government service, etc. through social media as a means of weakening the Democrats’ impeachment argument. Win at all costs is a basic Trump mantra! But White House people, honestly, are too exhausted by the constant onslaught of news to talk much about the whistleblower’s identity. (They instead like to gossip about personnel comings-and-goings).
Ivanka Trump did say a noteworthy thing on Friday when she cast the whistleblower’s identity as irrelevant in an interview from her trip to Morocco. Instead she said we should just focus on that person’s potential motives — or the fact that Democrats have been wanting to impeach Trump since he was first elected. It is rare for her to publicly show daylight between herself and her father.
Sarah Ferris: House Republicans have barely been able to restrain themselves from outing the identity of the whistleblower, especially as Trump stepped up his calls for someone — anyone — to reveal the name. There was even speculation last week that Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) would use a floor speech devoted to the whistleblower as a chance to drop the name, with reporters tuning in to see if he would dare to do it. It didn’t pan out, though days earlier, Gohmert took the mic during a House Natural Resources Committee to drop the name in a string of questions very unrelated to natural resources.
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