Trump Impeachment inquiry
More embarrassment awaits Trump and the Republicans
The second week of the formal impeachment inquiry is about to begin, even as President Trump’s defenders are finding his defence increasingly hard to make. But still worse for the president seems likely to be coming along in the days ahead.
It seems incredible, but we have only been through just two days of the open congressional hearings of a formal impeachment inquiry in the US House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee. There have been just three witnesses offering public testimony so far. They have been Bill Taylor, the current chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Kyiv; George Kent, the incumbent deputy assistant secretary of state who deals with Ukraine; and Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador who had unceremoniously been summoned back from her posting in Kyiv via a late-night phone call – before some very bad things happened to her, as the messaging had said.
In his testimony, Taylor had criticised the effort to trade an investigation into the Bidens for release of weapons, explaining, “As I said on the phone,” (Taylor had written in an electronic text to a colleague), “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Don’t expect a welcome to the White House for dinner after a public comment like that one.
The narrative that has been playing out, live, on television, has become increasingly clear. Effectively, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the real story is a US president who – via various communications and envoys – has persistently been pressing the newly elected Ukrainian president to open visible, public investigations into the former US vice-president, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter, over the former’s role in getting a corrupt prosecutor removed from office, and the latter’s circumstances in taking a board seat on the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma.
The elder Biden, of course, had been seen as the most likely Democratic opponent in the 2020 election against Donald Trump, and the plan that was hatched seems to have been that a taint like this would probably wreck Biden’s electoral chances, and thereby make the Democratic competition and their party’s eventual presidential campaign even more chaotic than it already is.
These investigations, announced publicly by the Ukrainians, would then open the gates for urgently needed military equipment from the US to combat Russian and Russian-supported rebels in eastern Ukraine. Additionally, it would lock in a much-desired (by Ukraine, at least) warm, friendly meeting between the two presidents in the White House.
In a kind of synch with this tawdriness, Trump’s private attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and several of his Mafia goombah-style Eastern Europeans, had been scheming to get the US ambassador Marie Yovanovitch removed from office, in light of her staunch anti-corruption credentials and opposition to the thieves who had been in place earlier. Their effort was also, presumably, designed to open up some nicely remunerative opportunities for Giuliani and his pals in the ensuing confusion.
As part of this, Giuliani and his crew had been feeding the US president’s love of a wild, thoroughly debunked, deeply wacko conspiracy theory that nefarious Ukrainian operatives – operating in cahoots with the Democratic Party and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton – had engaged in the cyber-hacking of the Democrats’ online presence. They had worked with a little-known cyber-security company, Crowdfire, in carrying out this scheme, and they had somehow spirited one of the Democratic National Committee servers – that very grey box that could have provided proof positive of this sneaky, evil plot – into some secret location in Ukraine. Then, somehow, they, those dastardly Ukrainians, had contrived to put the blame for all of this on to those poor, innocent Russians.
All of this faux-Ukraine blame-game swashbuckling was pushed despite those extensive investigations carried out by the US intelligence establishment. Those had unanimously concluded that this cyber-warfare, hacking, and disinformation campaign was undeniably a Russian project – not the Ukrainians, not by aliens, and not in candidate Trump’s infamous deflection that it could have been a 600-pound guy sitting on his bed in Jersey City.
But, then, right in the midst of Marie Yovanovitch’s testimony before the congressional committee, the president took to Twitter to slander the diplomat, almost certainly with the joint purposes of besmirching her reputation even further, and attempting to intimidate any future witnesses to the committee from being less than effusive over Donald Trump. Given that he had been silent during the rather damning testimony from Taylor and Kent, some observers pointed to his attack on Yovanovitch as yet another example of his well-documented misogyny.
Or, as Mary Jong-Fast wrote for The Atlantic over the weekend:
“On the second day of the impeachment proceedings, President Donald Trump couldn’t control himself on Twitter: He lashed out at Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who was subjected to a smear campaign, and who testified to that effect before the House Intelligence Committee. Trump’s lack of control, in itself, was not unusual. But, for some reason, Trump showed more restraint 24 hours earlier, when William Taylor and George Kent went before the Committee.
“But why was the president’s response so different to witnesses who were roughly saying the same thing? What was the big difference between Kent and Taylor and Yovanovitch? All three are career diplomats, all three are Ivy League graduates, all three have worked in the State Department, all three are experts in Ukraine. But only one of them is a woman. Could that be why the president singled out Yovanovitch? It is almost as if the president is unable to control his rage against women. It is almost as if the president thinks he can bully women and silence them.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the president’s Friday was no easier. In a stunning outcome to the trial of Trump’s long-time associate, enforcer, and veteran dirty trickster, Roger Stone was convicted of all the counts in an indictment that included such injudicious activities as witness tampering and obstruction of justice (Stone’s indictment had originally come from charges arising in the Mueller inquiry).
Among other tasks, Stone was apparently the go-between for the candidate’s campaign team with WikiLeaks (the actual purveyor of the stolen Democratic Party emails). Facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life as an involuntary guest of the government, there is the tantalising possibility Stone may have some seriously embarrassing things to say about illegal acts by the Trump team, in trade for some reduced sentencing.
In the midst of all this, David Holmes, the head of the US embassy’s political section in Kyiv, had testified behind closed doors, also on that Friday. As The Guardian reported it:
“Donald Trump personally kept up pressure on Ukraine to carry out investigations he had requested in a phone call with a senior US diplomat, who then observed the president did not ‘give a shit’ about Ukraine and only cared about what would benefit him politically, according to dramatic new testimony in congressional impeachment hearings.
“In a deposition to the House committees investigating the Ukraine scandal, David Holmes, a diplomat at the US embassy in Kyiv, described an extraordinary phone call between Trump and the US ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, on 26 July. It was the day after Trump had spoken to the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, requesting a ‘favour’ and suggesting the Ukrainians investigate former vice-president Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter.
“Sondland placed the 26 July call to Trump from a Kyiv restaurant, where he was having lunch with Holmes and two other US colleagues. According to Holmes, Trump was speaking so loudly that Sondland ‘held the phone away from his ear for a period of time’. Sondland, a wealthy hotelier who donated $1m to Trump’s inauguration celebration, assured Trump that Zelensky ‘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”,’ adding that Zelensky will do “anything you ask him to”’, Holmes testified in his opening statement to House investigators, which was leaked to US media. After the call, Holmes asked Sondland about the president’s feelings about Ukraine, asking if it was true that Trump ‘did not give a shit’ about Ukraine.
“Holmes recalled: ‘Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not “give a shit about Ukraine”. I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about “big stuff ”.’”
The coming two weeks will almost certainly prove no less difficult for the president. Even before the new week began, the committee had heard closed-door testimony from Mark Sandy, a long-time career staffer of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), crucial because that was the office that carried out the blockage of the funds that had already been appropriated for the weapons to Ukraine.
Politico reported on that testimony, saying:
“Mark Sandy’s closed-door appearance alone was a breakthrough for Democrats, who have struggled to obtain testimony about what other officials have described as an order by the president to withhold the U.S. military assistance meant for Ukraine. Democrats have blamed the nagging mystery on an all-out blockade by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which has fought relentlessly to spurn requests and subpoenas seeking documents and witness testimony.
“Sandy is a career non-political official at OMB and is expected to face questions about why the congressionally appropriated military aid was halted and how the decision was implemented — two key blind spots for Democratic investigators as they seek to make the case that Trump ordered the hold on the military aid and refused a White House meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky until the country would publicly commit to investigations of Trump’s political rivals, in particular former Vice President Joe Biden.”
His testimony, so far, is not taking place in public, but the availability of his statement’s text seems guaranteed, especially as it can point directly to the president’s hand in the OMB “hold” on the funds.
But this is only the beginning. Coming on Tuesday 19 November, Jennifer Williams (a State Department official advising the vice-president’s office) and Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman (a National Security Council staffer) will appear. Vindman has already given his deposition about troubling aspects of the president’s decision-making, based on his listening in to the phone call between the two presidents, as part of his duties.
Naturally, Trump allies have spent time impugning Vindland’s honesty, patriotism and judgment. Then, on the same day, Kurt Volker (the former US special representative to Ukraine) and Tim Morrison (a former National Security Council staffer) will also testify in public, having already given closed-door testimony.
Then, on Wednesday, US Ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, will testify in the morning, along with Defense Department official Laura Cooper, and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale. Sondland seems key in all of this. He is the political appointee who had insinuated himself successfully into becoming a key figure in Ukraine policy for the Trump administration. After originally telling the committee, in-camera, what might be politely termed a kind of fairytale, he has already dialled back his insistence that all was perfect with the president, vis-à-vis Ukraine, following that first week of open testimony.
Given Yovanovitch and Holmes’ testimony, it seems a reasonable bet Sondland will be edging his comments into even closer conformity with everything else now in the public record. In this matter, Roger Stone’s fate may well have an impact on how Sondland tries to position himself with the truth, without cutting his ties to the administration completely. Still later in the week, the former National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill is also scheduled to testify.
Meanwhile, the dynamics in the committee, in full view of the public, have also been astonishing. While chairman Adam Schiff has run the hearings with a firm hand on the tiller, and an absolute leash on his temper, the designated attack dogs for the Republicans, Congressmen Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes, have shouted, fulminated, roared, eye-rolled, arm-waved, and raised their respective blood pressure numbers so much, it wouldn’t really be surprising if they started to writhe on the floor, speak in tongues, and then, as a finale, spontaneously self-combust.
The problem is that they and the rest of the president’s defenders have been dealt a pretty poor hand. The best they can lean on now is the undisputed presidential power to appoint envoys at his discretion; that no one, so far, has been able to testify they saw the president directly restrict weapons deliveries in exchange for his explicit demands for those investigations (although the White House has prevented any of the logical witnesses to that very question from testifying); that the president’s behaviour was dreadful, but not quite to the level of impeachment; or that, per Senator Lindsey Graham, the president and White House are simply too incompetent to restrict weapons to Ukraine, without those desired investigations of the Bidens.
No Republican, meanwhile, has lifted his or her voice to champion those aid restrictions – or pretty much anything else of substance. For them, the next few weeks will only become more awkward and more embarrassing.
For Democrats, they seem almost certain to gain a positive vote on articles of impeachment from the full House of Representatives. However, they do not, yet, appear to have enough Republican senatorial defectors with a functioning gag reflex to come close to the number Democrats will need to achieve a conviction of the president in the Senate. DM