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Impeachment news roundup: Nov. 20

Testimony from Laura Cooper contradicts Republican argument that Ukraine did not know about the hold on security aid

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testifies during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testifies during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Ukraine Laura Cooper told the House Intelligence Committee Wednesday evening that Ukrainian Embassy staff in August were aware of the White House’s hold on military assistance to Kyiv.

Cooper’s testimony ran counter to a key Republican argument about the July phone call between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and President Donald Trump — that Ukraine did not know about the hold on security aid.

She told lawmakers that her staff received an inquiry from the Ukranian Embassy asking about the status of the funds on the afternoon of July 25. On a phone call earlier that morning, Trump had asked Zelenskiy to pursue investigations into Burisma and, in turn, the Bidens.

“On July 25th, a member of my staff got a question from a Ukrainian Embassy contact asking what was going on with Ukraine security assistance,” Cooper testified.

She says learned this new information from staff after her closed-door testimony and the release of her deposition transcript.

Committee member Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said that Cooper’s new testimony “destroys two of the pillars of the president’s defense and one justification for his conduct.”

The committee resumed Wednesday evening with testimony from Cooper and David Hale, the undersecretary of State for political affairs. Earlier Wednesday Ambassador to the European Union provided testimony.

The scheduling is expected to be tight for the evening session because the Democratic presidential debate is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m.  

The evening session included extended rounds of questioning by House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, ranking member Devin Nunes or their counsel ahead of members’ five-minute allotments to question Cooper and Hale. 

Sondland told the committee earlier Trump directed him to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Ukrainian energy company Burisma and, in turn, the Bidens.

Here is the latest on the impeachment inquiry:

End it: Touring an Apple plant in Texas, Trump said Sondland’s testimony should mean the impeachment inquiry is “over.”

“I think it was fantastic,” POTUS said. “They have to end it now. There was no quid pro quo. The president did absolutely nothing wrong.”

A round of applause: The earlier session concluded with a monologue from Schiff that garnered applause from people in the committee room.

“I will say this on the president’s behalf. I do not believe that the president would allow himself to be led by the nose by Rudy Giuliani or Ambassador Sondland or anybody else,” Schiff said in his closing statement. “I believe Trump was the one making those decisions, not anyone else.”

Sondland recap:Nunes began his questioning of Sondland on Wednesday by highlighting instances where former Ukrainian government officials disparaged Trump during his 2016 campaign and allegedly sought to boost Hillary Clinton.

Nunes and his fellow House Republicans have argued that Trump fervently believed Ukrainians are “all corrupt” and that he had legitimate cause to request that the new Ukrainian government launch anti-corruption investigations into allegations of wrongdoing by Democrats during the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

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The Trump donor and appointee stressed that the president never directly told him U.S. military aid to Ukraine was contingent upon politically motivated investigations. But he testified, among other new revelations, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed off on the pressure campaign.

Multiple impeachment witnesses, including Trump-appointed national security and diplomatic officials, have said the president’s conspiracy theories about collusion between Ukraine and Democrats during the 2016 election have no merit. Neither do insinuations of wrongdoing by the Bidens, they have said.

Nonetheless, Nunes persisted with that narrative.

“We want to know exactly … who are these Democratic operatives that were dirtying up the Trump campaign in 2016” by relying on Ukrainian information sources, Nunes said Wednesday.

Former Ukrainian government officials “tried to take me down” in the 2016 election, Trump claimed in a May 23 meeting in which he directed Sondland and special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker to collaborate with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on a parallel foreign policy toward Ukraine, Sondland told lawmakers last month in his closed-door testimony.

Giuliani’s shadow foreign policy operation centered on a quid pro quo pressuring Zelenskiy to launch investigations into Trump’s domestic political rivals in exchange for a bilateral White House meeting between the two presidents, Sondland testified Wednesday. And in a September phone call, Sondland told an adviser to Zelenskiy that Ukraine would “likely” need to announce the investigations to trigger the release of a $391 million military aid package to the country to help fight Russian troops in its eastern Donbass region that the Trump administration froze in mid-July.

Going in circles: Sondland reacted strongly to pressure from New York Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney on who would benefit from an investigation into the Bidens.

“Mr. Maloney, I have been very forthright and I resent what you’re trying to do here,” Sondland said.

Maloney chastised Sondland, saying it took lawmakers three tries to get him to be forthcoming, in reference to his revised closed-door testimony and repeated claims that he cannot recall answers.

“With all due respect, we got a dandy of a statement this morning. And it took a lot to get it out of you,” Maloney said.

As Maloney’s questioning continued, Sondland grew increasingly frustrated.

“I am not going around in circles with you. Be clear what you’re asking me,” Sondland said.

Dodging figs: Sondland dodged questions from Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., about whether Trump doesn’t give a “fig” about Ukraine, except for “big stuff” that benefits him personally, as Sondland allegedly told an embassy aide during a visit to Kyiv. Himes repeatedly used fig as a stand-in for an expletive starting with “f.”

Himes read from State Department offical David Holmes’ deposition transcript in which he recounted a conversation with Sondland on July 26.

“[Holmes’s] statement, ‘Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not give a fig’ — not the word used — ‘about Ukraine’ — is that a statement you might make? Do you believe that the president doesn’t give a fig about Ukraine?” Himes asked.

“I think that’s too strong,” Sondland said. “The president was down on Ukraine for the reasons mentioned.”

Himes returned to the question again a moment later.

“I’m asking you what you believe right now — that the president doesn’t give a fig about Ukraine and in fact, cares about the big stuff that benefits the president. Do you believe that now?” Himes asked.

“I really can’t opine. … I don’t understand your question. I want to answer your question. I just don’t understand,” Sondland said as Himes’ time ran out.

Holmes is scheduled to testify on Thursday in open session.

Sondland attacked: Committee member GOP Rep. Jim Jordan, like Republican staff questioner Stephen Castor did earlier, criticized Sondland him for not finding space in his 23-page opening to mention the call in which Trump said he was not seeking a quid pro quo from Ukraine. Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, criticized the way Sondland has testified, saying, “Not only are your answers somewhat circular, frequently you’ve contradicted yourself in your own answer.”

Under questioning from Turner, Sondland said that neither the president nor any other person told him that Trump had tied the aid to the investigations. Turner criticized him for testifying to a presumption without anyone having ever told him that, saying that he’s feeding into a false narrative that Democrats want to use to impeach Trump. 

Schiff said Republicans seem to believe that unless Trump said, “Ambassador Sondland, I am bribing the Ukrainian president,” that there’s no evidence of bribery. But Schiff said Sondland has actually provided a lot of evidence.

Seeking an apology: Giuliani lashed out at GOP attorney Castor, tweeting that he “doesn’t do his own research and preparation, and is instead picking up Democrat lies, shame.”

Trump’s personal attorney then added: “Allow me to inform him: I have NO financial interests in Ukraine, NONE! I would appreciate his apology.”

Plane to catch: Sondland had a flight booked, and his counsel requested that a 30-minute lunch break be shortened to ensure that he be able to make the trip.

Schiff did not agree to shorten the break.

‘Magic minutes’: Following the conclusion of GOP counsel questioning, Schiff added another 30-minute round of staff-led questioning for Sondland. Schiff tacked on time to a Tuesday hearing, as well, which is allowed within the rules governing the hearings, but Nunes called the additional time “magic minutes,” in an attempt to make Schiff appear unfair.

Twitter following: Giuliani appeared to be following Sondland’s testimony, as he tweeted that the ambassador “is speculating based on VERY little contact.”

“I never met him and had very few calls with him, mostly with Volker,” Giuliani said. “Volker testified I answered their questions and described them as my opinions, NOT demands. I.E., no quid pro quo!”

Comparing notes: Trump emerged from the White House nearly an hour behind schedule and read aloud from his own hearing notes, contending he told Sondland he wanted “nothing” from Ukraine’s new government and that the ambassador’s testimony clears him.

In a statement, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham echoed her boss’ conclusions, adding Democrats are “chasing ghosts.”

“Ambassador Sondland’s testimony made clear that in one of the few brief phone calls he had with President Trump, the President clearly stated that he ‘wanted nothing’ from Ukraine and repeated ‘no quid pro quo over and over again,’” Grisham said. “In fact, no quid pro quo ever occurred. The U.S. aid to Ukraine flowed, no investigation was launched, and President Trump has met and spoken with President Zelensky. Democrats keep chasing ghosts.”

Whistleblower protection: The impeachment inquiry spilled over Wednesday into an unrelated Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing, where senators pressed the Defense Department’s second-highest official about protections for witnesses and whistleblowers.

Three Amigos’ role: Sondland said the so-called Three Amigos — special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and himself — decided Ukraine needed high-level support while there was no sitting U.S. ambassador there and a new president was coming in. They cleared with national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney that they should continue working on Ukraine, he said.

“No one said ‘Back off of Ukraine, this is dangerous … there’s talk about a drug cocktail or something’ … I don’t remember anyone sounding any alarm bell,” he said.

Schiff felt the need later to clarify: “Nobody thinks they’re talking about a literal drug deal here, or a drug cocktail.”

Sondland, Volker and Perry were Giuliani’s primary foot soldiers pressuring Ukraine’s new president over the summer to open investigations into the former vice president and his son, and allegations of collusion between Democrats and Ukrainians in the 2016 election as the Trump administration withheld a $391 million military aid package from the country.

Volker testified Tuesday that he regretted that he did not realize that when the president referred to investigations into Ukrainian energy company Burisma, he was referring to investigations into the Bidens that would help him politically in the U.S.

Previous witnesses have testified that they told Sondland on multiple occasions that his comments to Ukrainian officials stressing the importance of those investigations to cement bilateral relations between the two governments were inappropriate.

In a potentially damaging admission, Sondland said he didn’t think Trump and Giuliani cared whether Ukraine actually conducted the investigations into 2016 and Burisma, just that Zelenskiy announced them.

“He had to announce the investigations. He didn’t have to do it as I understood it,” Sondland said.

The statement undercuts GOP claims that Trump was simply concerned about corruption and wanted the investigations to get to the bottom of that.

Confirmation: Sondland also confirmed in his opening statement that he talked to Trump on July 26, the day after the call between Trump and Zelenskiy, on a phone call overheard in a Kyiv restaurant.

Acting Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor told lawmakers in the first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry that one of his aides overheard Trump asking Sondland over the phone about the status of “the investigations” just a day after his July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy.

Taylor’s aide, State Department official David Holmes, gave a closed-door deposition late last week and is scheduled for a public hearing on Thursday.

Pushback: Vice President Mike Pence’s office pushed back on Sondland’s claim in his opening statement that he mentioned to Pence before bilateral meetings with the Ukrianians in Warsaw Sept. 1 “that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations.”

“The vice president never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations,” Pence Chief of Staff Marc Short said in a statement. “Ambassador Gordon Sondland was never alone with Vice President Pence on the September 1 trip to Poland. This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened.”

‘Right to the heart of the issue’: “Today’s testimony is among the most significant evidence to date,” Schiff said during a break before Republican members of the committee began questioning Sondland. “The knowledge of this scheme, this conditioning of the White House meeting, of the security assistance to get the deliverable the president wanted, these two political investigations that he believed would help his reelection campaign was a basic quid pro quo.

“It was a conditioning of official acts for something of great value to the president, these political investigations,” Schiff said. “It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery as well as other potential high crimes or misdemeanors.”

“We also have heard for the first time that knowledge of this scheme was pervasive. The secretary of State was aware of it, the acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney was aware of it and of course at the very top Donald Trump through his personal lawyer and others was implementing it,” Schiff said.

“We now can see, the veneer has been torn away, just why Secretary Pompeo and President Donald Trump do not want any of these documents provided to Congress, because apparently they show as Ambassador Sondland has testified that the knowledge of this scheme, to condition official acts, a White House meeting and $400 million in security assistance to an ally at war with Russia, was conditioned on political favors the president wanted for his reelection,” he said.

Four-letter words: Under questioning, Sondland backed up Holmes’ testimony that he told Trump on their July 26 call that Zelenskiy “loves your ass.”

“Sounds like something I would say,” he said. “That’s how President Trump and I communicate. A lot of four-letter words. In this case, three-letter.”

‘Everyone was in the loop’: Sondland said that high-level administration officials, including Pompeo and Mulvaney were in the loop about the efforts to get Zelenskiy to publicly announce investigations.

He said he sent an email on July 19 to Pompeo, Mulvaney and other senior officials after speaking with Zelenskiy saying that the Ukranian president was prepared to receive Trump’s call and “will assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone.’”

Mulvaney responded to the email, saying he asked the National Security Council to set up a call for the following day.

“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said.

Another attempt: Nunes and Jordan submitted an official written request to Schiff to subpoena Hunter Biden and the whistleblower who raised concerns about the July 25 Trump-Zelenskiy call.

It is unlikely that Democrats would honor the request, which they have rejected during hearings more than once.

What else did they talk about?: “It is true that the President speaks loudly at times. It is also true that we discussed A$AP Rocky,” Sondland said in his statement, referring to the American rapper who was jailed in Sweden. “It is true that the President likes to use colorful language,” Sondland said of the call.

He said the call did not strike him as significant at the time and that he does not recall discussing Hunter or Vice President Joe Biden on the call or after the call ended.

“I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations,” Sondland said.

Opening statements: Schiff in his opening statement  reminded Trump that one of the articles of impeachment drafted against Richard Nixon was for the former president’s failure to cooperate with House subpoenas. Schiff believes that documents being withheld by the State Department could shed light on the impeachment inquiry.

Nunes told Sondland, “You are here to be smeared. But you’ll make it through this.”

Radical left: Trump, about a half hour before Sondland testified, continued using the impeachment inquiry to criticize Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

He tweeted that she “will go down as the least productive Speaker of the House in history” and accusing her of being “dominated by AOC Plus 3 and the Radical Left,” a reference to the four female minority House Democratic first-year members with whom he has clashed.

Trump continued Wednesday alleging Pelosi is delaying House action on his proposed trade agreement with Canada and Mexico by moving ahead with the inquiry. “Mexico and Canada, after waiting for 6 months to be approved, are ready to flee — and who can blame them? Too bad!” he wrote.

But Pelosi and other top House Democrats say talks with administration officials about the proposed pact are close to a deal that could mean a vote before Christmas.

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