The past week of testimony in the impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump featured a host of damaging testimony. Week one saw House Democrats outline the case against the President, assembling the outer pieces of their proverbial jigsaw puzzle. Week two filled in many of the remaining pieces to give the American public a clear and comprehensive picture of their grievances against Trump. The testimonies of diplomats Marie Yovanovitch, William Taylor and George Kent largely contextualized the President’s offenses and chronicled the political sphere in which they occurred. Those that took the stand in Week Two possessed considerably more firsthand knowledge of the President’s alleged transgressions and put Trump damn near the center of all of it.
Donald Trump stands accused of withholding $400 million in Congressionally approved military assistance in an attempt to have Ukraine’s nascent democracy investigate political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter. During the elder Biden’s tenure as Vice President, Hunter served on the board of a Ukranian gas company, Burisma. Burisma is the largest natural gas producer in Ukraine and has been the subject of numerous charges of impropriety. Joe Biden, at the behest of President Obama and the international community persuaded Ukraine to remove its national prosecutor prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was seen to be lax on corruption and corrupt himself. No evidence of wrongdoing on the part of either Biden has emerged.
Last week included testimony from Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence. Both were on the now infamous July 25th call between Trump asked Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelensky. Vindman, considered the top Ukraine expert in the National Security Council, twice raised concerns to superiors about what he saw as irregularities in how Ukrainian foreign policy was being conducted. In a July 10th meeting with a Ukrainian delegation in which EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland was present, Vindman testified that Sondland repeatedly emphasized the need for the Eastern European country to initiate investigations into the Bidens. Vindman confronted him after the meeting, informing him ‘’his statements were inappropriate … had nothing to do with national security and were not something the NSC would get involved with.’’
Vindman again registered his concern to lawyers for the National Security Council following the July 25th call after hearing Trump say to Zelensky ‘’do us a favor though.’’ He noted the power one had over the other and that the implication of the ‘’request’’ was clear. Aside from the ethical dilemma, Vindman worried the move would result in the loss of support for Ukraine’s efforts to counter Russian aggression in their country and thereby undermine US national security. Vindman testified that he reported the call out of a sense of duty. After he filed a complaint, the record of the call was moved by the administration to a top-secret server exclusively reserved for sensitive matters of national security.
Williams took the stand alongside Vindman and played more of a supporting role. As a White House staffer, she was on the call taking notes and found the conversation ‘’unusual and inappropriate.’’ She observed that Trump’s ask of Zelensky seemed to only serve the President’s political purposes and not any broader foreign policy agenda. Williams noted that in May she had been told that the President had decided VP Pence would not attend Zelensky’s presidential inauguration. It is common practice that the president and vice president not be abroad at the same time, so that at least one of them is present in the event of a domestic crisis. That Trump declined to attend Zelensky’s inauguration and forbade Pence from doing so while the aid was on hold, further undermined the White House’s public support for a vulnerable ally. After hearing the call, Williams connected the two events and thought they may explain the otherwise-inexplicable hold on military aid.
Former Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and former NSC official Tim Morrison also took the stand last week. Volker testified when he heard the call (firsthand) he was initially unconcerned and didn’t think anything illegal was being discussed. While Trump did not mention Burisma on the call, he did bring up both Bidens and suggested their activity in Ukraine warranted investigation. Volker was aware of Rudy Giulani’s push to investigate Burisma, but did not make a connection between the two. He would come to reassess the situation and acknowledge he should have realized that investigating Burisma was tantamount to investigating the Bidens. Volker stated ‘’the former [would be] appropriate and unremarkable and the latter unacceptable.’’ ‘’In retrospect I should have seen the connection differently and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections’’ Volker told the committee.
Morrison was also initially unfazed by the July 25th call. But as time passed and aid remained on hold he grew increasingly concerned. He told the House investigators that Sondland spoke directly and regularly with the President and that Sondlad had told Ukrainian officials that military assistance was ‘’likely contingent upon launching investigations.
A main attraction of the Week 2 impeachment hearing was Gordon Sondland, EU Ambassador and Trump mega-donor. The previous testimony had featured officials on the peripheral of the extortion scheme. Sondland played an active role in the scheme and provided more details on what exactly happened before the House.
Throughout his testimony, Sondland made it clear that he and others begrudgingly worked with Rudy Giuliani at Trump’s direction. Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer, had been in Ukraine as early as May trying to have Ukrainian authorities investigate the Bidens. ‘’We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani … simply put, we were playing the hand we were dealt.’’ Sondland said the President never explicitly said that military aid and a White House meeting for Zelensky were not contingent upon investigations, he was ‘’under the impression that absolutely, [they were]. When asked point blank if a quid pro quo existed between the two parties, he testified ‘’ yes there was a quid pro quo.’’ He would go on to implicate Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney in the scheme. ‘’Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret’’ Sondland’s testimony corroborates the testimony of other witnesses and contradicts Trump, making him the witnesses closest to the President to implicate him in the scandal.
Week 2 concluded with the testimony of Fiona Hill and David Hale of the National Security Council and State Department, respectively. A popular defense of Trump has involved the Putin-backed conspiracy that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election. Hill began her testimony by refusing to even entertain such notions and stated that such assertions are harmful ‘’even when only employed for domestic political purposes.’’ Both witnesses stated that the link between Burisma and Biden was obvious, with Hill adding that she didn’t find it credible that Sondland didn’t see a link between the two. Hill testified about a meeting with Sondland where she learned of multiple channels of diplomacy towards Ukraine. One was run by career diplomats and sought to further US foreign policy, and the other run by Trump appointees and associates looking to bend Ukraine to the President’s will. She spoke to frustration with Sondland telling him ‘’this is all going to blow up. And here we are.’’ Hill outlined in detail how Trump enlisted the aid of his allies to pressure a weaker ally to acquiesce to his demands. Though she appeared as an impartial fact-witness, Hill made an impassioned statement against any president asking a foreign power from investigating a domestic political rival.
With the exception of Sondland, every witness who appeared before the House Intelligence Committee was a career government employee, called as a fact witness. The facts to which they testified confirmed the suspicions of wrongdoing that prompted the impeachment inquiry in the first place. Prior to their testimony, Trump maintained a whisper of deniability in the face of accusations he strong-armed Ukraine for personal political favor. After hearing what the witnesses before the House had to say, it is difficult to objectively examine the evidence and claim that Donald Trump is innocent of putting his own needs above that of the nation.
Unfortunately, that is just the tune the overwhelming majority of the President’s allies in the House and Senate are singing. Evidence mattered little to GOP House members involved in the series of hearings. Led by Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan, the Republican House members attacked the process and witnesses, and refused to take the process seriously. Most of the input from the right side of the aisle consisted of deflection and political rhetoric rather than a coherent defense of the President. Despite the damaging testimony unfolding before Republicans, a great many of them have refused to acknowledge anything was amiss or impeachable about Trump’s conduct. Rep. Nunes called the hearing ‘’a train wreck for [the Democrats]’’ as though he didn’t hear the chorus of witnesses implicating the President in a bribery scheme. The elected representatives tasked with judging Trump have to this point made it abundantly clear they are more concerned with their own re-elections than they are with objective consideration of the President’s offenses. Holding leaders accountable for abuses of office is fundamental to a functioning democracy. However, like Trump, most GOP Congressional members have prioritized their own interests over those of the nation.
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