The House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry has ripped open a rift running through Donald Trump’s three-year tenure as president: the divide between his political hires and the professional class of officials who make up the vast majority of the federal bureaucracy.
Several times, the president has blasted those supplying some of the most damning testimony as “Never Trumpers” — never mind that there’s scant evidence any of them have expressed political views.
The bulk of more than 100 hours and 3,500 pages of testimony, along with emails, text messages and the president’s own words and those of his chief of staff, thus far has indicated that Trump indeed withheld a White House visit, and then military aid, in exchange for a commitment by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation of his political foes.
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But Republicans have seized on the observations and recollections of others aligned with Trump as evidence that the Democrats leading the impeachment probe are exaggerating or misrepresenting the facts. As Democrats move the impeachment probe from fact-finding into the public persuasion phase, determining who is right about certain key episodes will be at the heart of the debate—especially as the president and his allies argue there was no quid pro quo in his diplomacy toward Ukraine.
It was a trio of political appointees — Gordon Sondland, the president’s ambassador to the European Union; Kurt Volker, his envoy to the Ukraine peace talks; and Rick Perry, his Energy secretary — who made up the “three amigos” who worked with Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani to, as they have described their motivations, change the president’s negative perceptions of Ukraine.
And it has been career officials — among them, the CIA whistleblower whose anonymous complaint kicked off the impeachment probe; Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman; Jennifer Williams, a Mike Pence aide on loan from the State Department; George Kent, a senior State Department official overseeing Ukraine policy; Ambassador William Taylor, the top diplomat in Kyiv; and Marie Yovanovitch, Taylor’s predecessor — who have sounded the alarm about Trump and Giuliani’s “shadow diplomacy” toward a U.S. ally locked in mortal combat with Russia.
The fault lines are most easily seen in the witnesses summoned to testify in open hearings this far: Democrats’ first public hearings last week featured Taylor, Kent and Yovanovitch and will continue this week with Sondland, Williams and Pentagon official Laura Cooper, among others. Republicans, meanwhile, have asked for an additional nine witnesses, only some of whom were greenlit by the majority, including Volker, National Security Council official Tim Morrison and Trump appointee David Hale.
Several of the witnesses have offered conflicting accounts or interpretations of certain events, making it difficult at times to render a conclusive judgment on who is right. Below are a few of the most prominent examples where key witnesses have differed:
A July 10 meeting at the White House
A meeting in John Bolton’s office with two Ukrainian officials—top Zelensky adviser Andriy Yermak and national security adviser Oleksandr Danyliuk—that was attended by former NSC official Fiona Hill, Vindman, Sondland and Volker has become a focal point of the impeachment inquiry because it solidified the White House officials’ suspicions that a shadow Ukraine policy was being pursued to push Trump’s political objectives, according to Hill and Vindman’s testimonies.
Bolton and his deputy Charles Kupperman, have so far declined to testify.
Kupperman had asked a federal judge to clarify the legal dispute between the legislative and executive branches, but his lawsuit was made moot when Congress withdrew its subpoena for him, citing time constraints.
Meanwhile, their shared lawyer, Chuck Cooper, told lawmakers that Bolton has knowledge of “many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed in the testimonies thus far” but won’t testify until a federal judge resolves the dispute between Congress and the White House.
Both Hill and Vindman told lawmakers that Bolton cut the meeting short when Sondland started discussing specific investigations Ukraine would need to launch in order to meet with Trump, but that Sondland continued the discussion in a later debriefing in the White House’s Ward Room that Bolton didn’t attend. Taylor also testified that Hill and Vindman briefed him on the meeting in Bolton’s office, and Sondland’s mention of investigations, in a call on July 19.
“Ambassador Sondland started to speak about Ukraine delivering specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with the president,” Vindman testified, “at which time Ambassador Bolton cut the meeting short … following this meeting, there was a scheduled debriefing during which Ambassador Sondland emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma.”
Hill testified that Sondland “started to basically talk about discussions that he had had with the chief of staff,” Mick Mulvaney. “He mentioned Mr. Giuliani, but then I cut him off because I didn’t want to get further into this discussion at all.”
She also brought up Volker directly when asked whether she personally heard Sondland mention Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. “Mr. Vindman was also there?” Hill was asked. “Correct,” she replied. “And Kurt Volker.”
Volker, though, testified that neither Giuliani nor investigations were mentioned during the meetings. “No,” he replied, when asked whether Giuliani’s activities in Ukraine or “anything about the investigations” was brought up.
Sondland testified that he doesn’t “remember” raising the issue of Burisma or mentioning investigations in either meeting. “I can’t say that the word ‘Burisma’ wasn’t mentioned,” he testified. “I don’t know if I mentioned it or if Ambassador Volker did or if Mr. Vindman — I have no idea.”
The July 25 call
The witnesses’ interpretations of the propriety of the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky, in which Trump specifically asked Zelensky to look into the Bidens and investigate potential Ukrainian interference in 2016, has varied as well, including within certain officials’ own depositions.
Morrison, a former Republican Senate staffer and arms-control specialist who was selected by Bolton to replace Hill as a top Europe and Russia adviser on the NSC, testified that he “was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed” on the call.
But he briefed White House lawyer John Eisenberg on the conversation right after it ended, he said, because he was concerned it would leak, and recommended that access to records of the call be restricted.
Morrison also said, however, that Giuliani, Burisma and 2016 election interference “were all issues I tried to stay away from … because it had nothing to do with our policy process,” and noted that he became “concerned” about how “obsequious” Zelensky was being to Trump and about the “parallel process” occurring on Ukraine that Hill had warned him about before he replaced her.
According to texts exchanged between Volker and Sondland on Aug. 9, Morrison reluctantly agreed to set up a Trump-Zelensky meeting because Trump wanted “the deliverable,” according to Sondland, presumably of Ukraine’s promise to launch the requested investigations.
Morrison also told lawmakers he kept Taylor apprised of the back-channel’s efforts, briefing him on the July 25 call, calls between Sondland and Trump, calls between Sondland and Yermak, and Trump’s desire to withhold all security aid from Ukraine—which Taylor said he was prepared to resign over.
Morrison testified that his conversations with Taylor were “a normal part of the coordination process” since he was Taylor’s “chief conduit for information related to White House deliberations” about Ukraine. According to Taylor’s testimony, Morrison told him the July 25 call “could have been better,” a comment the NSC official explained as reflecting his disappointment that the two leaders hadn’t discussed Zelensky’s “reform agenda.”
Vindman, meanwhile, testified that he was deeply concerned about the July 25 call. He said that while he couldn’t determine whether anything illegal had occurred because he is not a lawyer, he also briefed Eisenberg on its contents and considered Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate a U.S. citizen to be improper.
Volker testified that he cautioned the Ukrainians not to get “sucked in” to U.S. domestic politics after being briefed on the phone call. But he sent a text message to Yermak on the morning of July 25 that conditioned a Trump-Zelensky White House meeting on investigations, and was negotiating a public statement by Zelensky that would commit him to opening the probes Trump demanded.
“Assuming President Zelensky convinces Trump he will investigate/get to the bottom of what happened in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington. Good luck,” Volker wrote on July 25.
Handling of the call record
A key disagreement has emerged over why the record of the July 25 call was placed in a top-secret system used by the NSC to store code-word-level information, and whether it was edited to remove the word “Burisma.”
Morrison told lawmakers that when he couldn’t find the record of the call in the normal portal, he learned from the Executive Secretariat staff that they’d put it in the highly classified system on Eisenberg’s orders—but Eisenberg told Morrison that the staff had misunderstood his request to “restrict access” to the call and didn’t intend for it to be placed in the code-word system, known as NICE.