After Sondland bombshell, Democrats look to expand Trump probe to Pompeo, others

Tom LoBianco
Contributor

WASHINGTON — House Democrats, emboldened after Ambassador Gordon Sondland provided stunning testimony Wednesday, are debating whether to expand the impeachment investigation to other Trump administration officials.

Mike Pompeo’s name quickly rose to the top of that potential list Thursday morning, after Sondland, the U.S. envoy to the European Union, detailed his communication with the secretary of state in an effort to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential rival to President Trump in 2020, and his son Hunter.

Immediately following Thursday’s hearing, Democratic staff and members of the House Intelligence Committee celebrated two weeks of intensive public hearings. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi briefly attended the soiree, held in the classified area of the House where staff and lawmakers conducted dozens of hours of interviews. Pelosi declined to comment to Yahoo News as she left the event.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a New York Democrat, said he expects a report with findings to be sent to the House Judiciary Committee in a few days, setting up the next step — which would likely be drawing up articles of impeachment. But asked if the Intelligence Committee was done hearing from witnesses or seeking information, he declined to comment.

Rep. Peter Welch, a Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee from Vermont, said, “It’s not crystal clear.”

A senior Democratic aide said Democratic leaders are tightly focused on Trump, because of the clarity of his constitutional violations, and said veering off to investigating people like Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence could become a distraction. But the aide did not rule out looking at additional figures in the Ukraine scandal after Trump is impeached — the aide noted that Pelosi has not yet announced whether the House will vote on impeachment, although it is widely expected.

Eliot Engel, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — one of the three chairs running the original impeachment inquiry — said that Sondland’s testimony had made Democrats reassess how to proceed.

“I do think at the very, very least, what Sondland did was breathe a lot of life into a lot of questions that a lot of people have,” Engel, a New York Democrat, told Yahoo News on Thursday. “We need to take it one step at a time; we need to look after people have testified and take a couple of steps backward. What have we learned, what do we need to learn more? Those decisions haven’t been made yet.”

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and White House aide John Dean in 1973. (Photos: Andrew Harnik/AP, AP)

Sondland’s testimony, in which he admitted Trump wanted a quid pro quo from Ukraine, led pundits to refer to it as the “John Dean moment” of the House’s impeachment inquiry, a nod to Nixon counsel John Dean’s landmark testimony in the Watergate investigation. It also left Democrats feeling stronger than ever.

One Democratic lawmaker, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations with colleagues, said others are starting to talk about impeaching Trump first and then moving forward with investigations of Pompeo, and others after that.

Democratic lawmakers increasingly used the term “conspiracy” Wednesday and Thursday to refer to Trump’s conduct and the actions of top Trump officials, detailed by Sondland.  

“I think the wrap-it-up-by-Thanksgiving caucus has learned to stop worrying and love the bomb,” said a veteran Democratic consultant. “I think there’s runway there to expand.”

But House Democratic leadership and senior Democrats involved in the impeachment inquiry say they still want the focus kept tightly on Trump.

“It would be great, but you and I both know it would be tied up in litigation. And, frankly, I think we’re getting a compelling story from them with their subordinates,” said Rep. Terri Sewell, an Alabama Democrat and member of the Intelligence Committee, which is conducting the impeachment hearings.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks to reporters as the House Intelligence Committee holds impeachment hearings. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Pelosi said at her weekly press conference that she did not want to play the waiting game of fighting in the courts to secure testimony from Trump officials. But she also left the door open to continuing investigations surrounding Trump’s Ukraine scandal. 

“We aren’t finished yet; the day is not over,” she said. “You never know if testimony of one person might lead to the need for testimony of another.”

Though Pelosi has not formally announced whether the House will hold an impeachment vote, rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans who were queried since Sondland’s testimony largely expect the president to be impeached. 

Republicans, in the meantime, have continued to stick to their main talking point, which is that the testimony has not changed their views of what they argue is a partisan-driven impeachment probe. 

“They can talk all they want,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican. “I think the reason they’re doing this is because they’re not gaining any ground on this.”

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a North Dakota Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee, said he has been hearing that Democrats want to expand their probe beyond Trump — but cautioned against it.

“I also have heard they are not in any hurry to slow this down and want to get it done before Christmas,” Armstrong told Yahoo News.

Sondland testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

Sondland testified Wednesday that “everyone was in the loop” with Trump’s plans to leverage an investigation of the Bidens in return for hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid. But his description of reporting back on his efforts to secure the investigation of the Bidens directly to Pompeo caught many Democrats’ ears. 

A State Department spokesperson, Morgan Ortagus, tweeted Wednesday that “Gordon Sondland never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the President was linking aid to investigations of political opponents. Any suggestion to the contrary is flat out false.”

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, a California Democrat, said everything is still very fluid after Sondland’s testimony.

“I agree with Speaker Pelosi — the timeline depends on the truth line. There’s not an exact science to this,” he said. “Yes, Secretary Pompeo should be held to account and explain under oath the extent to which he was involved in the extortion and bribery of the leader of a foreign nation.”

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