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The fourth week of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry in Congress was the busiest so far, with five different depositions, a fractious meeting of Republicans and Democrats at the White House, and a shocking press conference by President Trump’s chief of staff.
Next week will ramp things up even more. A key diplomat who called it “crazy” for Trump to press Ukraine to investigate political rivals is expected to go to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, and he is just one of eight people whom Congress has asked to testify as part of its impeachment inquiry.
A lawyer for Fiona Hill, a former senior adviser to Trump on Russia and European affairs, told the New Yorker that after his client’s defiance of the White House’s warning not to testify this past Monday, “the floodgates may have opened.”
Next week’s schedule appears to back up that theory. Five of the eight officials called to testify are expected to do so, an official working on the impeachment inquiry told Yahoo News. That includes William Taylor — the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine — who texted a colleague that it was “crazy” for the White House to withhold military assistance in exchange “for help with a political campaign.”
The appearance of Hill, a former White House official, and three other State Department officials before the impeachment inquiry this week has been described in starkly different terms by Democrats and Republicans.
“Witness after witness, especially the career public servants, came forward despite the risks to their own careers, and talked about how there was misconduct going on ... and they didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., told NPR Friday morning.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, meanwhile, disparaged those who were testifying as having political motivations.
“What you’re seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats who are saying, ‘You know what? I don’t like President Trump’s politics, so I’m going to participate in this witch hunt that they’re undertaking on the Hill,’” Mulvaney said.
Meanwhile, the White House is doubling down on the comment that Mulvaney made to reporters when defending the Trump administration’s pressure campaign to try to force Ukrainian government officials to investigate Trump’s political rivals in the Democratic Party. “Get over it,” he told the press. “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
By Friday afternoon, the campaign to reelect Trump in 2020 was raising money off Mulvaney’s comment, selling T-shirts with large white letters repeating it.
Bystanders in Washington remain unsure of how it will all play out.
“I have lost my ability to rate disasters anymore,” one veteran Republican told Yahoo News, declaring himself “kinda numb.”
This week began with news of a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, leaving Kurdish fighters — who had helped a U.S.-led coalition defeat the so-called Islamic State — abandoned in the face of a Turkish invasion. Hundreds of Islamic State fighters who had been held by the Kurds are reported to have escaped.
“Trump seems to believe it’s easy to raise an army and fight an enemy like ISIS. It’s not. It takes years of work and it may be impossible now as the world sees a historic success upended in six days after a call with a foreign leader and in the most careless and callous manner,” wrote Brett McGurk, who was the top Pentagon official overseeing the Trump administration’s war against ISIS until a year ago, when he resigned early over Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.
Trump’s bumbling in Syria weakened him considerably inside his own party on Capitol Hill, where Republican senators and congressmen — who have either kept silent on impeachment or downplayed the significance of the Ukraine matter — blasted away at the president.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been one of Trump’s strongest allies in the Senate, promised midweek that if the president did not change course, he would become “President Trump's worst nightmare” on the issue.
Nonetheless, even some Republicans who have denounced Trump on Syria continued to back him on impeachment. Rep. Michael McCaul, the Texas Republican who is the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a leading critic of Trump’s Syria policy, said Friday on Fox News that the Democrats’ process for conducting the impeachment inquiry is too secretive and “very unfair.”
This was the first week for Congress back in Washington after a two-week recess. Congress left town only a few days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi first announced on Sept. 24 that the House would open an official inquiry into whether Trump should be impeached for pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate a political rival, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Accordingly, the closed-door activity by three House committees running the impeachment inquiry ramped up considerably. On Monday, Hill told the inquiry that Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, had instructed her to alert White House lawyers about an inappropriate effort by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to pressure the Ukrainians.
On Tuesday, George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, told the inquiry that he had been cut out of policymaking on Ukraine by Mulvaney. Kent said he was replaced by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union; Kurt Volker, special envoy for Ukraine; and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. (Perry, who was subpoenaed last week by the inquiry committees, announced Thursday he was resigning).
Kent also said that he had expressed concerns inside the Obama administration in 2015 about Joe Biden’s son Hunter serving on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
On Capitol Hill Wednesday, Michael McKinley, a veteran diplomat who had been a senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, told the inquiry he resigned last week over concerns revealed by the impeachment investigation. He said he left his job over “what appears to be the utilization of our ambassadors overseas to advance domestic political objectives.”
“I was disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents,” McKinley said.
That same day, Democratic and Republican leaders from Congress went to the White House to meet with Trump about the situation in Syria. Trump, according to Democrats, lobbed personal insults at Speaker Pelosi. Little was resolved with regard to Syria.
On Thursday, Sondland — a central figure in the Ukraine inquiry — testified that Giuliani’s dealings with Ukraine were likely intended to involve them “in the president's 2020 reelection campaign.” Sondland took pains to distance himself from Giuliani. “I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters,” he said.
Sondland also denied that his response to a fellow diplomat who expressed alarm at Trump’s apparent push for a quid pro quo relating to investigating business dealings in Ukraine by Hunter Biden was not an attempt to evade transparency.
“Any implication that I was trying to avoid making a record of our conversation is completely false,” Sondland said. “My text-message comments were an invitation to talk more, not to conceal the substance of our communications.”
Also Thursday, Mulvaney spoke to White House reporters in the Brady Briefing Room for nearly 40 minutes, and told them that Trump had indeed ordered the freeze of military assistance to Ukraine, which has been battling Russian-backed separatists for several years — until Kiev agreed to investigate the “DNC server,” a conspiracy theory that Trump appears to believe would disprove Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney responded, when a reporter asked about what appeared to be a quid pro quo. “I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
Mulvaney denied, however, that the money to Ukraine was held up in relation to Trump’s request that the Ukrainians look into Hunter Biden’s business dealings in the region. “The money held up had absolutely nothing to do with Biden,” Mulvaney said.
Later in the day, Mulvaney walked back his comments. “Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election," Mulvaney said in the statement. "The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server."
The depositions are set to continue next week. Laura Cooper, a top Pentagon official involved in Ukraine policy, was rescheduled from a Friday deposition to next Thursday.
On Tuesday, Taylor is expected to testify.
Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, has been asked to testify on Wednesday. That same day, Michael Duffey, associate director for national security programs at the White House budget office, is scheduled to appear.
Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council director for European affairs and an expert on Ukraine, has been summoned to appear Thursday, the same day as Cooper. Kathryn Wheelbarger, the Pentagon’s acting assistant secretary for international security affairs, is scheduled that day as well.
And there are three depositions requested for Friday, with Suriya Jayanti, a foreign service officer stationed in Kiev who specialized in energy issues, White House budget office Director Russ Vought, and Tim Morrison, the senior director for Russian affairs at the National Security Council.
Democratic leaders remain optimistic they can finish the inquiry soon.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Wednesday it would “be my hope” that the House will be done with impeachment before the end of the year.
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