Corruption, Justice, Politics

Gordon Sondland’s testimony forces Republicans to shift arguments

Nov 7 2019

The Economist

The evolution of the defence, from “no quid pro quo” to “quid pro so?”

STEVE SCALISE, the House Minority Whip, brought a visual aid to the House floor in the run-up to a vote formalising the impeachment inquiry. It depicted the Red Square’s onion domes, and blasted the Democrats’ “37 Days of Soviet-Style Impeachment Proceedings”. Though the Soviet Union lacked a constitutional mechanism whereby freely elected legislators could censure and remove the country’s executive, following months of open hearings and a public trial, Mr Scalise’s point was that the impeachment process—which has so-far operated behind closed doors—is some kind of show trial.

That is one of two main defences of President Donald Trump offered by congressional Republicans. The other is that there was no quid pro quo in withholding military aid to Ukraine, as Mr Trump himself has repeatedly asserted. This implies that asking for foreign help in an American election is perfectly fine; the impeachable conduct would be demanding something in return. Both these lines are starting to fray.

The first was always rather weak. Just as a criminal trial involves a grand jury gathering information to determine whether to indict, an impeachment inquiry involves the House doing the same. Closed-door hearings have long been a feature of congressional oversight. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has given Republicans the full House vote that they long demanded. And next week open hearings begin.

The second defence has grown difficult to sustain as witness after witness has testified, under oath, that there was in fact a quid pro quo. Gordon Sondland, America’s ambassador to the EU, is the newest member of this chorus line. Mr Sondland had previously testified that he never talked to Ukrainian officials about opening an investigation, that he never thought there was any precondition attached to the military aid, and that he “didn’t know why” it was delayed.

In a revision released on November 5th, Mr Sondland wrote that testimony from William Taylor, America’s top diplomat in Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, until recently the National Security Council’s top adviser on Russia and Europe, had “refreshed my recollection”. Mr Sondland said he now recalls a conversation with Andriy Yermak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, “where I said that resumption of US aid [to Ukraine] would likely not occur until” Mr Zelensky made the “public anti-corruption statement” demanded by Mr Trump. He said he had “no reason to question the substance” of Mr Morrison’s recollection that aid “might be conditioned on a public statement reopening” an investigation into the firm that employed Joe Biden’s son.

Mr Trump’s defenders have consequently shifted, arguing that foreign policy routinely involves quid pro quos, and that even if Mr Trump engaged in one, it is not impeachable conduct. “Get over it,” as Mr Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, told reporters in October. That appears to be the argument that Republicans are carrying into the next, public phase of the impeachment process. Lindsey Graham, who chairs the Senate judiciary committee and therefore could play an important role in the trial of the president in the Senate, offered another approach—less a defence than a shrug. “I’ve written the whole process off,” he told CBS, a news network. “I think this is a bunch of BS.”

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Annex:

Public Impeachment Hearings Targeting Trump to Start Next Week

By Ken Bredemeier, Sam Verma – Voice of America

WASHINGTON – Public impeachment hearings examining U.S. President Donald Trump and his efforts to push Ukraine to investigate one of his chief 2020 Democratic challengers will start next week, House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff said Wednesday.

After weeks of closed-door hearings, Schiff said Americans would get a chance “to judge the case” against Trump.

“Most of the facts are not contested,” Schiff said. He contended that the central allegation centers on Trump “trying to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political opponent,” former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the leaders among a host of Democrats trying to win the party’s presidential nomination to face Trump in the 2020 election.

Schiff said the intelligence panel will hear from Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent when public hearings start next Wednesday.

Republican lawmakers have criticized the way the majority Democrats have conducted the impeachment probe, saying the process has been too secretive and that Republicans are not being given equal opportunity in the process. Democrats say Republican lawmakers and staff members have been given equal time to question witnesses.

“After weeks of selective leaks from behind closed doors in the basement of the Capitol, Chairman Adam Schiff just announced plans for public hearings,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Twitter. “Don’t be fooled. Public hearings are not the same as FAIR hearings.”

In closed-door testimony to impeachment investigators, Taylor said he was told the White House would only free $391 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine if it publicly promised to investigate Trump’s political rivals. Schiff said a full transcript of Taylor’s testimony would be released later in the day.

Schiff said the committee would hear Nov. 15 from former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. She has said she was told by a Trump administration official that she should tweet out support for Trump if she wanted to save her job, according to a transcript of her closed-door testimony to lawmakers made public Monday.

Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, was removed from her post in Ukraine in May, several months ahead of schedule. Trump described Yovanovitch as “bad news” in a July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and was viewed by some Trump aides as an impediment to getting Ukraine to investigate Biden.

Yovanovitch told lawmakers that she was shocked and felt threatened when she found out that Trump spoke about her in the phone call.

The impeachment probe was touched off by a complaint initiated by a U.S. intelligence community official troubled by Trump’s request to Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, his son Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian natural gas company, and any possible Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election won by Trump. 

Trump has described the call with Zelenskiy as “perfect,” and repeatedly said there was no quid pro quo with Ukraine —release of the military aid in exchange for the political investigations. But a handful of U.S. officials have told investigators that Trump was pushing for such a reciprocal deal even though after a weeks-long delay, he released the money to Kyiv. November 7, 2019

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