SEAN: Andrew Prokop. Vox. Politics. How is the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry going?

ANDREW PROKOP (Vox Political Reporter): Well, it hit a bit of a snag on Tuesday night when Donald Trump's White House counsel Pat Cipollone released a letter saying that Trump would refuse any cooperation with the House's impeachment inquiry. 

<CLIP> MSNBC HOST ARI MELBER: It’s an explanation, with some legalese, of why the White House says they are in the right to defy most of this probe. And they’re also accusing the Democrats of using impeachment oversight for 2020.  

ANDREW: And the circumstances are that the impeachment inquiry has not been going very well for President Trump over the past few days. What really happened is that this kicked off with a former administration official Kurt Volker agreeing to testify and hand over documents last week. That seems to have gone so bad for Trump that he's decided he's got to put a stop to this whole thing.

SEAN: And it was Volcker who handed over these texts, right?

ANDREW: Yes. So Kurt Volker he was the U.S. special representative to Ukraine from 2017 up until a little over a week ago when he resigned amidst this scandal. And he went in to testify to congressional committees last Thursday. But what really made the news from his testimony was a series of text messages that he handed over to the committees and these text messages completely debunk Trump's line that there was no quid pro quo whatsoever with Ukraine.  

SEAN: What do they say explicitly?

ANDREW: These are texts he exchanged, most of them with other State Department officials, specifically the U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Bill Taylor, who's the top U.S. diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine right now. On July 25th he writes:


VOICE ACTOR PLAYING KURT VOLKER <texting noises in background>: Heard from White House assuming President Z convinces Trump he will investigate slash quote ‘get to the bottom of what happened’, quote. In 2016 we will nail down date for visit to Washington. Good luck! <sound of message sent>


ANDREW: The Trump officials are trying to get Ukraine to agree to make a statement confirming two investigations: one into Burisma, the natural gas company that Hunter Biden sat on the board of. And one into whatever happened with Ukraine and 2016. And the Trump officials keep pushing for this. They want a public scheme where Zelensky confirms that these investigations will go forward. And the Ukrainians are a little wary about this. They don't want to commit to these two specific investigations. And then, in late August, the issue of hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid for Ukraine being held up by Trump comes into the picture. Bill Taylor, the skeptic of the bunch, writes a text that says:


VOICE ACTOR PLAYING BILL TAYLOR <texting noises in background>: Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” 

ANDREW: And Sondland answers,




ANDREW: So when you want to avoid creating a clear paper trail by text or email you move the conversation to the phone. And this appears to be what Sondland did there and then about a week later on September 9th he does it again. Bill Taylor writes,


VOICE ACTOR PLAYING BILL TAYLOR: As I said on the phone I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign. 


ANDREW: After that there is about a four-and-a-half-hour gap until Sondland answers. And when he answers he sounds like a White House talking point bot.

SEAN: <laughs>

ANDREW: He writes,


VOICE ACTOR PLAYING GORDON SONDLAND: “Bill I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quos [sic] of any kind. The president is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign. I suggest we stop the back and forth by text. If you still have concerns I recommend you give Lisa Kenna or S a call to discuss them directly. Thanks. [sic]”


SEAN: What's going on there? is Bill Taylor trying to get Sondland to say that we're doing something illegal here?

ANDREW: Bill Taylor seems to be engaging in his own effort to put something in writing because he refers to a conversation on phone, he seems to be very deeply bothered by this effort to what or what he seems to believe is an effort to withhold security aid to Ukraine in exchange for them helping Trump's re-election with investigations. And then once he put it in writing what seems to have happened is that Sondland said, ‘Uh-oh.’ and it has now been reported that he called President Trump after that text message was sent to discuss what his response should be. And, lo and behold, it's a response that says, “Oh there were no quid pro quos,” which has become Trump's favorite talking points since the scandal came to light. And in fact Trump has touted this specific text as the text that gets him off the hook in the scandal. He tweeted on Tuesday, “importantly Ambassador Sondland's tweet” - he means text not tweet - “which few report stated, ‘I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The president has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind. That says it ALL!” [sic] And when I think about this I think about something in the Mueller Report. The Mueller report described how President Trump at one point ordered Don McGahn then the White House canceled to create a phony paper trail a phony record that would say Trump never tried to fire Robert Mueller. He thought that this phony paper trail would get him off the hook and it would be something he could point to later to say that he did nothing wrong. And this looks a whole lot like the same basic thing.  

SEAN: Reading these texts, it feels like the entire debate about this scandal is being had in a small scale way between Bill Taylor and Gordon Sondland in real time. Bill Taylor seems convinced that what the president is doing is dead wrong. And Sondland is… I guess being a White House talking point bot?

ANDREW: So Sondland is the exact opposite of Taylor.


ANDREW: He is a Trump guy. Very much so. He was the CEO of hotel company and he gave a million dollars to Trump's inauguration through four different secretive shell companies and he was rewarded for that by being nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. And since being put in that post he has been going around claiming according to a great report by The Washington Post that President Trump has empowered him to take over Ukraine policy. And Sondland it has been a bit of a ridiculous figure in Brussels in the embassy. He has a wireless buzzer that he presses when he wants his tea cup refilled. 


SEAN: <laughs> What?! Who fills it?

ANDREW: <laughs> I don’t know. And I don’t want to say a servant. I'm sure it's like some sort of embassy staffer.

SEAN: It's Alfred from Batman.


<CLIP> BATMAN’S ALFRED: Without the great sacrifices you’ve made, we wouldn’t be here to share this nice pot of tea.

ANDREW: Yeah, but
 he's worth at least tens of millions of dollars if not more. He has an art collection he values at between five and 25 million dollars. He is a very rich guy who has been deputized by Trump he claims to take on a very large role in Ukraine policy.

SEAN: And, as I recall, Sondland has been asked to testify before the House Intelligence Committee.

ANDREW: He was and he was supposed to show up on Tuesday. He had text messages and documents on personal devices that he was going to give over to the committee. And then just after midnight Tuesday morning the State Department said, ‘No, you're not going to do this.’ So what happened is that the Trump administration stepped in at the very last minute to say, ‘No, don't testify.’

SEAN: And why do we think that is? Because Sondland’s too close to all this? And it would be incriminating?

ANDREW: Well, Sondland's testimony was going to be very interesting indeed. He was going to be asked under oath about you know what happened in that four-and-a-half hour gap before he crafted the “no quid pro quo’s” [sic] text message and most importantly he would be asked about whether there was indeed an explicit order from Trump to try and withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine if they didn't launch the investigations he wanted. Sondland reportedly told a Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson that this was in fact the policy, that this is why the aid was being mysteriously held up and Ukraine had to agree to launch these investigations to make Trump happy. This is according to Ron Johnson last Friday.

SEAN: Hmm.

ANDREW: So so the testimony looked like it was going to be ugly for Trump. So the solution they appear to have arrived that is he shouldn't show up at all. And they gave no explanation for this... at first... until finally later in the day, Tuesday, White House counsel Pat Cipollone publicly released this letter to House Democrats explaining that they would not cooperate in the impeachment inquiry at all.

SEAN: So what does that mean, at least right now, for the impeachment inquiry?

ANDREW: So the Democrats have been looking for two things: witness testimony and documents. And this is an announcement essentially that the Trump administration will not be providing either. Now the next step after this is that Congress may issue subpoenas. Gordon Sondland for instance has already been subpoenaed. After this letter came out, the Democrats subpoenaed him. They told him to hand over all his documents and appear for testimony by next week. And if he doesn't they could try to hold him in contempt, they could file a lawsuit and try to get the courts to step in to force his testimony. So this is really just the beginning of a longer legal saga.


SEAN: I mean they have the phone call at this point. They have the texts. They have this pressure campaign from Rudy Giuliani and these other Trump-associated figures. Do the Democrats have enough at this point to just have a vote?

ANDREW: They can vote to impeach whenever they want. It's really just up to the House and I do think Trump's impeachment is highly likely at this point given only what we know right now. But of course you know the more damning evidence that gets turned up the stronger their political case might be. Perhaps there's nothing that could win over Republicans but this issue of the military aid for Ukraine has really been something that has troubled Republicans. If there was more hard evidence on that that at least theoretically could be the sort of thing that might change some Republican minds on this scandal.

SEAN: Our boy Ezra Klein weighs in on the Republican strategy — or lack thereof. After a brief, but adorable message.


SEAN RAMESWARAM (Host): Ezra Klein of The Ezra Klein Show, welcome, at long last, to “Ukraine, Explained”. <Ezra laughs> It’s our new show.

EZRA KLEIN (Vox): I’m thrilled to be here.

SEAN: I'm wondering if you can help us all understand the Republican strategy in this impeachment inquiry.

EZRA: Ah, you think there's a Republican strategy in the impeachment inquiry.

SEAN: There seems to be something going on.

EZRA: There's a great Washington Post piece that came out over the weekend and they said that they'd interviewed dozens of Republicans legislators and aides and staffers and influencers and Republicans were trying to survive and not make any sudden moves. The big exception here is Mitt Romney.

<CLIP> ABC NEWS: Romney had tweeted ‘The President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.’ 

EZRA: He's really come out in this case and at least said these are very serious issues they deserve to be looked at. People should take them seriously. That's not going all the way of calling for impeachment. Now, if he's going to be the lone voice of conscience, it's not going to be that influential.

SEAN: Right.

EZRA: But the idea that what Romney does see himself as doing is creating space for those who might want to come after him like a Susan Collins or a Cory Gardner. In a world where public opinion continues turning on Donald Trump, what Romney has done in being the first could be truly important.

SEAN: How have the Republicans reacted to Romney? Is he catching heat for doing this?


EZRA: Well, Donald Trump has called for Mitt Romney to be impeached and you can't impeach a senator. So that's one way Republicans reacted to Romney.

SEAN: <laughs> Uhhhh….

EZRA: There has not been I would say a concerted reaction to Romney. Romney’s saying what a lot of them believe privately, but are too afraid to say publicly. Some of them of course do see Romney as a showboat, somebody who is more concerned with his own public reputation than Donald Trump and the great things he's doing for the country. But in general I'd say that Donald Trump has turned a lot of personal artillery on Romney's tweets and other statements.

<CLIP> NBC NEWS:  “Pompous Senator Mitt Romney,” labelling him a fool and worse.


EZRA: And he's done so probably for two reasons: one is out of personal anger. He gets very upset when he gets criticized, particularly by other Republicans. But another is that it is a warning to those who may come after him. Mitt Romney is the senator from Utah. He is safe. He will be in that seat until he doesn't want to be in it anymore. But there are a lot of other Republican senators who would not like a primary challenge, a lot of other Republican members of Congress who have to raise money for their coming reelections. And so what Donald Trump is doing is saying that if you turn on me, I will turn on you. And you may or may not take me down, but most Republican members of Congress believe Donald Trump can take them down. And so very few want to take their chances.

SEAN: Don’t they realize that if enough of them banded together they would have the power to even convict the president?

EZRA: Yes, but the other note I want to make on this is that what Republican leadership does here is very, very important. And they don't matter as much in the House where Nancy Pelosi holds the gavel, but they do matter in the Senate. And Mitch McConnell has cut an ad….

<CLIP> NEWSCASTER: ...using impeachment to solicit campaign donations.

MITCH MCCONNELL ON HIS NEW FACEBOOK AD The way impeachment stops is with a Senate majority with me as Majority leader.

EZRA: So this signal coming from the lead Republican in the Senate is we're going to protect Donald Trump at all costs. Mitch McConnell recognizes that if Donald Trump goes down like the Hindenburg, it'll probably imperil his Senate majority, too.  But nevertheless the signal is not just coming from Trump, it's coming from Senate leadership.


SEAN: Do you mark the difference between criticizing the president and calling for his impeachment and allowing that this phone call was inappropriate? That this pressure campaign was inappropriate. Because there is a difference between admitting that you did something wrong and also just like telling the country that what they're reading in this so-called transcript isn't happening. 

EZRA: He will not do that. But the place where I think you can see that is, and I think a spot a lot of Republicans are going to come to rest is in exactly that middle ground of what the president did was wrong, but not impeachable. And Tucker Carlson co-authored an op-ed making this argument, which a lot of people saw as a way of, like, charting a path forward for Republicans here. The point was not criticizing Donald Trump. The point was saying you can actually let the air out of this by criticizing him a little bit. But it has been really striking to see that polling is moving quite fast on impeachment, seeing a very sharp uptick in the number of Democrats who support impeachment, a very sharp rise, a number of independents, but also in the polls I've seen a rise in the number of Republicans who support it -- not by any means to anything near a majority but going from almost nothing to like 15 percent. So in a world where Republicans are feeling elected Republicans are feeling some pressure even from base Republicans to criticize us. That's a place we might see them come to rest.

SEAN: Even if the President gets impeached. The way so many Republicans have labeled this as a witch hunt, as a Democratic obsession, it feels damaging — not only to our discourse, but potentially to our institutions, to the power of impeachment. I wonder when the bitter resentment between these two parties ends….


EZRA: It doesn't end. It will never end like we are in American politics. But what we are potentially permitting here as a system overall is horrifying.


EZRA: The thing that I can't get out of my head is it this almost worked. It almost worked. It is not hard to imagine that we could have woken up one day to the headlines on the New York Times that Ukraine is opening an investigation into Hunter Biden's activities with the gas giant.


EZRA: The idea that the lesson we can take from this and that others would take from it is not to not do the crime because both parties in American politics will consider this out of the boundaries for American politics and punish you, but just don't be an idiot about how you do the crime. Don't, like, do the call in this way with this many people listening in is genuinely scary. That there is a way in which the constant farcical nature of the Trump administration can actually distract from its genuine villainy, and the kind of precedent it is setting for somebody who is similar in their intentions but more capable in their execution. And yes, it should worry people very very much. But that doesn't make the fight not worth fighting.