11.7.2019 / BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

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<CLIP> REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF: I want to let you know, as you may know already, that we will begin our open hearings in the impeachment inquiry next week. We will be beginning with the testimony of Ambassador Taylor and Ambassador Kent on Wednesday. And we will have Ambassador Yovanovitch testify on Friday. These will be the first of the open hearings.

SEAN RAMESWARAM (Host): Andrew Prokop, politics, Vox. We now know that this impeachment inquiry will go live on television beginning mid next week on Wednesday. But this week has been the week of transcripts. What documents did we get this week?

ANDREW PROKOP (Vox Reporter): House Democrats who have been conducting these closed-door depositions of various current and former administration officials have finally started to release those transcripts. On Monday, we got one from Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and from Michael McKinley, a former senior adviser to the secretary of state. On Tuesday, we got transcripts from Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special representative to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. And on Wednesday, we got one from Bill Taylor, who is the current top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.

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SEAN: Okay, well let’s go through them, starting with Ambassador Yovanovitch.

ANDREW: So Marie Yovanovitch came first and She was not around anymore as the ambassador when the main events in this scandal happened, when Trump had his call with the Ukrainian president, when the military aid was being withheld. So her story is kind of interesting mainly as a prologue to this whole saga. She said I couldn't imagine all of the things that have happened. She describes what is basically a smear campaign against her with the participation of some Ukrainian officials, from Rudy Giuliani. 

<CLIP> PRESIDENT TRUMP: I heard very bad things about her. And I don’t know if I recalled her or somebody recalled her, but I heard very very bad things about her for a long period of time. Not good.   

ANDREW: And she just narrates from her point of view what it was like to go through all this and eventually to hear that Trump told the Ukrainian president of her, former ambassador Yovanovitch, well, she's going to go through some things.

SEAN: What does that mean?!

ANDREW: She said she had no idea what it meant. She said there's a universe of what it could mean. I don't know. But she was told to leave Ukraine on the next plane. It was very ominous terms. They were worried that her security could be at risk. And she, like, was wondering, was this a physical threat? And then she eventually was told, no, it wasn't a physical threat. What they're worried about is that Trump would send a tweet attacking her.  

SEAN: Well, you know, that seems fair. Whose transcripts were released after that? Any bombshells?  

PROKOP: Yeah. So Kurt Volker, we already had his opening statement, various texts of his, so the full transcript of what he said didn't reveal too much. But more interestingly there is Gordon Sondland.

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ANDREW: I think he's been widely viewed as the least credible witness to have testified in this entire saga so far. He was plagued by repeated failures of memories. I don't recall. I don't recall. I don't recall, he kept saying.

SEAN: Sondland was the guy who, like, bought his way into a diplomatic position with the Trump administration?

ANDREW: Exactly. He gave a million dollars through various shell companies to the Trump inauguration. He was named U.S. ambassador to the European Union. And then he kind of took on a large role in Ukraine policy and became, according to other witnesses’ testimony, a sort of enforcer of the quid pro quo, repeatedly saying he was acting on Trump's behalf.

SEAN: So he's in the rare position of having paid a million dollars to be a part of this hot mess.

ANDREW: Yes, it's a rare feat. But what happened after he testified is that two other witnesses, Bill Taylor from the State Department and Tim Morrison from the National Security Council, testified at some length about various conversations with Sondland they were involved in described what Sondland was telling them, how he said that, in fact, the aid to Ukraine did hinge on whether they launched the investigations Trump wanted, that Sondland said that he was in contact with Trump on this and that Trump kept saying, ‘There's no quid pro quo, but I want the Ukrainian president to do these things, to commit to these investigations publicly.’ Sondland didn't remember any of this, so he claims initially. And before his transcript was released on Tuesday, he and his lawyer submitted an addendum to his original sworn testimony saying that the testimony of Taylor and Morrison has “Refreshed my recollection about certain conversations in early September 2019.  

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<CLIP> CBS’ NORAH O’DONNELL: Gordon Sondland, a top US diplomat now says he believes the Trump Administration demanded a quid pro quo from Ukraine.

ANDREW: He says that he now recalls telling a senior adviser to Ukraine's president that the hundreds of millions of dollars in withheld military aid probably hinged on whether they launched those investigations into the company tied to Joe Biden's son and into the 2016 election. Supposedly Ukrainian interference. It may seem hard to believe that you would forget telling the Ukrainians this, but that is what Sondland is claiming.  

SEAN: And what kind of example is that setting for the children, Andrew?

ANDREW: You know, it's possible that he just is really suffering from some memory problems, but, you know, maybe he shouldn't really be in this post if his memory of things that happened just a couple months ago are so poor. And, you know, his memory is still continuing to be quite flawed. He is not remembering conversations he was telling others that he had with Donald Trump about this, and he is notably vague in the new statement on how he learned that the military aid was being tied to the investigations. He says that he simply presumed this. So even the updated testimony is a little hard to believe.

SEAN: But Sondland still isn't saying the president ordered some sort of quid pro quo?

ANDREW: Well, the big admission of Sondland’s updated testimony was the acknowledgment of what other witnesses have said, that in fact, the quid pro quo — military aid for investigations was communicated to the Ukrainians. He had been saying he didn't remember doing this. Now, he admits it. He's still not admitting that it came from President Trump. However, other witnesses have said that at the time, Sondland told them he talked to President Trump multiple times and that this is, in fact, what President Trump wanted.  

SEAN: Who is he throwing under the bus, if not President Trump?

ANDREW: He's trying to pin as much on Rudy Giuliani as possible.  

SEAN: Rudy!

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        <CLIP> RUDY GIULIANI: I’m a pretty good lawyer, just a country lawyer

ANDREW: He keeps saying that this whole idea of the investigations came from Rudy. <scoring bump> So, yeah, it's something.

SEAN: Where is Rudy in all of this, he's not testifying. Has anyone heard from him?

<CLIP> RUDY GIULIANI: <laughing> I never talked to a Ukrainian official, until the State Department called me and asked me to do it.

ANDREW: The latest news from the  former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, is that he has retained his own legal representation. Giuliani had been saying over the past couple weeks, I don't need a lawyer. I'm not in any trouble. And he has apparently rethought that.

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SEAN: So Rudy's rethinking, Sondland is recollecting.

<CLIP> REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF: Today we’ll be releasing the deposition transcript of Ambassador Taylor so people will have the opportunity to read about that deposition as well.

SEAN: What's up with Bill Taylor? What's in his transcript?

ANDREW: He basically really debunked Sondland's version of events--

<CLIP> PBS REPORTER NICK SCHIFRIN: And his testimony has been one of the most important for Democrats who say it provides the clearest explanation for what President Trump and his allies were demanding before Ukraine could receive nearly $400 million of military assistance.  

ANDREW:  -- by making clear how explicit the quid pro quo was. What I thought was most interesting from Taylor's testimony was a bit of a plaintive note. He was describing how the Ukrainians reacted when they found out that this hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid that they were relying on for use in their military conflict with Russia was being held up. Taylor says that they were just desperate. He said “they thought there must be some rational reason for this being held up. And maybe in Washington they didn't understand how important this assistance was to their fight and to their armed forces.

<CLIP> NBC REPORTER NICOLLE WALLACE: Taylor painting a haunting portrait of a foreign policy process that quite literally meant life and death to the Ukrainians, had been hijacked by what he describes as an irregular policy channel run by Rudy Giuliani that went directly to Donald Trump.

ANDREW: So it's a reminder that Trump was trying to play this game, his political machinations and pressure the Ukrainian government to do this. But they're embroiled in a serious war. And there are real consequences to what Trump was trying to do here.

SEAN: So some of the details here are new, some of this stuff we already had a sense of. But one thing that should be coming out of these transcripts is how Republicans have been questioning these witnesses, right? From what you've read, I know there's a lot of pages here. Have you seen Republicans honestly trying to get to the bottom of this controversy and figure out what happened?

ANDREW: I've seen them trying to get to the bottom of figuring out who the anonymous whistleblower is.

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SEAN: Oh! Have they figured it out?

ANDREW: They seem to be pretty confident in their assessment of who it is at this point.

SEAN: Like to a name?

ANDREW: Yes. And they bring up this person's name in the transcripts and say they ask various witnesses, have you ever talked to this person about what happened in Ukraine? And, you know, when asked to defend that, they're generally, you know, characterize it as just trying to get some facts, but in context, it sure looks like a way to try to get this person's identity out.

SEAN: And we played a clip of Rand Paul at a rally with the president on Monday night in Lexington, Kentucky. And he says,

<CLIP> SENATOR RAND PAUL (R-KY): We also know the name of the whistleblower.

SEAN: Does everyone now know who the whistleblower is?

ANDREW: The name has been written by some conservative media outlets, been tweeted out by one of the President of the United States’ children. But major media outlets like, for instance, Vox have been hesitant to repeat this whistleblower's supposed name. Questioning the news value of this. It seems more of an effort at retaliation rather than a good faith effort to check their information, because the person's information has already been completely confirmed at this point by all the documents and testimony from other witnesses that have come out. The whistleblower's identity seems pretty irrelevant at this point, but Trump really wants a villain and he is trying to put a face on this whistleblower to have, you know, a new hate figure for a conservative media to fulminate about deep state conspiracies against the president. Fox News apparently told its hosts that they are not permitted to repeat the alleged whistleblower name on air. That means you, Sean Hannity.  

 

<CLIP> SEAN HANNITY: Just who is the hearsay, non-whistleblower whistleblower. 

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SEAN: But Republicans have also been talking about some other witnesses they would like to call. Although there is some controversy about this, They have discussed calling Joe Biden or his son Hunter as witnesses in the impeachment inquiry. They would likely not succeed at doing this in the House because some Democrats effectively control who comes as a witness. But in the Senate, they would be able to do something like that if they want to. There is an interesting Washington Post article saying that the party is split on this. Some of Trump's more fiery  supporters are like, let's do this. Rand Paul said, step up and subpoena Hunter Biden and also subpoena the whistleblower. Steve Bannon said on television that:

<CLIP> STEVE BANNON: The Bidens have to be called. Joe Biden is a hand grenade and Hunter Biden's the pin. And when that pin gets pulled, the shrapnel is going to blow back all over the Democratic establishment.

SEAN: I think Joe Biden's more like a lazy boy.

ANDREW: Yeah, well, I mean, there's been a lot of, you know, grenade analogies in this. John Bolton called Rudy Giuliani a grenade who is gonna blow everybody else. But anyway, some other Senate Republicans are a little more concerned about this. They feel it would look hackish and political, which. Yes. And Lindsey Graham has an interesting role here because he's the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And so far already Donald Trump, Jr. and other Trump supporters have demanded why isn't Lindsey Graham hauling in Hunter Biden under a subpoena to testify right now and he's been resisting. He says, you know, it's this is the house's process right now. And he's been defending Trump, to be sure. But he has not really been using his committee as a as a rebuttal to the House impeachment inquiry just yet.

SEAN: Lindsey Graham's initial take in this whole whistleblowing scandal was that there will not be proof of a quid pro quo. Now that we have two different sets of evidence confirming quid pro quo about a meeting, about military aid, where does Lindsey Graham stand and is he trying to maintain some sort of impartiality because of the fact that he will, as we establish last week, soon be a juror in this impeachment trial?

ANDREW: Lindsey Graham does not seem to be trying particularly hard to maintain impartiality. He continues to defend Trump with various shifting justifications. He said that he’s not even going to read the transcripts that have been released this week.

<CLIP> SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): The whole thing is a joke.. The whole thing is being driven by partisans in the House.  Adam Schiff is not looking for the truth. But there’s one common theme here, the President of the Ukraine and the President of the United States have both said there was no quid pro quo.

ANDREW: So rhetorically, he's still saying Trump did nothing wrong. I don't have any problem with this. He's shifted his reasons for saying he has no problem with this. But, you know, he is not using his committee really to try and help Trump from a PR perspective with the impeachment inquiry. And he also clarified he did make a high profile invitation to Rudy Giuliani to come in to the Senate Judiciary Committee and tell his side of the story under oath. But he gave an update on that this week and he said, I don't think he's coming. He never got back to me. So.

SEAN: So is Congress still totally polarized here as we head towards next week and these impeachment hearings become public televised events? Are we just going to see this classic whiplash? One side having an inquiry, the other side calling the whole thing a sham?

ANDREW: Yes.

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SEAN: Can't wait. Thanks, Andrew. Andrew Prokop, as you might have noticed, is covering the impeachment inquiry for VOX, but he's also covering the Roger Stone trial. Remember him? Donald Trump's longtime adviser with the Nixon tattoo on his back, the fullback piece. It's really something. Andrew's been camping out at his trial in Washington, D.C. all week. You can follow along on his Twitter at a W pro kop. That's kop with a K. I'm Sean Rameswarem with a W. This is Today, Explained.