On Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee will begin public hearings in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. The hearings deal with events around the July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch investigations into a conspiracy theory about the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee and into Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter, who held a position on the board of a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma.
Before and after Trump picked up the phone, a complex network of characters was at work trying to pressure Zelensky. In private depositions, witnesses have already told the Intelligence Committee how the Trump administration withheld congressionally authorized aid to Ukraine; how Ukrainians were informed that aid was tied directly to Trump’s personal political goals; how administration officials sought to cover up what was going on; and how the president retaliated against the American ambassador to Ukraine, whom his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, had targeted as the scheme was being put into motion.
The hearings are meant to help the committee make the case to the American people ahead of an impeachment vote and a trial that will ultimately decide Trump’s fate. Here’s a guide to the people appearing before the committee this week, other names likely to come up, and other key points to look out for.
This Week’s Witnesses
Who is this witness? Wednesday’s first witness, Taylor is a career foreign service official who was made the interim chargé d’affaires to Kiev in May, after the previous ambassador was forced out of that position under pressure from Giuliani. Taylor had previously been the ambassador to Ukraine between 2006 and 2009, having been appointed by the last Republican president, George W. Bush. He is a West Point graduate and a decorated Vietnam War veteran. He has served under every president since Ronald Reagan and held nonpartisan diplomatic posts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Jerusalem.
How is he involved? Taylor was the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine at the time that Giuliani and U.S. officials were attempting to pressure Zelensky’s government to deliver the desired investigations. Taylor was told directly that Trump had sought the investigations in exchange for aid, and he expressed concern in private communications and in an official cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the plot.
Why does his testimony matter? Taylor was apparently the first witness to allege that Trump was tying the release of aid money to the opening of politically advantageous investigations as part of a quid pro quo. His contemporaneous notes about his conversations with other officials, along with the now-public text chains, are crucial in rebutting Trump and his defenders as they still vigorously deny this aspect of the conspiracy. His testimony is by far the most important of the week, because bribery is a federal crime and the second item listed when the Founders wrote out the Constitution’s impeachable offenses. While a quid pro quo doesn’t have to be proven to demonstrate that Trump committed an abuse of power—or even a federal crime—in this case, the quid pro quo is the president’s clearest, most egregious violation, and it is the one thing he still denies. Taylor is the only witness this week who will testify that he was directly aware of a quid pro quo. Taylor’s initial testimony and evidence also forced Trump’s alleged point person in that quid pro quo to revise his testimony to admit to delivering a quid pro quo message, but more on that below.
Who is this witness? Kent, who is also scheduled to testify on Wednesday, is a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department who oversees U.S. policy concerning the Europe and Eurasian region, which includes Ukraine.
How is he involved? After Taylor took the dramatic step of sending an Aug. 29 cable to Pompeo expressing his unease with the withholding of military aid, Kent informed Taylor that Pompeo had personally brought the cable into a meeting with Trump. He also testified that Taylor told him of his concerns regarding a possible quid pro quo deal to target Biden. Finally, he was told of the accounts of other witnesses as well.
Why does his testimony matter? Kent was not a direct witness to the events in question. He only matters insofar as he can corroborate key elements of Taylor’s story and that of other witnesses, by testifying that they told him of the matters contemporaneously. As such, his testimony will support Taylor’s but be much less significant than that of the chargé d’affaires.
Who is this witness? Yovanovitch, who is scheduled to testify Friday, is a career foreign service official who was the ambassador to Ukraine from August 2016 to May 2019. Known as “Masha,” the ambassador promoted a policy of bolstering Ukraine in its ongoing conflict with Russia through both diplomacy and security assistance.
How is she involved? Yovanovitch was forced out of her position around April, when she was told to return to the U.S. on the “next plane” from Ukraine. Her removal followed a smear campaign promoted by Giuliani, centered on the claim that she spoke negatively about the president. (She denies the allegation, and no evidence has ever been presented of it.) When Yovanovitch was recalled, she was told by then–Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan that she had done “nothing wrong.” She also testified that she was told by another top diplomat, Gordon Sondland, to tweet something positive about Trump to save her job, though he has denied this in his own testimony.
Why does her testimony matter? Removing an ambassador or other official for corrupt ends and without reason has been viewed historically—and was considered by the Founders—to be an impeachable offense. If Trump’s motives in removing the ambassador were in part to enlist a new team that would be more amenable to pressuring Ukraine to open political investigations, that might also clarify the timeline for when the plan began to go into motion. Her story, though, is fairly straightforward—she was fired, and she did nothing wrong—and so there is not a lot of critical information for her to testify about.
Other Key Figures in This Week’s Testimony
Gordon Sondland: The ambassador to the European Union and a million-dollar Trump inaugural donor, Sondland boasted on Ukrainian television over the summer that he had been given a “special assignment” by the president to “oversee” Ukraine policy. During an Oval Office meeting with Trump and other officials on May 23, Trump expressed skepticism of the country and instructed Sondland and others carrying out Ukraine policy to “talk to Rudy [Giuliani],” the president’s personal attorney. According to text messages and the testimony of a number of witnesses, Sondland joined Giuliani at the center of efforts to pressure Zelensky to announce investigations into “Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections.” (He approved this precise language in a draft statement that he and another diplomat encouraged the Ukrainians to use when announcing the investigation.) He originally testified that he had no idea how anyone might get the impression that security assistance was tied to the investigations. After Taylor testified that Sondland had informed the Ukrainians that $390 million in foreign aid was dependent on announcing the investigations, Sondland corrected his own testimony to acknowledge that he had given the Ukrainians that direct quid pro quo ultimatum.
Kurt Volker: Along with Sondland and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Volker was among a trio of U.S. representatives leading Ukraine policy who dubbed themselves the “three amigos.” Volker, who resigned his post as the special envoy for Ukraine after the scandal came to light, provided the committee with a number of texts between himself, Giuliani, Sondland, Taylor, and top Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak outlining the negotiations over the announcement of the politically useful investigations. In one of those texts on Sept. 9, Taylor directly confronted Sondland and Volker, saying that he felt it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland then called Trump, who denied there was a quid pro quo but—according to Sondland’s testimony—also told him that he wanted Zelensky to “do the right thing” and “do what he ran on.” That same day, the intelligence community inspector general informed the House and Senate intelligence committees of a whistleblower complaint outlining the details of the apparent extortion scheme, and three House committees announced an investigation of the aid hold. Two days later, Trump released the aid.
Fiona Hill: A former National Security Council official, Hill told Taylor of a July 10 White House meeting with the Ukrainians in which Sondland allegedly linked the demand for Ukraine to announce investigations directly to Ukraine receiving a highly sought invitation to the White House. This appears to have been the first quid pro quo deal. Hill told Taylor and others that her boss, former national security adviser John Bolton, had referred to the plan as a metaphorical “drug deal,” of which he wanted no part.
Alex Vindman: An Iraq war veteran and Purple Heart recipient, Lt. Col. Alex Vindman confirmed Hill’s account of the July 10 meeting in a phone call to Taylor.
Tim Morrison: Hill’s replacement on the National Security Council, Morrison told Taylor on Aug. 21 that the president was adamant that no security assistance should be provided to Ukraine. On Sept. 1, Morrison told Taylor that Sondland had told him that the EU ambassador had delivered a message to the Ukrainians that aid was conditioned on investigations. (Again, Sondland did not mention this in his initial testimony, but clarified to the committee that he had delivered that message after the testimony of Morrison and Taylor came out.) Morrison also told Taylor of a possible phone call on Sept. 7 between Sondland and Trump in which the president allegedly insisted “that President Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelensky should want to do this himself.” Sondland’s current position is that he “cannot specifically recall if I had one or two phone calls with President Trump in the September 6-9 time frame.”
What to Watch for From Defensive Republicans
Based on their approach during his deposition, the president’s defenders on the House Intelligence Committee will try a few different tacks to challenge the testimony of this week’s star witness, Taylor.
First, they may try to argue that Taylor’s testimony is mere hearsay, a repetition of stories he heard from Morrison and Sondland that have no independent verification. The hearsay defense should have been shattered after Sondland corrected his testimony to acknowledge that he tied Ukrainian military aid to investigations, but if Republicans want to build a case that Sondland was a lone actor, they could start by challenging Taylor’s memory. Second, they could argue that as a diplomat, Taylor must understand that foreign aid is regularly held up for legitimate reasons. This line of defense was also largely debunked during the deposition, with House Democrats pointing out that there’s a difference between Congress or the president publicly announcing legitimate conditions for foreign aid versus a secret effort to coerce a foreign power to investigate a political rival. Third, they might again point out that Trump eventually released the aid without getting the investigations he allegedly wanted, to argue how could there have been a quid pro quo if he didn’t succeed? But Trump released the aid only after he was confronted by Sondland about the request, Congress had received a whistleblower complaint, and House committees opened an investigation. Pausing or stopping a criminal activity the moment you are caught does not normally mean you’re innocent.
Finally, House Republicans will likely argue that even if there was some sort of quid pro quo deal, the investigations Trump was seeking weren’t necessarily politically motivated, but were out of a genuine concern about corruption. One of the major reasons that this is such a difficult argument to believe is that the request for probes was not done as some formal, public request for crime-fighting assistance in a legitimate preexisting investigation. As Taylor has testified, there are official, lawful ways in which the U.S. government can ask for assistance from a foreign government to investigate corruption allegations against U.S. citizens. Instead, the president secretly employed a campaign to enlist Ukraine to announce investigations of his political rivals in a way that would have kept his fingerprints off that announcement. Had the apparent plan succeeded, it would have allowed him to point to the ostensibly spontaneous and independent probe against Biden and the Democrats in Ukraine and say, See, they are corrupt—what have I been telling you?
That Republicans think these arguments will work in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, common sense, and Trump’s own words should tell you everything you need to know about how they plan to treat this historic moment.
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