Takeaways from the Wednesday and Thursday Impeachment Hearings.

  At this point in the hearings, we expected to get mostly clarifications rather than “new news”. The two major items on Wednesday were Sondland’s affirmation that the actions of the “3 Amigos” (Perry, Volker and Sondland) were very much dictated by the White House, that Giuliani was the conduit for Trump’s wishes, and that major figures in the executive branch knew what was going on – Sondland implicated Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Chief of Staff for the President Mick Mulvaney. Another item of significance spilled out: what was important to Trump was a public announcement of a Ukrainian investigation into the Bidens and Crowdstrike rather than the actual pursuit of those investigations. In other words, tarnishing Biden and diverting attention from Russia’s meddling in our elections was what he really wanted, rather than an end to Ukrainian corruption.

  In his opening remarks, Sondland established a timeline of events. Zelinskiy is elected president of Ukraine on April 21, after having run on an anti-corruption platform. Trump promises aid and a White House visit, which is hugely symbolic of US support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression in the eastern region of Donbas. Rudy Giuliani, having once postponed a visit to Ukraine to, as he said, “meddle in investigations”, gets involved nonetheless, which seems weird to diplomats on the ground. At that point, Marie Yovanovitch has been recalled to Washington and after a month-long interval Bill Taylor has replaced her. Sondland tells Taylor on June 27 that Zelinskiy will need to make clear that he will “do” the investigations. The quid pro quo is made explicit at a July 10 US-Ukraine meeting of top level diplomats in Washington. Bolton leaves the meeting abruptly (“I saw his back stiffen”, says Fiona Hill) and directs Hill to tell the top lawyer for the NSC, John Eisenberg, about the “drug deal that Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up”. It is significant – and later corroborated by Hill – that Zelinskiy was aware earlier than the Republicans argue of the aid being withheld. On July 21, Taylor tells Sondland that Zelinskiy does not want to be seen as only an instrument in American re-election politics.

  Sondland tried to paint himself as a hero, testifying against opposition from the White House and the State Department. He also explained away – not altogether convincingly – discrepancies between his closed-door deposition and the public hearings by saying that he is not a note-taker by nature and was refused access to documents that would help his recollections. It is a fact, however, that the Intelligence Committee has not received any document requested from the White House or the State Department – which in itself could constitute obstruction of Congress.

  Sondland explained that, although his official portfolio is the European Union, the safety of Ukraine is capital to the safety of Europe, and prior to the events described in the hearings, he had had contacts with Ukrainian leaders in Brussels. The legitimacy of the involvement of an ambassador to the EU in Ukrainian affairs was re-affirmed by Fiona Hill. Sondland made several key points:

  1. Perry, Volker and Sondland worked with Rudy Giuliani at the express direction of the President.
  2. Although nobody liked Giuliani’s involvement, they did not believe at the time that his role was improper. They also were not aware of his contacts with Parnas and Fruman, now under indictment in the US.
  3. The 3 Amigos made sure at all points that NSC and State knew details of their efforts, therefore this was not a “shadow policy” as formerly described. From May 23 through release of the aid September 11, “everyone was in the loop”.
  4. Sondland said the promised White House visit by Zelinskiy was a quid pro quo. Only later did he realize that suspension of military aid might be suspect as well. Volker, Taylor and Sondland, according to the latter, never received a readout of the July 25 “I would like you to do us a favor though” phone call. Sondland also said that, when Pence met Zelinskiy in Warsaw on September 1, Pence was fully aware of the aid being withheld.

Between the Wednesday morning (Sondland) and afternoon (Cooper and Hale) sessions, I listened to the punditry. They made several interesting points.

  1. The initial quid pro quo (phone call and White House visit) was never refuted during testimony.
  2. All the diplomats involved thought that withholding aid was against US interests.
  3. Republican arguments get shriller by the day, and keep sliding. They claim that, since the phone call took place, Trump met Zelinskiy in New York and the aid was eventually delivered, no harm was sustained by Ukraine. They argued that most of the evidence of a quid pro quo is circumstantial, hearsay subject to “interpretation” and “feelings”.
  4. Ari Melber summed up the reason for the hearings very succinctly: taxpayer money, authorized by the people’s representatives in Congress for Ukraine, was kidnapped by the executive branch and withheld to appease a president in search of dirt on political rivals – dirt that would help his re-election in 2020.  

  The afternoon hearings were less spectacular. Of note is the fact that David Hale appeared as a minority witness. Laura Cooper reminded the committee that Ukraine had satisfied anti-corruption standards much prior to the aid being withheld, and that the entirety of the US diplomatic corps was wholeheartedly in favor of the aid being delivered as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Donbas.

  Our very own John Ratcliffe tried to depict the withholding of aid as part of a reframing of aid to foreign nations. Trump wanted, according to him, to make sure that recipients had satisfied anti-corruption criteria and that other wealthy nations would participate more fully in furnishing aid. In the face of US aid to Saudi Arabia, to mention just one nation, the argument does not hold water.

  At the end of each session, the usually impassive Adam Schiff gave fiery speeches. One of them made the point that Republican Committee members are not sorry that bribery did occur, just that the perpetrator, Trump, was caught.

Fiona Hill and David Holmes were the last two witnesses this week. She was the senior director for European and Russian affairs at the NSC until mid-July. He is the counselor for political affairs at the US Embassy in Ukraine. He testified that he was a first-hand witness to the July 26 call between Sondland and Trump at a restaurant, after which Sondland said that Trump does not give a @#$% about Ukraine, but only “big stuff” that benefits him.

 I was unable to watch those two testimonies, so the following is based on what I gleaned from following analysis in the press.

Fiona Hill’s testimony was very valuable mostly for these two reasons:

  1. She asked the Republican Congress people to stop spreading Russian propaganda according to which Ukraine intervened in the 2016 elections. She made it clear that that conspiracy theory originated in Russia, was disseminated by Russia and Russian allies, and is now being echoed by US politicians. She echoed Robert Mueller’s warning that Russia is again gearing up to attack our elections in 2020. On that point she also agrees with all 17 US intelligence agencies.
  2. Fiona Hill testified that during Sondland’s testimony she realized that she should not have been frustrated by his leaving her out of the loop in briefings to high placed officials like Pence and Pompeo. She realized he was doing exactly what he was supposed to do. To quote her verbatim, “He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy, and those two things had just diverged.”

Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff gaveled out the hearings after giving another impassioned speech in which he described how his reluctance to impeach the president dissolved in the face of what he saw as an urgent threat. The day after Robert Mueller testified, Trump went out and invited interference in the 2020 elections from other nations, like China. This suggested to him that Trump believes he is above the law. Adam Schiff closed by quoting Elijah Cummings, “We are better than that.”

Disclaimer: Marie-Anne wrote this post. She could not watch the Thursday hearings, so Republican Congress people would qualify her account as “second or third hand”. Any mistakes are hers, committed without malice, and her opinions do not always represent those of the Rockwall Democrats. This has been a very long week……

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