Democrats seek to tie Trump personally to Ukraine wrongdoing; GOP says impeachment case is 'crumbling'
Democratic lawmakers on Sunday laid out their road map heading into the second week of public impeachment hearings against President Trump: continue to bolster an abuse-of-power case against him by tying Trump directly to demands that a vulnerable ally carry out criminal investigations for the president’s personal political benefit.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added a stern warning aimed specifically at Trump after weeks of furious presidential denunciation of the whistleblower whose complaint triggered the historic impeachment process.
“I will make sure he does not intimidate the whistleblower,” the San Francisco Democrat said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Online and in remarks to reporters, the president has repeatedly urged that the confidential complainant be unmasked, coupling that with demands that he be allowed to “confront” his accuser.
In a seeming retort to that, Pelosi said Trump, who has ordered senior aides not to testify in the proceedings, “could come right before the committee and talk, speak all the truth that he wants.”
Republicans, for their part, fanned out on the main Sunday news-talk shows with their own sometimes-mixed message, insisting that Trump was innocent of any wrongdoing, or at least had not engaged in impeachable behavior.
They also reprised the argument that Ukraine, while imperiled by Russia, suffered no real harm because it ultimately received nearly $400 million in military aid that the White House withheld for weeks while Ukrainian officials were under pressure to submit to Trump’s demands.
“The bottom line is he got the money,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House minority whip, said on “Fox News Sunday,” referring to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Democrats say it was still wrong for the president to try to trade the aid for “a favor,” and that the effort was only foiled when Congress learned of the aid being blocked and launched a bipartisan effort to free it up.
Other GOP defenders of the president struck an upbeat tone about the proceedings so far, despite damaging testimony suggesting that military aid to Ukraine was used by the White House to try to force Ukraine to dig up dirt on Trump’s potential 2020 rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
“I don’t think the evidence is building at all,” Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week.” Prefacing his assertion with “I’m being sincere on this,” he declared: “I think the evidence is crumbling.”
But Democrats expressed confidence that they were methodically establishing a pattern of wrongdoing on the part of those close to Trump, one that is leading closer to the president himself.
“There is ample evidence that there was a corrupt deal being cooked up,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), also a member of the committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Trump, who has lashed out at several witnesses in the probe, did so again Sunday, this time targeting a foreign policy advisor to Vice President Mike Pence. The aide, Jennifer Williams, said earlier in a closed-door deposition that she had put a readout of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president in a briefing book for Pence, and also called the effort to pressure Ukraine “inappropriate.”
On Twitter, Trump said Williams, “whoever that is,” should meet with “other Never Trumpers” and sardonically advised her to read transcripts of calls between him and Ukraine’s leader. Williams was among those who listened in on the July 25 call taking notes; that conversation later became central to the whistleblower’s complaint.
Many Republicans have refrained from echoing Trump’s direct attacks on the whistleblower, mindful of federal legal protections accorded such individuals. But GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin employed a new approach Sunday, saying the complaint had “exposed things that didn’t need to be exposed.”
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Johnson blamed that individual, not the White House, for damaging ties with an ally. “If the whistleblower’s goal is to improve our relationship with Ukraine, he utterly – or she – utterly failed,” the senator said.
Senior GOP lawmakers also excoriated the Democratic-led impeachment process as partisan and unfair, as they have from the start of the proceedings. They also derided as secondhand the public testimony offered last week by a trio of career foreign-policy professionals who have described an irregular foreign policy back channel run by the president’s lawyer-fixer, Rudolph W. Giuliani.
But a crucial firsthand account could come – albeit reluctantly — from a key participant in that channel, Gordon Sondland, the hotelier who became Trump’s ambassador to the European Union. His high-profile public appearance before the committee, scheduled Wednesday, is likely to center on questions stemming from explosive closed-door testimony from another diplomat, David Holmes.
In a deposition leaked to the news media, Holmes said he overheard Sondland assure Trump, in a phone call from a Kyiv restaurant, that Ukraine would accede to the president’s wishes for an investigation. And according to another deposition transcript, released Saturday, a senior aide at the National Security Council, Tim Morrison, testified last month that Sondland had acted at Trump’s behest in pushing Ukraine to launch investigations meant to aid the president politically.
Morrison also told investigators that Sondland relayed word to the Ukrainian government that the release of military aid hinged on doing the president’s bidding. Sondland has already had to revise his closed-door testimony once, and Democrats suggested that if the ambassador is not truthful in his public appearance Wednesday, he could be flirting with perjury charges.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said Sondland, who was given his ambassadorial post after making a $1-million contribution to Trump’s inaugural, “has to decide whether his primary loyalty is to America, or if his primary loyalty is to the president.”
Giuliani, whose unconstrained utterances have helped drive the impeachment investigation forward, tweeted early Sunday that the hearings so far have been a “travesty” and insisted that no incriminating evidence had yet emerged.
Trump weighed in as well on Sunday, with a tweet praising Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the sole woman on the GOP side of the committee, who in televised hearings sought to defy procedural rules and repeatedly declared that Trump’s behavior did not meet the standard for impeachment. The president called her a “Republican Star.”
But even Stefanik offered reluctant criticism Friday of Trump’s tweet attacking Marie Yovanovitch, the veteran diplomat who was fired by the president as ambassador to Ukraine, saying it shouldn’t have been sent.
In the midst of Yovanovitch’s testimony on Friday, in which she said that she was the target of a “smear” campaign orchestrated by Trump’s allies, the president suggested on Twitter that she bore responsibility for turmoil in countries where she previously had diplomatic postings, including Somalia.