Mon, 16 Dec 2019

WASHINGTON - A day of testimony in the impeachment inquiry targeting U.S. President Donald Trump changed no minds in Washington, with his critics convinced as ever that he abused his office by pushing Ukraine for political investigations of Democrats in the U.S. and his staunchest allies unwavering in their opinion that he did nothing wrong.

Trump declared on Twitter, "This Impeachment Hoax is such a bad precedent and sooo bad for our Country!"

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, said that Trump's actions amounted to bribery -- temporarily withholding $391 million in military aid to Ukraine while pushing for an investigation of one of his chief 2020 Democratic challengers, former Vice President Joe Biden.

"The bribe is to grant or withhold military assistance in return for a public statement of a fake investigation into the elections. That's bribery," Pelosi said at a news conference. "What the president has admitted to and says it's perfect, I say it's perfectly wrong. It's bribery."

Trump called Wednesday's testimony from two career U.S. diplomats detailing his efforts to get Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open the investigation of Biden "a joke." The U.S. leader delighted in retweeting comments from supporters, including Congressman Mark Meadows's assessment that the hearing was "a MAJOR setback for the unfounded impeachment fantasy."

But Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that could soon push for Trump's impeachment, called the day's testimony "pretty damning." However, Nadler said he would remain open-minded "for the moment" on whether articles of impeachment should be written.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told CNN, "The president was very placid. I'll tell you why. There was nothing new yesterday."

She dismissed the importance of the day's major news from the first of several days of the public impeachment inquiry, only the fourth against a U.S. president in the country's 243-year history.

William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testified that an aide of his overheard a cell phone conversation at a Kyiv restaurant on July 26 in which Trump asked Gordon Sondland, a million-dollar Trump political donor and now the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, about whether Ukraine was opening "the investigations" he wanted about Biden, his son Hunter Biden's work for a Ukrainian natural gas company and a debunked theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election Trump won. The U.S. intelligence community concluded Russia was behind the election meddling.

The overheard conversation occurred a day after Trump from the White House asked Zelenskiy in a half-hour call for "a favor" -- the investigations of the Bidens -- at a time when he was blocking release of $391 million in military aid to Ukraine that it needed to help fight pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.

Taylor said his aide, David Holmes, told him that Sondland said he believed Trump was more concerned about the investigations of the Bidens, which Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani was pursuing, than anything else in Ukraine.

Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a member of the House Intelligence Committee conducting the impeachment inquiry, called the previously undisclosed phone conversation "so explosive."

But Trump adviser Conway said, "You're calling that evidence, respectfully. In a real court of law we'd not be referring to something as evidence that is, oh, someone on my staff recalled overhearing a conversation between someone else and the president where they think they heard the president use the word investigations. This is not what due process and the rule of law in our great democracy allows."

Trump said he knew "nothing" about the alleged Kyiv call from Sondland.

Impeachment investigators are interviewing Holmes, the Taylor aide, on Friday, while Sondland is set to testify before the impeachment inquiry next Wednesday. Sondland has already testified for hours in private behind closed doors, telling investigators that he told an aide to Zelenskiy that Ukraine would not get the military assistance unless the Ukrainian leader promised publicly that it would initiate the Biden investigations.

Trump at one point called Sondland a "'great American," but after he revised his testimony to say there were conditions on the Ukraine aid, Trump contended, "I hardly know the gentleman."

Trump has denied a quid pro quo with Zelenskiy - release of the military aid in exchange for the Biden investigations - and described his July 25 call with Zelenskiy as "perfect." After a 55-day delay, Trump released the military assistance on Sept. 11 without Ukraine undertaking the Biden investigations.

Trump's Republican supporters say the fact that he released the aid without Ukraine investigating the Bidens is prime evidence there was no quid pro quo. They also pointed to the testimony from Taylor and George Kent, the State Department's top Ukraine overseer, that they have had no personal interactions with Trump during the months that the Ukraine drama has played out.

Trump called the diplomats "NEVER TRUMPERS," but both denied the characterization and cited their long service in the diplomatic corps under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

The House Intelligence Committee is now turning its attention to Friday's testimony from Marie Yovanovitch, a former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv who was ousted from her posting earlier this year by the Trump administration months before her tour of duty was set to end.

Her dismissal, according to career diplomats who watched helplessly as it unfolded, came after Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney he had assigned to oversee Ukraine affairs outside normal State Department channels, pushed for her removal, viewing her as an impediment to getting Ukraine to undertake the Biden investigations.

Trump called Yovanovitch "bad news" in his July call with Zelenskiy.

Next week, the impeachment panel is calling eight more witnesses, including two on Tuesday who listened in as Trump talked with Zelenskiy -- Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who serves as director for European affairs on the White House's National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, a foreign affairs aide to Vice President Mike Pence.

Political analysts in Washington say the Trump impeachment drama could last for several months. If Trump is impeached by a simple majority in the House, perhaps by the end of the year as appears possible, a trial would be held in January in the Republican-majority Senate, where a two-thirds vote would be needed for his conviction and removal from office.

The time frame could bump up against the first Democratic party presidential nominating contests starting in February, when voters will begin voting on who they want to oppose Trump when he seeks a second four-year term in the November 2020 national election. Six Democratic senators are among those running for the party's presidential nomination, but could be forced to stay in Washington to sit as jurors in the 100-member Senate as it decides Trump's fate, rather than campaign full-time for the presidency.

Trump's removal remains unlikely, with at least 20 Republicans needed to turn against him and vote for his conviction. To date, while a small number of Republicans have criticized Trump for his actions on Ukraine, no Republican senator has called for his removal from office via impeachment, a drastic action that has never occurred in U.S. history.

Sign up for US News

a daily newsletter full of things to discuss over drinks.and the great thing is that it's on the house!