Once more for the people in the back! This week, witnesses and key administration officials said there absolutely was quid pro quo (read: bribery) in President Donald Trump’s dealings with the President of Ukraine — and they have the receipts to prove it. I’ll walk you through this all, but first, here’s what we knew going into the week:
To catch you up:
President Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on his potential political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden, during a July 25 phone call. He allegedly dangled $400 million in aid to the country and a personal meeting between the two leaders as leverage. This all led to a whistleblower complaint and an attempt by Democrats to impeach Trump.
Impeachment proceedings started in private, but, over the past few weeks, have become more and more public. Multiple White House staffers resigned; and Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, two associates of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer who worked to dig up dirt on the Bidens, attempted to leave the country and were consequently arrested. A bipartisan committee has heard from witnesses including Ambassador Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine; Fiona Hill, Trump’s top Russia advisor; Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union; Laura Cooper, the Pentagon’s top Russia and Ukraine official;
Some of them have spoken to the Committee publicly and others have done so privately but their transcripts have been released publicly. We’ve seen dogs, we’ve seen drag queens, and we’ve seen the potential ruin of our current democracy.
So what happened this week?
Monday, November 18
There weren’t any public hearings on Monday, but it worked as a day of preparation for House Intelligence officials. We did still find out some new information: Impeachment investigators think Trump may have lied to Robert Mueller in the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to the New York Times. If he did, that could be yet another basis for another article of impeachment. This is particularly interesting given that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump should testify before the impeachment inquiry committee, even in writing, CNN reported. Trump responded that he didn’t want to give “credibility” to the impeachment proceedings but would consider submitting written answers.
“Even though I did nothing wrong, and don’t like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!” he tweeted.
Tuesday, November 19
The public hearings heated up with four testimonies. The morning saw Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert; and Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence — both of whom were on that now-infamous call between Trump and Zelensky. In the afternoon, we heard from Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, the former top Russia and Europe expert on the National Security Council.
Vindman is an interesting character. He was born in Ukraine, and moved to the U.S. with his father and twin brother as a toddler. He would eventually become an Iraq war veteran and Purple Heart recipient. He addressed his father in his opening statement: “You made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family,” he said. “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
After his opening statement, Vindman testified that he believed Trump's request for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens was “inappropriate.”
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he said of the now-infamous July 25 call. “My worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out.”
There were quite a few tense moments with Vindman, including when he was asked about Trump’s allegation that he was a “Never Trumper,” to which Vindman responded saying he was “never partisan.” Another awkward moment popped up when ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, referred to him as “Mr. Vindman;” Vindman reminded Nunes to refer to him at “Lieutenant Colonel.” As CNN reported, Nunes obliged.
We found out some new info, too: Specifically, that Vindman got a job offer three separate times from Zelensky to be the Ukrainian defense minister. He said he thought it was a joke and reported it to his superiors.
He then testified that the U.S. withholding military aid was hurting Ukraine’s ability to confront Russian aggression — which was, to be sure, one of the main reasons the U.S. even gives this aid to Ukraine. Williams also testified that this was the case.
“Any signal or sign that U.S. support was wavering would be construed by Russia as potentially an opportunity for them to strengthen their own hand in Ukraine,” she said, relaying what Zelensky told Pence during a meeting on Sept. 1.
Williams also said that the now-infamous July 25 call was concerning, but she didn’t raise her worries with anyone.
In the afternoon session, Volker said he didn’t know of “any linkage between the hold on security assistance and Ukraine pursuing investigations.” He did say that any concerns about hypothetical involvement in the 2016 elections by Ukraine, or into the Bidens were “conspiracy theories” and that they shouldn't be pursued “as part of our national security strategy,” per the New York Times. He also admitted that, while he originally drew a “sharp distinction” between Burisma and Joe Biden, he now realizes that was misguided.
Like Volker, Morrison didn’t see anything wrong with the Trump call but did think it was damaging to the public. Morrison also dunked on a witness we’ll hear from on Wednesday (November 20) when he called Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, a mess and that, internally, the National Security Council called the entire situation “the Gordon problem.” It was so much of an issue in Morrison’s eyes that he said he kept track of Sondland’s whereabouts and work.
Wednesday, November 20
In previous weeks, people on the internet lamented that the impeachment proceedings just weren’t interesting enough. They complained the hearings lacked the pizazz necessary to stir up public interest. After Sondland’s testimony on Wednesday, that might be a difficult case to make.
So let’s give ‘em the ol’ razzle-dazzle, shall we?
Enter Sondland, the wealthy hotelier who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee and was later named EU ambassador. He delivered a wild testimony implicating… everyone?
Sondland said he worked closest with Giuliani and Trump (but didn’t actually want to work with Giuliani), and that everyone around him knew what was happening — including Pence. He insisted there was no “shadow government” working on Ukranian deals and that, instead, it was just the normal government doing shady things.
“Everyone was in the loop,” he said. “It was no secret.” Furthermore, there was absolutely quid pro quo, he said in his opening statement.
“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?” Mr. Sondland said in his opening statement. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
He was careful, however, to never actually say whether Trump’s quid pro quo included the $400 million in frozen military aid to Ukraine. “President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on the investigations,” Sondland said. “The aid was my own personal guess based, again, on your analogy: two plus two equals four.”
If we’re being kind, we’d call Sondland’s story evolving; which is to say, it has changed a few times. He says he forgot a lot of what happened because he is “not a note-taker, nor a memo-writer,” but that his memory was jogged by information he received from the White House and State Department. Among those calls was one with Trump on July 26, in which they “primarily discussed A$AP Rocky.”
He also used wildly colorful language during his conversations with Trump, including telling the President that Zelensky “loves your ass.”
While Sondland was giving this testimony, Trump was giving a press conference. But his notes were visible, and we saw, in big block handwriting: "I WANT NOTHING I WANT NOTHING I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO."
During the evening session, we heard from Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia; and David Hale, a state department official. Cooper said that the Ukrainian Embassy was in touch with her staff about military aid on July 25 — the same day Trump and Zelensky spoke on the phone, and a month earlier than we previously thought Ukraine knew about the withheld aid, CNN reported. Cooper’s office learned of the hold on July 18 and were told that it was being held because of corruption in Ukraine.
That evening, we jumped right into the Democratic Presidential Debates, which started with a mention of the impeachment proceedings. Every single person on stage supported the investigation.
Moderator Rachel Maddow first asked Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) if she would try to convince her Republican colleagues in the Senate to vote to convict Trump, according to Esquire. She said she would, of course, do this, and added that “we have to establish the principle: No one is above the law.” She also commented that Sondland, who had testified earlier that day, didn’t have many qualifications for the job, “except one: He wrote a check for a million dollars. And that tells us about what's happening in Washington, the corruption, how money buys its way into Washington…. Anyone who wants to give me a big donation, don't ask to be an ambassador, because I'm not going to have that happen.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) added that she has “made it very clear that this is impeachable conduct and I've called for an impeachment proceeding. I just believe our job as jurors is to look at each count and make a decision.”
Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) said, “We can deal with Trump's corruption, but we also have to stand up for the working families of this country. We also have to stand up to the fact that our political system is corrupt, dominated by a handful of billionaires, and that our economy is rigged with three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of America.”
Mayor Pete Buttigieg recognized that “the president's already confessed to it on television.”
Later in the debate, when moderator Andrea Mitchell asked Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) to add her opinion, she affirmed the need for impeachment proceedings to move forward and begged the question, “What does this mean for the American people?”
Thursday, November 21
Meet Fiona Hill, the White House’s former top Europe and Russia expert, and David Holmes, an official in the United States Embassy in Ukraine, who both testified in front of the committee.
There’s one story that pretty much encapsulates everything you need to know about Hill before we dive in: Years ago, while she was attending school in northern England, a classmate set her pigtails on fire during a test. She put it out with her hands and finished working, according to a profile in the New York Times.
During her testimony, she criticized Republicans for pushing a “fictional narrative’ that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 elections. “I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interest,” she said. “These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes.”
She also quoted John Bolton, the national security adviser at the time, as saying, “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up.” That drug deal? Exchanging a White House meeting and foreign aid for investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 elections.
She also said Sondland 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.”
“I had not put my finger on that at the moment, but I was irritated with [Sondland] and angry with him that he wasn't fully coordinating,” she later added. “And I did say to him, ‘Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up.’ And here we are.”
Holmes said he thought the military aid hold by Trump was “intended by the president either as an expression of dissatisfaction with the Ukrainians who had not yet agreed to the Burisma/Biden investigation, or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so.”
Holmes — who overheard Sondland’s conversation with the president about A$AP Rocky simply because he and Sondland chose the same restaurant in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 26 — confirmed that Trump and Sondland did discuss the rapper. He testified that Sondland told Trump to let A$AP Rocky “get sentenced [in Sweden] and play the racism card” and then later “tell the Kardashians you tried.”
Friday, November 22
We’re now looking forward into what might happen now that most of the Intelligence Committee's impeachment hearings are pretty much over. Democrats can do one of two things: pursue more testimony and more documents or take what they’ve seen, draw up articles of impeachment, and vote on them, CNN reported. If they pursue more testimony and documents, they might have to go through the court, because the White House is blocking some of them. Nancy Pelosi decidedly does not want to do this, according to the news outlet.
“They keep taking it to court and no, we’re not going to wait until the courts decide,” Pelosi said Thursday (November 21). “That might be information that’s available to the Senate in terms of how far we go and when we go, but we can’t wait for that because again it’s a technique. It’s obstruction of justice, obstruction of Congress, so we cannot let their further obstruction of Congress be an impediment to our honoring our oath of office.”
That means the House could vote to impeach Trump before hearing from some people or seeing important documents. We might even hear the result of an impeachment vote by Christmas.