While House Democrats concluded their public hearings last Thursday in the impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump, a flurry of new developments and disclosures this week appeared to increase the odds that he will become the third U.S. president to face a trial in the Senate that could (although most likely won’t) end with his removal from office. Here are some of the latest revelations:
Trump knew about whistleblower complaint in late August
On Tuesday night, the New York Times reported that Trump had been informed in late August that a whistleblower within his administration had filed a formal complaint about his July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine. The timing is significant because part of the Democrats’ case against him is that he held up military aid to Ukraine to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 election.
When they testified last week before the House Intelligence Committee, Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and State Department official David Holmes recounted a July 26 cellphone conversation Sondland had with Trump.
“I heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s going to do the investigation?’ Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s going to do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to,’” Holmes testified.
Sondland’s opening statement made clear that he had been directed by members of the Trump administration to seek a quid pro quo agreement with Ukraine’s government.
“I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo’?” Sondland told lawmakers. “With regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
By late August, White House lawyers were attempting to determine whether the administration was legally required to release the aid, since the funds had been allocated by Congress, the Times reported. Ukrainian officials had begun asking after the aid and members of Congress had also started to pressure the administration to deliver it.
The aid was released on Sept. 11, without Zelensky making any such announcement, a fact that Republicans cite in Trump’s defense.
But the presumptive rebuttal is that the White House knew it was, or would be, under investigation over the “quid pro quo” and ordered the release of the aid to cover its tracks. The Times reporting buttresses that version of events.
In fact, just two days earlier, the whistleblower’s complaint had been referred to the House Intelligence Committee. Trump and Sondland spoke on the phone that day, and Sondland asked the president what he wanted him to tell Zelensky.
Trump gave a reply that his supporters say proves his innocence but which Democrats believe reads very much like a premeditated alibi.
“I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing,” Sondland recalled Trump saying in the phone call.
Trump throws Giuliani under the bus
On Tuesday, Trump gave an interview to Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News host who was fired from the network in April 2017. The president made news when O’Reilly asked him what Rudy Giuliani, his lawyer and fixer, was doing in Ukraine “on your behalf.”
“Well, you have to ask that to Rudy, but Rudy, I don’t, I don’t even know,” Trump responded. “I know he was going to go to Ukraine, and I think he canceled a trip. But, you know, Rudy has other clients other than me. I’m one person.”
“So, you didn’t direct him to go there on your behalf?” O’Reilly pressed.
“No, but you have to understand, Rudy is a great corruption fighter,” Trump said.
“Giuliani’s your personal lawyer,” O’Reilly said. “So you didn’t direct him to go to Ukraine to do anything or put any heat on them?”
“No, I didn’t direct him, but he’s a warrior, Rudy’s a warrior,” Trump continued. “Rudy went, he possibly saw something. But you have to understand, Rudy has other people that he represents. … I think he’s done work in Ukraine for years, I mean that’s what I heard. I might have even read that someplace.”
This new defense by the president clashes with the summary released by the White House of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky. In it, Trump tells Zelensky to consult with Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr about the investigations of the Bidens and the 2016 election.
“Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you,” Trump told Zelensky, according to the official summary. “I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General. Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great.”
Multiple impeachment witnesses have testified that Giuliani played a lead role in pressure applied to Ukrainian officials to produce the investigations Trump sought.
Giuliani had dealings with Ukrainian prosecutor looking for dirt on Bidens
Not 24 hours after Trump had distanced himself from Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s personal lawyer negotiated this year for a $200,000 fee to represent Yuri Lutsenko, the former top prosecutor from that country, in legal proceedings to recover purportedly looted government assets. The two met in January in New York and a month later in Warsaw at a time when Lutsenko was helping Giuliani gather dirt on the Bidens.
Giuliani helped instigate the firing of Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who Giuliani viewed as an impediment to his maneuverings.
It does not appear that the retainer ever went into effect, or that Giuliani was paid the money, but it adds to the accumulating evidence of the tangled relationships among the president’s lawyer, the State Department and various parties in Ukraine, whose interests aren’t always transparent.
Investigators receive recordings from indicted Giuliani associate Lev Parnas
While he awaits trial in the Southern District of New York over allegations of campaign finance law violations, Lev Parnas, one of two Giuliani associates arrested as they were about to fly to Europe in October, has provided the House Intelligence Committee with audio and video recordings that relate to his role in seeking a Ukrainian investigation of the Bidens, ABC News reported. Some of the images and recordings are said to feature Giuliani and Trump.
Parnas and Igor Fruman were subpoenaed by House investigators but were arrested at Dulles International Airport holding one-way tickets out of the country. Parnas had lobbied members of Congress for Yovanovitch’s ouster.
Asked about his association with Parnas and Fruman, Trump denied knowing the men. “I don’t know those gentlemen. Now it’s possible I have a picture with them because I have a picture with everybody, I have a picture with everybody here,” Trump said. Since then, numerous photographs have surfaced of them with Trump, including at the White House.
White House officials resigned over freeze on military aid to Ukraine
While President Trump and his defenders have repeatedly claimed that the administration’s order to freeze military aid to Ukraine was legal and appropriate, two officials at the Office of Management and Budget apparently disagreed.
The two OMB officials left the agency at least partly due to concern that the freeze violated the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, which prohibits the executive branch from altering spending approved by Congress. That disclosure was contained in the transcript of testimony given to House investigators by Mark Sandy, deputy associate director for national security at OMB.
Just hours after Trump spoke with Zelensky on July 25 and requested the “favor” of investigations that could help his reelection campaign, an official at OMB signed a document authorizing the withholding of $250 million in military aid to Ukraine, which is fighting a war with Russian-backed insurgents, the Post reported.
Despite concerns by Sandy and the two officials, Mike Duffey, a political appointee at OMB, signed off on the paperwork authorizing that the aid be withheld.
Duffey has refused to honor a subpoena for his testimony in the matter.
House Judiciary Committee schedules first impeachment hearing
The next public step in the impeachment inquiry comes on Dec. 4, when the House Judiciary Committee will hold its first hearing to decide what, if any, articles of impeachment will be voted on by the full House of Representatives.
In this phase, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., will hand the baton to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who will oversee the proceedings, which, in essence, will decide whether Trump will be charged with an impeachable offense.
“As Chairman Schiff indicated yesterday, the impeachment inquiry is entering into a new phase,” Nadler said in a statement. “Our first task is to explore the framework put in place to respond to serious allegations of impeachable misconduct like those against President Trump.”
The public hearings will include more witnesses and legal experts. Lawyers for Trump, who has often complained that he has been denied due process in the proceedings so far, will be allowed to question those who appear.
“I have also written to President Trump to remind him that the Committee’s impeachment inquiry rules allow for the President to attend the hearing and for his counsel to question the witness panel. At base, the President has a choice to make: he can take this opportunity to be represented in the impeachment hearings, or he can stop complaining about the process. I hope that he chooses to participate in the inquiry, directly or through counsel, as other Presidents have done before him,” Nadler said.
Public opinion holds firm
Over the past several days, Trump has declared that the impeachment inquiry hearings have backfired on Democrats.
“They’re pushing that impeachment witch hunt, and a lot of bad things are happening to them,” Trump said at a Tuesday rally in Sunrise, Fla. “Because you see what’s happening with the polls?”
Trump didn’t cite a specific survey to prove his point, but a CNN poll released Tuesday undercut his boast.
Asked whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office, 50 percent of Americans polled said yes, 43 percent said no, and 6 percent had no opinion. Those numbers are basically unchanged from when the same poll was conducted a month earlier.