If Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee brought home one fundamental point during a week that put Donald Trump’s presidency through the fire, it’s that the witnesses before the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry weren’t sufficiently senior to really know what Trump intended by withholding aid and political support from Ukraine.
Democrats mocked that position as seeing no evil after a dozen career diplomats, military officers, and others provided an onslaught of detail about a campaign to put Trump’s domestic political opponents under a cloud of suspicion. And they had unlikely help from one of that campaign’s key instruments, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who devastated a weeks-long GOP defense by testifying about his role setting up what he called a “quid pro quo.”
But the Republican line inadvertently highlighted a fundamental weakness of the impeachment inquiry. The seven most important witnesses never appeared—and were never going to show up.
Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, ex-National Security Adviser John Bolton, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Vice President Mike Pence and Trump himself each took a turn as key figures in the testimonies, roles most of them denied in statements issued after the fact that were decidedly not under oath. Still, the accounts given over eight days have implicated most of them even more deeply than before it began. The fact that they’re unlikely to ever account under oath for the Ukraine pressure effort will help Republicans, especially those in the Senate charged with judging Trump’s guilt, escape what Democrats consider a constitutional reckoning.
Only one of them emerged from the hearings with his reputation enhanced. Bolton, whose White House tenure ended in September after he proved too hawkish for Trump, was described by two of his former staffers, Fiona Hill and Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, as a bulwark against using the National Security Council for a “drug deal” of weaponizing foreign policy for Trump’s 2020 interests. A canny bureaucratic operative, Bolton used a court case as a pretext not to testify, thereby avoiding the destruction of his standing amongst Trump’s allies.
Perhaps the most damaged by the hearings was Pompeo. Pompeo, justly or not, entered the impeachment inquiry as a background figure, one supposedly outside the remit of Giuliani and the “Three Amigos” of Sondland, special Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, and Perry.
But Sondland instead pushed Pompeo into the center of the scandal, as he outlined numerous emails to the secretary and his direct subordinates outlining Sondland’s role in pressuring Kyiv. Outside of Sondland expressly saying Trump and Giuliani had directed him to secure public pledges from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to implicate Joe Biden in a foreign corruption investigation, Sondland’s most memorable quote was his declaration that “everyone”—and particularly Pompeo, his boss—“was in the loop.” That perhaps should not have come as a surprise, since diplomats George Kent and Bill Taylor testified that ardent State Department support for fired Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, the target of a Giuliani-fueled smear campaign, mysteriously vanished at Pompeo’s level.
Yet Sondland, despite praise from Democrats for giving them what they wanted, was a slippery figure. A wealthy hotelier who bought his ambassadorship with a $1 million donation, Sondland insisted he had no idea until late September that Trump’s desire to investigate Burisma, the corrupt Ukrainian natural-gas company that put Biden’s son on its board, was all about Biden. His now-perhaps-ex-amigo Volker, a career diplomat, made the same assurance. But Hill, testifying in Thursday’s final hearing, bluntly recounted Giuliani’s repeated public statements, especially in the spring of 2019 when the pressure scheme took flight, that the point of raising the Burisma issue was to damage Biden, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. So did David Holmes, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv’s political director, who said Sondland referenced “the Biden investigation” to him after a July 26 phone call with Trump.
While Pompeo’s role may have gone overlooked, none can say the same about Mulvaney. It was Mulvaney who executed the months-long hold on $400 million in defense aid for Ukraine. And it was Mulvaney who on Oct. 17 issued the Colonel Jessup-like statement that they held up the aid because of “corruption related to the DNC server”—a complicated conspiracy theory but no less the quo for the quid—and everyone should “get over it.”
But Mulvaney’s role may extend beyond the alleged crime to the cover-up. The State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, David Hale, told the inquiry in a deposition that the department had gathered voluminous internal documents that lawmakers had subpoenaed. “While we were doing that,” Hale said, “we got notice from the White House that we were not to share these documents.” The White House had long pledged noncooperation with what it calls an illegitimate inquiry, and Pompeo had impotently forbade U.S. diplomats from testifying. But Hale described the White House as ordering Foggy Bottom to withhold relevant material—something unlikely to have occurred without the approval of Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff.
Perhaps one of the biggest question marks in the Ukraine saga is the only unspoken-for amigo: Perry. His priority as the Department of Energy chief has been to promote U.S. energy exports, particularly of natural gas—a commodity that the domestic energy sector wants in the Ukrainian market. Thus, tasked by Trump to handle the Ukraine push along with Volker and Sondland, Perry was present for most of the critical moments in the timeline and, by several accounts, was well aware of exactly the sort of investigation the president was after. In his hearing Wednesday, Sondland displayed a July 19 email he sent to Perry, Pompeo, and other senior officials in which he said he had just spoken to Zelensky and obtained his commitment for a “fully transparent investigation.”
On Oct. 26, Perry told the Associated Press that he never once heard the word “Burisma” or the Bidens mentioned in the context of his Ukraine work. He also made clear he would refuse to testify, calling the impeachment inquiry “illegal” and “improper.”
As he has been for much of the administration, Pence is a cipher in the impeachment inquiry. One of his staffers, Jennifer Williams, testified that a different staffer had informed her Trump had vetoed Pence’s dispatch to Kyiv for Zelensky’s May inauguration before the Ukrainians had even scheduled it. She also told the inquiry that Zelensky had asked Pence about aid freeze during a meeting in Warsaw, but Pence did little more than pledge “unwavering support” for Ukraine.
Giuliani, of course, is at the center of everything. Blamed by various witnesses for taking a sledgehammer to the U.S.-Ukraine relationship with his brutal campaign to smear Yovanovitch and putting the screws to Ukraine for a public commitment from Zelensky for politically valuable investigations, the president’s personal lawyer would be grilled by lawmakers over the extent to which Trump personally directed him to pursue the project. Giuliani won’t testify under oath, but he’s been on the record more so than perhaps any other key witness, tweeting frequently and taking interviews constantly. Even committee Republicans found it beneficial to treat Giuliani, once deceitfully lionized as America’s Mayor, as a malefactor, a distraction and a joke.
“I came into this at Volker’s request,” Giuliani tweeted during Sondland’s testimony in an attempt to rebut him in real time. “Sondland is speculating based on VERY little contact. I never met him and had very few calls with him, mostly with Volker.” He later deleted the tweet.
Above them all stands Trump himself. With the no-quid pro quo defense tattered by Sondland, his committee defenders were left to credulously insist that because Trump told Sondland “I want nothing” out of Ukraine in an early-September phone call, he must be exonerated. Intelligence committee Democrat Val Demings (FL) called that curious response—which came after the White House learned a whistleblower had lodged a complaint—into question. Trump’s other major intervention in the hearings was to attack Yovanovitch in a tweet while she was testifying, a move that might yield an additional article of impeachment. (The White House’s Twitter account also went after Vindman while the Army officer testified.)
In a perfect world, Democrats say, they’d have the time and space to secure the testimony of one or more of these key witnesses. They have little of either. Party leaders believe that the closer to the 2020 election the inquiry goes—or drags—the worse it is for them politically. The White House, meanwhile, is issuing blanket claims of executive privilege to justify top officials ignoring congressional subpoenas. Democrats say they don’t have time to go to court and fight for a break in the stonewalling.
“The people that aren’t coming in are hiding behind different defenses, are just flat-out obstructing, and we’re not going to wait on that,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), an Intelligence Committee member.
It’s not lost on Democrats how significant it would be to land a witness like Pompeo or Giuliani. But some are emphasizing that what they have already is significant enough to move forward. “If you have five witnesses who confirm a fact, do you need a sixth?” asked Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI). “I think there’s ample evidence that the president of the United States attempted to bribe a foreign leader to interfere in American presidential election and used military assistance as leverage to do that.”
When Thursday’s hearing wrapped, Schiff revealed little in the way of detail for the inquiry’s next steps. It is unclear whether the committee will hold more open hearings or closed-door witness depositions; none are currently scheduled. With Congress headed into a week-long break for Thanksgiving, Schiff said lawmakers “need to consult our conscience and constituents and decide whether that remedy”—impeachment—“is necessary here.”
In a lengthy closing statement, the chairman aimed to focus that soul-searching.
“Do we care about the big stuff?” he asked. “Like the Constitution or the oath of office, or do we only care about party?”