Washington: Donald Trump’s presidency was dealt multiple blows this week as impeachment testimony portrayed him as fixated on squeezing a political favour from Ukraine, a one-time confidant was convicted of lying to Congress and new details emerged about a federal investigation of his personal lawyer.
Over two days of public hearings, a trio of career diplomats outlined what they saw as a back-channel pressure campaign on Ukraine led at Trump’s direction by Rudy Giuliani. It was an effort that sometimes relied on corrupt elements in Ukraine, they said, and was aimed at securing investigations that would damage one of Trump’s political rivals.
Their testimony was bolstered by the deposition that David Holmes, a current official at the US embassy in Kyiv, delivered behind closed doors on Friday. Holmes detailed a phone call between Trump and a top diplomat, which directly implicates the president in that pressure campaign.
Eight more current and former administration officials are scheduled to testify next week, including two with direct involvement in parts of the Ukraine saga at the Centre of the impeachment inquiry being conducted by House Democrats.
Despite the onslaught of bad news, there is no sign yet of a break in Trump’s wall of GOP support in Congress. While the Democratic majority in the House appears headed toward impeaching the president, it’s unlikely at this point that 20 GOP senators are ready to abandon Trump and provide the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office.
The bigger risk for the president may be that the wall-to-wall coverage of the proceedings prove politically damaging for him ahead of his 2020 re-election campaign.
With the White House blocking Trump’s closest aides from cooperating, Democrats have been building a narrative through the mostly second-hand accounts of experienced diplomats, who are accustomed to taking careful notes and tying together threads of evidence.
On Wednesday, William Taylor, the acting US ambassador in Ukraine, and State Department official George Kent described coming to the realisation that Trump’s allies were leading a “highly irregular” channel of parallel diplomacy that diverged from established US policy approved by Congress.
That was reinforced Friday by Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled as the ambassador to Ukraine in May following what she said was a “smear campaign” led by Giuliani and his associates. She said being ousted in that manner damaged US policy and gave “shady interests the world over” a lesson in how to get rid of an American envoy who doesn’t give them what they want.
“Our leadership depends on the power of our example and the consistency of our purpose. Both have now been opened to question,” Yovanovitch told the House Intelligence Committee on Friday.
Although she didn’t witness to the events central to the Democratic-led impeachment investigation, her testimony so agitated Trump that he delivered an insult-by-tweet at the same time she was speaking before the Intelligence Committee and a national television audience.
A short time after that tweet and a few blocks from the Capitol complex where the hearing was underway, a federal jury delivered a guilty verdict for Roger Stone, a longtime GOP operative and early Trump booster, who was charged with lying to Congress and obstructing a congressional inquiry. The case included evidence that Trump knew during his 2016 campaign about WikiLeaks’ plans to release emails damaging to his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Separately, three US officials told Bloomberg that Giuliani — who former national security adviser John Bolton compared to a “hand grenade” poised to blow up in the White House — is under investigation by federal prosecutors for possible campaign finance violations and failure to register as a foreign agent. It’s part of an active probe of Giuliani’s financial dealings that potentially could expose Trump to a new level of legal and political jeopardy.
Amid those developments, Trump is fighting a battle at the Supreme Court to prevent both the Democratic-led House and prosecutors in New York from getting access to his tax returns and other financial records.
Yovanovitch served as sympathetic casualty of the Ukraine saga, someone who joined the US foreign service under Republican Ronald Reagan and worked under presidents of both parties. For decades she took some of the harshest assignments in the diplomatic corps only to be recalled from Ukraine without explanation and badmouthed by Trump.
“I had no other agenda other than to pursue our stated foreign policy goals,” Yovanovitch said.
Yovanovitch had already testified she felt threatened when she read that Trump called her “bad news” during his July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and said “she’s going to go through some things.”
Democrats said Trump’s tweet during hearing amounted to witness intimidation that could form the basis of an article of impeachment for obstruction. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi already has raised the prospect of a bribery count if Democrats go through with impeachment.
“We saw today witness intimidation in real time by the president of the United States,” Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said during a break in the hearing. “We take this kind of witness intimidation and obstruction very seriously.”
Some Republicans said they disagreed with Trump tweeting about Yovanovitch, though his defenders sought to minimise the damage.
New York Republican Lee Zeldin said the tweets weren’t witness intimidation because “Ambassador Yovanovitch wasn’t on Twitter” at the time and only knew about it because Schiff read it to her during the hearing.
Members of the Intelligence Committee went straight from Yovanovitch’s public testimony to the closed-door hearing with Holmes on Friday. Holmes told the committee about a phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, regarding the investigations that the president and his allies were demanding of Ukraine.
According to Holmes’s opening statement, obtained by CNN, he was with Sondland on the terrace of a restaurant in Kiev when the ambassador used his cell phone to call Trump to brief him on a meeting with Zelenskiy. Holmes said Sondland held the phone out because “the president’s voice was very loud and recognisable,” allowing others at the table to hear both sides of the conversation.
Trump asked about “the investigations,” and Sondland assured him that Zelenskiy would do anything Trump asked him to do, according to Holmes’s testimony.
Holmes said he later asked Sondland if the president cared about Ukraine, and Sondland said Trump did not “give a s — about Ukraine.”
“I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about ‘big stuff,’” Holmes testified, according to the document posted by CNN. “I noted that there was ‘big stuff’ going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia, and Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant ‘big stuff’ that benefits the president, like the ‘Biden investigation.” ‘
Holmes’s testimony undercuts two main thrusts of the Republican defence in the impeachment inquiry: That witnesses thus far didn’t have first-hand knowledge of events, and that Trump wasn’t directly implicated.
This revelation also raises the stakes for Sondland’s public testimony next week. Sondland, a hotel executive who donated $1 million (Dh3.67 million) to Trump’s inaugural committee, answered many of the questions during his closed-door testimony last month by saying he didn’t recall the details of relevant events regarding Ukraine.
The next round of public hearings also includes Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a US Army officer assigned to the White House National Security Council who listened in on Trump’s July 25 call with Zelenskiy. He’s previously testified that he was so disturbed by what he heard that he reported his concerns to the NSC’s legal counsel.
Vindman’s statement corroborates the complaint made by an intelligence community whistle-blower who Trump and his Republican allies have repeatedly sought to discredit and dismiss.
Others who are scheduled to testify include: Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence; Ambassador Kurt Volker, the former US special envoy to Ukraine; Tim Morrison, an NSC aide focusing on Europe and Russia policy; Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defence for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs; David Hale, the under secretary of State for political affairs; and Fiona Hill, former NSC senior director for Europe and Russia.