Democrats have a couple of weeks and a handful of public hearings to present their case for President Trump’s impeachment to the American people. And in the lead-up to this phase of the impeachment process, they’ve interviewed more than a dozen witnesses who have all shed light on various aspects of the Trump administration’s attempts to pressure Ukraine to investigate his potential political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden’s son Hunter. Some of those witnesses will appear in televised hearings this week.
Understanding each witness’ role in the story can be tricky, though, so one way to think about it is in three rough layers, with each set of witnesses addressing a different part of the narrative. In the first — let’s call it outer — layer, there is a chorus of diplomats and other officials who don’t necessarily have direct insight into the ins and outs of the Trump administration’s communications with Ukraine. They have recounted how Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, led an effort to circumvent official diplomatic channels and even undermine a career diplomat in an apparent effort to convince Ukrainian officials to investigate Trump’s political enemies. In the second layer, a smaller group of officials tried to raise the alarm about Giuliani’s pressure campaign by reporting misconduct and pushing back against Trump’s allies, only to be met with silence or resistance. And finally, a handful of witnesses — including the top diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, who is publicly testifying on Wednesday — have said they actually saw evidence of a quid pro quo where almost $400 million in military aid and a White House meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were contingent on the Ukrainians’ willingness to announce an investigation into Trump’s political rivals.
To be clear, only one witness at this point — European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland — has linked Trump directly to a quid pro quo. He’s scheduled to appear next week in what will likely be a very high-profile hearing. But as the public hearings kick off, we’ll start to see how Democrats are planning to take the mountain of evidence they’ve gathered so far and build it into a larger case against Trump. Taken together, the different layers of witness testimony reinforce and build on each other, to tell a story of how Trump and his allies worked to subvert and manipulate U.S. policy on Ukraine in service of the president’s political goals, over the protestations of career diplomats and senior White House officials. To say this could be very damaging to Trump is probably an understatement — but it will also be up to Democrats to connect these dots in a way that clearly implicates Trump.
Officials on the periphery saw Giuliani’s behavior as dangerous and “unprecedented”
Underlying much of the testimony made publicly available so far is a running theme: Career diplomats were worried about Trump’s attitude toward Ukraine, and Giuliani’s influence was widely seen as a threat to diplomatic efforts. An important thread in this story is the firing of former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch last spring, which multiple witnesses have portrayed as a disturbing example of the extent to which Trumpian politics had infected U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine.
In transcripts released last week by House investigators, Yovanovitch, who is testifying publicly on Friday, spoke about how she was warned by a senior Ukrainian official that she was being targeted by Giuliani and his associates because of her anti-corruption work, which appeared to threaten Giuliani and his associates’ financial interests. She said that over time, it became clear to her that Giuliani was interested in investigations “with a view to finding things that could be possibly damaging to a presidential run,” adding that she saw Giuliani’s push for investigations into the Bidens as “unprecedented.” Meanwhile, former high-level State Department aide Michael McKinley, who resigned from the State Department last month, said in testimony also released last week that his decision to leave was prompted by his belief that Yovanovitch had been removed for political reasons and that the country’s foreign policy apparatus was being used to dig up political dirt on Trump’s rivals.
It might seem odd that one of the Democrats’ first witnesses is a person who was ousted from her position in Ukraine months before the now-infamous call in which Trump asked Zelensky to “do us a favor” and investigate the Bidens. But many other witnesses have confirmed that there was widespread concern about the circumstances of Yovanovitch’s removal, including some who are more peripheral to the action, such as a former Ukraine advisor on the National Security Council who said she received “multiple calls” from a Trump-aligned lobbyist pressing for Yovanovitch’s firing. This episode seems to have become a crucial part of Democrats’ broader case that Trump wasn’t acting with the country’s best interests in mind. Republicans may try to portray Yovanovitch as an ancillary character with a grudge against Trump, but Yovanovitch’s firing is still important stage-setting as Democrats try to paint Trump and Giuliani as eager to bend U.S. foreign policy for their own personal and political gain.
People who tried to raise the alarm were ignored or silenced
Other witnesses, including George Kent, a senior State Department official who will testify publicly on Wednesday, have told Democrats that they tried to raise the alarm about the pressure campaign they saw unfolding but their concerns were ignored, dismissed or even suppressed. This could turn into another important prong of attack for Democrats because it underscores how the push for investigations was opposed by the Trump administration’s own experts — but Trump’s allies kept moving forward anyway.
Kent, for instance, told investigators that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had sidelined career diplomats and instead tasked Energy Secretary Rick Perry, E.U. Ambassador Sondland and special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker — who allegedly called themselves the “three amigos” — with overseeing Ukraine policy. At another point, after expressing worries about Giuliani’s contact with Ukraine, Kent said he was told to “lay low.”
Several other aides have told similar stories about their attempts to raise concerns. Testimony from Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia advisor on the NSC, emphasized that misgivings about the “shadow foreign policy” led by Giuliani were widespread, even extending to former national security advisor John Bolton, who — according to Hill — called Giuliani a “hand grenade” and referred to Sondland’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials to investigate the Bidens as a “drug deal” in a July 10 meeting. Hill told House investigators that Bolton told her to report details of the meeting to NSC lawyer John Eisenberg, but it’s not clear what Eisenberg did after that.
Alexander Vindman, the NSC’s Ukraine expert, who along with Hill will also be testifying publicly next week, said he also reported the July 10 incident to Eisenberg and even confronted Sondland after the meeting, telling him that his behavior was “inappropriate.” After listening to the Trump-Zelensky call, Vindman took his concerns to Eisenberg once again — and was told not to tell anyone about the call. He also said he tried to fix omissions in the summary of the call, which was released by the Trump administration back in September, but not all of his corrections appeared in the public version.
Some of these details have been disputed by other witnesses. Sondland, for example, has said he doesn’t remember bringing up investigations at the July 10 meeting, adding, “I thought it was a great meeting and we all left happy.” Republicans could try to exploit that conflicting testimony if Vindman ends up testifying publicly. But overall, all of these accounts emphasize that when several senior officials tried to communicate their alarm about the investigations, their concerns were ignored by more powerful figures in the Trump administration.
Trump’s pressure on Ukraine was more than a “request”
Central to the impeachment inquiry is whether Trump withheld military aid and a much-discussed White House meeting in an effort to pressure the Ukrainians into publicly announcing a probe into the Bidens. The most direct evidence that there was an explicit connection between the aid, the meeting and the investigations comes from Sondland. But Sondland won’t be appearing until next week, so in this week’s hearings Democrats will be leaning on two other figures — Taylor and Kent — to lay out the evidence.
In his deposition, Taylor said that, based on his communications with Sondland and other White House officials, it was clear to him that the aid wouldn’t be released until Zelensky had publicly agreed to an investigation. In Taylor’s testimony, he also told investigators that he wasn’t alarmed by Giuliani’s involvement in Ukraine diplomacy until it became apparent that Giuliani had opened an “irregular channel” focused on advancing the president’s political and personal interests.
Kent, for his part, has also said he was briefed by Taylor on the conversation between Sondland and Trump. In his deposition last month, he told House investigators that Trump “wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to microphone and say investigations, Biden and Clinton.” NSC aide Tim Morrison, who’s on next week’s roster of witnesses as well, has testified that he also understood from Sondland that the funds would be released if Ukraine publicly committed to a probe of the Bidens. And another witness — Vindman — has said that after hearing the call with Zelensky “there was no doubt” in his mind that Trump was demanding the investigation of U.S. citizens.
What Democrats don’t appear to have at this point is a witness who can testify directly about why the White House withheld the aid. Sondland has only said that he “presumed” the funds were tied to an investigation. And the other witnesses didn’t speak with Trump himself about communications with Ukraine. But the testimony Democrats already gathered contains plenty of circumstantial evidence. What we have yet to see is how they’ll stitch those threads together, and how compelling their story will be for people tuning into the hearings.
One big question, too, will be how much the Democrats lose by not slowing down the investigation and trying to force other key players — like Perry, Bolton or Mulvaney — to testify. As I’ve written before, Democrats’ ambitious timetable makes it practically impossible for them to fight a battle over their subpoenas in court. They’re betting that the testimony they’ve obtained from willing witnesses will be enough to make the case for Trump’s impeachment. Soon enough, we’ll see whether that gamble pays off.