Every week feels weird and wild lately, but this one included some particularly difficult setbacks for President Donald Trump.
- Public impeachment hearings got underway with three credible witnesses – and Trump drew immediate criticism over his decision to attack one, ousted US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, as she was testifying
- New closed-door testimony directly tied Trump to the requirement for investigations when a Ukraine embassy official testified he overheard a phone call between Trump and EU ambassador Gordon Sondland
- Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani faces mounting questions about his role in the conversations and actions that led to the impeachment probe – as well as scrutiny over his relationship with indicted associates
- Trump’s good friend and political adviser Roger Stone was convicted of lying to Congress in a trial that resurfaced questions about the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks in 2016
- Courts handed him fresh losses in his fight to keep his tax returns private, forcing him to go to the Supreme Court
It’s easy to see why Trump would much rather talk about the stock market. On Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 28,000 for the first time ever.
Embassy official details Trump call with Sondland. Wow.
David Holmes, the aide to Bill Taylor who testified behind closed doors Friday, said he and two more witnesses overheard the Sondland and Trump conversation over the phone when Sondland was in a Ukrainian restaurant July 26.
Manu Raju had it first and read the opening statement live on CNN.
The phone wasn’t on speaker, but Trump’s voice was loud enough to be audible through the earpiece, Holmes testified.
He detailed a conversation that veered from Zelensky, who “loves your ass,” Sondland told Trump. “So he’s gonna do the investigation?” Trump asked, according to Holmes. The call then moved on to the plight of the rapper A$AP Rocky, then detained in Sweden, whose cause had been taken up by Kim Kardashian. Read the whole thing here.
After the call, Holmes said Sondland told him Trump didn’t care about Ukraine, but was instead focused on “big stuff” like the Biden investigation that could benefit him politically.
Friday’s split screen
The public saw two stories side by side, thanks to a coincidence of timing:
- Box 1 – Impeachment hearings in Congress
- Box 2 – Stone’s guilty verdict
Stone’s verdict was returned during a break in the Yovanovitch hearing, while members of Congress went to vote. That remarkable pairing encapsulated everything about the Trump era that’s tested the US government in one bizarre hour – the lawbreaking sins of Trump associates that helped to get him to the White House, alongside the often troubling way he’s acted as President.
Trump tweeted an attack on Yovanovitch’s record. “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” he wrote.
A little later, Trump tweeted asking if the Stone conviction might be “a double standard like never seen before in the history of our Country?”
The career diplomat and civil servant is bad. The career political operative with a massive tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back is good.
But rather than a deep state trying to overthrow Trump, Americans have seen credible-seeming ambassadors and diplomats this week week telling lawmakers that the President used taxpayer dollars to force a foreign government into US politics. They’ve seen Yovanovitch talk about being smeared by Giuliani and then seen Trump smear her in real time. And they’ve seen a jury convict Trump’s longtime friend and adviser of lying to cover up how he tried to help Trump win in 2106.
At some point does the drip drip drip start to spill out of the bucket of water that’s being held for him by Republicans on Capitol Hill?
With friends like Trump’s …
Stone’s conviction demands a reassessment of the Mueller investigation, which has now led to the conviction or guilty plea of his
- former campaign chairman Paul Manafort
- former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates
- former national security adviser Michael Flynn
- former foreign policy aide George Papadopoulos
- former personal attorney Michael Cohen
- and, now, his longtime political adviser Roger Stone
Here’s one line that stuck out to me as I browsed over the Mueller report again this afternoon:
Thomas Barrack and Roger Stone both recommended Manafort to candidate Trump. In early 2016, at Manafort’s request, Barrack suggested to Trump that Manafort join the Campaign to manage the Republican Convention. Stone had worked with Manafort from approximately 1980 until the mid-1990s through various consulting and lobbying firms. Manafort met Trump in 1982 when Trump hired the Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly lobbying firm. Over the years, Manafort saw Trump at political and social events in New York City and at Stone’s wedding, and Trump requested VIP status at the 1988 and 1996 Republican conventions worked by Manafort.
He’s close to the type of people who do political consulting work for Russia-backed governments and hide the money he makes (Manafort), who lie to Congress and work with Wikileaks to orchestrate leaks and then lie about it (Stone), and who solicit foreign money for his inaugural committee (Thomas Barrack, currently under scrutiny).
Or, for that matter, who appear to try to build business deals into political efforts (Giuliani), and who then get someone like Yovanovitch called home.
Did Trump dig a new hole with the Yovanovitch tweet?
The most important moment of the Yovanovitch testimony came when Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff read Trump’s tweets – which she hadn’t seen, since she was sitting in the witness chair testifying – and asked her to respond. Yovanovitch said that, as an ambassador, she found it “very intimidating.”
His attacks, during her testimony, were condemned even by Republicans. Some Democrats called them witness intimidation, which they could tack onto an article of impeachment.
Republicans did not follow Trump’s lead
If Trump was transmitting to his followers that she should be attacked, the cue had the opposite effect on the Republican questioners at the hearings, who were even more deferential to her afterward.
They seemed to just want the hearing to end. And if Trump was watching after his tweet attacking her, he had to sit through hours of his fellow Republicans praising her service.
Few questions to undermine Yovanovitch
New York Rep. Elise Stefanik used her time to read back old Schiff quotes about the importance of the whistleblower. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the GOP’s attack dog for impeachment witnesses, passed on opportunities to question her for hours. When he did get around to it, he asked, in a very pointed and longwinded way, whether Trump was right, given criticism of him by Ukrainian officials in 2016, to question if US tax dollars should be going to Ukraine.
It was the most effective set of questions, although Yovanovitch answered it well, but the military aid has to do with helping Ukraine stand up to Russia and not rewarding foreign politicians for supporting the US president.
“You’re here. You’ve endured.”
And regarding the intimidation, Vermont Rep. Peter Welch said the danger is more for future witnesses than Yovanovitch.
“He didn’t intimidate you. You’re here. You’ve endured,” he said.
CNN’s Mary Ilyushina and Marshall Cohen note that former Ukraine Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko responded to Yovanovitch’s testimony on Facebook.
From his verified Facebook account, Lutsenko responded to another public post praising Yovanovitch and said she was the victim of a smear campaign. Lutsenko responded: “She lies. And I have proof.”
Lutsenko’s name came up several times during the Yovanovitch hearing, and previous hearings in the impeachment inquiry. He has been described by witnesses and lawmakers as a “corrupt” prosecutor. Earlier this year, he spread discredited allegations about Yovanovitch and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump’s other Zelensky call transcript released
The White House also released, and Devin Nunes read aloud at the impeachment hearing, a transcript of Trump’s first call with Zelensky, shortly after he was elected in April. Trump and Zelensky gushed over each other and there were was no tacit pressure by Trump on Zelensky. But that actually raised some questions since the White House readout at the time suggested Trump had raised the issue of fighting corruption in Ukraine. Which thing is wrong? The initial White House readout or the transcript released today.
Here’s how Dana Bash reacted when John King read off Trump praising Zelensky for Ukraine’s Miss Universe contestants.
Impeachment Watch Podcast
CNN national security analyst Sam Vinograd is our guest host and breaks down today’s historic testimony with CNN senior reporter Vicky Ward and CNN global affairs analyst Max Boot. Listen here.
Coming next week
AM public hearing: Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence. Both listened to the July 25 Trump-Zelensky phone call and were concerned.
Public hearing: US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, who was in frequent contact with Trump about Ukraine – including the July 26 restaurant phone call – and who delivered the aid for investigations ultimatum to the Ukrainians
Public hearing: Former NSC Russia expert Fiona Hill, who was frustrated by Trump’s approach to foreign policy and has documented the concerns John Bolton, who is not yet set to testify
What are we doing here?
The President has invited foreign powers to interfere in the US presidential election.
Democrats want to impeach him for it.
It is a crossroads for the American system of government as the President tries to change what’s acceptable for US politicians. This newsletter will focus on this consequential moment in US history.