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Witnesses In House Impeachment Probe Testify Publicly This Week


Does the evidence show President Trump abused his power? We start to hear for ourselves this week witnesses testify publicly in the House impeachment inquiry, and we prepare this morning by examining the evidence so far.


ADAM SCHIFF: Good morning. We are in the middle of a deposition involving...

INSKEEP: Democrat Adam Schiff is leading the investigation.


SCHIFF: The most important facts are largely not contested.

INSKEEP: Until now, lawmakers have asked questions in private, although last week, Schiff emerged from a secure committee room to talk of the public hearings.


SCHIFF: We will be beginning with the testimony of Ambassador Taylor and Ambassador Kent on Wednesday.

INSKEEP: Our diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen is with us since so many of the witnesses are diplomats. Hi, Michelle.


INSKEEP: And how does one witness describe what he experienced in Ukraine?

KELEMEN: So this is Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. In his deposition, he said, quote, "it's a rancorous story about whistleblowers, Mr. Giuliani, side channels, quid pro quos, corruption, interference in elections."

INSKEEP: Rancorous story - and we'll get into some of those other details - these words among thousands of pages of sworn testimony, which have been taken in private up to now.

KELEMEN: And what he was describing was the president's private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who has this kind of irregular channel to Ukraine, trying to get Ukraine to investigate Trump's political rivals. The president even mentioned some of those requests in that now notorious phone call in July with Ukraine's new president.

INSKEEP: Well, let's set the scene, though. What is the official U.S. policy toward Ukraine? What is it the U.S. wants to do?

KELEMEN: Well, Taylor says he took the job because he understood that this was a bipartisan policy to help Ukraine. The U.S. wants to - and again, these are his words - help young people in a young nation, hopeful their new government will finally usher in a new Ukraine, proud of its independence from Russia, eager to join Western institutions and enjoy a more secure and prosperous life.

INSKEEP: OK, that's stirring. So how did that bipartisan effort, then, get overshadowed by the rancorous story?

KELEMEN: Well, the witnesses, including Taylor, have described this separate effort, this separate channel to pressure Ukraine to start investigations. These include investigations into debunked conspiracy theories about the 2016 election and into former Vice President Joe Biden, whose son was on the board of an energy company.

INSKEEP: And we should mention that a leading figure in this campaign was this man.


RUDY GIULIANI: I always thought Joe Biden was intellectually challenged but a nice guy. I never knew the depth of this corruption.

INSKEEP: Rudy Giuliani is on Fox there talking with Laura Ingraham. So he's President Trump's private lawyer. He's pushing Ukrainian officials to announce investigations. Michele, did he have any official authorization to do that?

KELEMEN: Well, he says he did. Let's listen to more of what he said to Laura Ingraham.


GUILIANI: And you know who I did it at the request of? The State Department. I never talked to a Ukrainian official (laughter) until the State Department called me and asked me to do it. And then I reported every conversation back to them and - Laura, I'm a pretty good lawyer, just a country lawyer, but it's all here - right here.

INSKEEP: The video shows him holding up his phone.


GUILIANI: The first call from the State Department, the debriefing of the State Department.

LAURA INGRAHAM: So why are they...

INSKEEP: Was Giuliani really working with U.S. diplomats?

KELEMEN: Well, the testimony shows he was working with some State Department officials, though diplomats say he was the one that was pushing for these investigations; he wasn't following State Department orders to do that. And the testimony shows that many were not comfortable with this. One of the diplomats Giuliani dealt with was Kurt Volker. He was the special envoy to Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Well, I have some of his sworn testimony here, and this is a quote - Kurt Volker - "All of the things that we're trying to do to advance the bilateral relationship, strengthen the positioning against Russia, is now getting sucked into a domestic political debate in the U.S."

KELEMEN: And Volker actually testified that he helped to draft a statement that the Ukrainians would make, a public statement, promising investigations of corruption. He was hoping that statement would appease Giuliani, but the statement wasn't specific enough for Trump's lawyer. Giuliani wanted Ukraine's president to promise investigations of the 2016 election and of a company that paid Joe Biden's son to sit on their board.

INSKEEP: And over the same period, President Trump was blocking U.S. military aid to Ukraine. And we have a text message, Michele, sent in real time by Ambassador Taylor.

KELEMEN: Right. And it says, quote, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

INSKEEP: That sounds bad. That sounds like a sort of extortion scheme. But didn't another ambassador write back and reject that idea?

KELEMEN: Yeah, but he's now changed his story. We're talking about Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.


GORDON SONDLAND: While President Trump has not only honored me with the job of being the U.S. ambassador to the EU, but he's also given me other special assignments.

KELEMEN: That's Sondland on Ukrainian television earlier this year talking about why an ambassador to the EU was suddenly a big part of this outreach to Ukraine. In a text message answering Ambassador Taylor, Sondland insisted there was no quid pro quo, no demand for a trade-off to get U.S. aid.

INSKEEP: But when he was questioned under oath, what did he say?

KELEMEN: Well, first, he said that he was just repeating what the president told him. And again, this is a quote - "the president repeated, no quid pro quo, no quid pro quo, multiple times. This was a very short call, and I recall that the president was really in a bad mood."

INSKEEP: And now Sondland has added to his testimony with a letter in which he recalls a conversation with a Ukrainian official. What did he say?

KELEMEN: He says he told the Ukrainian official that, quote, "the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing."

INSKEEP: Quid pro quo.

KELEMEN: Yeah. The Democratic chairman literally made this point while questioning the witness. He said, quid pro quo is Latin; it means this for that, a demand for one thing to get another.

INSKEEP: OK. So we asked if the president abused his power. We've established the president at least used his power. And a lot of testimony connects the withholding of U.S. aid, the denial of a meeting and the president's demands. But this raises another question - put very simply - so what? Don't U.S. diplomats make demands on other countries all the time? For an answer, we called someone who should know.

RICHARD HAASS: This is Richard Haass. I'm president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

INSKEEP: A job he took after decades of government service.

HAASS: I've worked for four presidents - Mr. Carter, Mr. Reagan and both Presidents Bush.

INSKEEP: Besides all that experience, there is another reason we called Richard Haass to talk quid pro quos because, you see, Republicans have called attention to a different deal involving Ukraine, a deal made by then-Vice President Joe Biden. In a public event in 2018, Biden bragged about holding up aid to Ukraine unless its leaders fired a prosecutor who was seen as ineffective against corruption.


JOE BIDEN: Listen - I'm telling you, you're not getting a billion dollars. I said, you're not getting the billion. I'm going to be leaving here - I think it was - what? - six hours. I looked at them and said, I'm leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you're not getting the money. Well, son of a [expletive] got fired.


BIDEN: And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.

INSKEEP: OK, wow - withholding aid unless Ukraine did what Joe Biden demanded. Now, there's video of this event, and sitting right next to Biden, right next to him on stage, is Richard Haass. Was that a quid pro quo?

HAASS: Oh, absolutely. Quid pro quos are the milk of foreign policy.

INSKEEP: It's how the United States government nudges or forces other governments to line up with U.S. policy.

HAASS: There is always quid pro quos. We will lower our tariffs on the basis of your lowering yours or not doing something to manipulate your currency. We will only give you security assistance if you give us access to bases.

INSKEEP: And Haass says Biden's threat was normal because it was linked to major policy goals.

HAASS: And this was not simply, I should point out, a U.S. policy; this was an EU policy. Essentially, the Western countries all wanted to help Ukraine, but only on the condition that it tightened up its laws against corruption, put into place an anti-corruption court.

INSKEEP: So that was normal, according to Haass. Was President Trump's request for investigations normal? Richard Haass says, no, the key is not that there was a quid pro quo; it's what the president was asking for.

HAASS: What's qualitatively different here is that - I'm not sure it's the quid or the quo - was tied not to the national interests but to his personal political interests. So we're not talking about base access or tariffs; we're talking about his demand that Ukraine help come up with dirt or information about a political opponent in the United States.

INSKEEP: Now, here is a place where defenders of the president raise some doubts. Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana was on CBS the other day, and he suggested that the president, in asking for these investigations, could have meant well.


JOHN KENNEDY: If it can be demonstrated that the president asked for and had the requisite state of mind - that the president asked for an investigation of a political rival, that's over the line.


KENNEDY: But if he asked for an investigation of possible corruption by someone who happens to be a political rival, that's not over the line.

INSKEEP: Hoping to show the president's demands were legitimate, Republicans have asked to hear from witnesses, including Hunter Biden. So could the president have been pursuing a perfectly legitimate goal? We put that question to Richard Haass.

Why would that not be defined as something in the national interest for the president to want investigations of conspiracy theories from 2016 and investigations relating to Joe Biden?

HAASS: It's not the national interest. First of all, the intelligence communities had looked at all these things, and there was no larger basis for it. We have standard ways of dealing with foreign political interference. This was outside the system, and that tells you something.

INSKEEP: Well, Michele Kelemen, do the witnesses who've testified tell us anything about the purpose of the investigations the president wanted?

KELEMEN: Well, the president's supporters say that he's talking about anti-corruption, which is, of course, a longtime goal in the region. But those who have testified point out that he's asking for specific cases, including one against an American citizen. So George Kent, who's a foreign service officer with lots of experience in Ukraine, testified that the U.S. should not be asking a country to investigate someone for political reasons because - and this is a quote - "that goes against everything that we're trying to promote in post-Soviet states for the last 28 years."

INSKEEP: And George Kent is one of the witnesses we're going to hear from in public this week. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Michele Kelemen helping us work through the evidence today.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: At the start, we asked if the evidence shows an abuse of power. So here is another way to phrase the decision facing lawmakers - do they think the president asked for investigations in the national interest or his own? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.