The clash came as Democrats prepare to enter a new phase of the impeachment inquiry with public hearings beginning Wednesday, which will focus on Trump’s alleged efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and other Democrats in exchange for military aid or a White House visit by the Ukrainian president. Witnesses who have testified out of public view have largely corroborated the whistleblower’s initial allegations.
Republicans have complained that the Democratic-run inquiry is unfairly partisan, and Trump said Saturday that he will “probably” release a transcript next week of an April call that he made to congratulate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on his election victory.
In the weeks ahead, the GOP’s focus will be to try to minimize Trump’s role in the Ukraine pressure campaign and to justify his actions by highlighting that country’s history of corruption problems, according to Republicans familiar with the party’s strategy who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
More than 2,500 pages of interview transcripts released over the past week provide a road map for the emerging Republican strategy. The documents show the extent to which GOP lawmakers involved in the hearings have focused on unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, Democratic political targets and other subjects favored by Trump allies — much of it ancillary to the probe at hand, according to a Washington Post review of the documents.
One GOP lawmaker repeatedly tried to pressure a witness into saying what he wanted to hear about a Ukrainian company that employed Biden’s son. Another member quizzed a former ambassador in the impeachment inquiry about her national heritage, seeming to probe for bias. And a third Republican interrogated the same diplomat about whether her staff “monitored” the social media account of an alt-right conspiracy theorist, whose main claim to fame is smearing a Washington pizzeria as the site of a fictional Democratic pedophile ring.
There were also questions about the Clinton Foundation and long-gone officials from the Obama administration; probing of witnesses over the attorneys they hired or the release of opening statements; and inquiries about whether witnesses improperly “unmasked” the identities of Trump officials under investigation.
The sprawling list of potential witnesses named by Republicans on Saturday continued the pattern. They included Hunter Biden, whose father is a leading Democratic candidate to challenge Trump in 2020; Hunter Biden’s business partner Devon Archer; the unnamed whistleblower, who Trump and some of his allies have campaigned to publicly identify; the researcher Nellie Ohr of Fusion GPS, which commissioned a dossier linking Russia and Trump; and Alexandra Chalupa, a Ukrainian American who worked with the Democratic National Committee.
Republicans also asked to call two witnesses who have already testified behind closed doors, a request that appears likely to be granted by Democrats: National Security Council official Tim Morrison and former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, each of whom corroborated parts of the whistleblower’s complaint while also providing some cover for Republicans.
Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the intelligence panel, argued that witnesses such as Biden and Archer would “assist the American public in understanding the nature and extent of Ukraine’s pervasive corruption, information that bears directly on President Trump’s long-standing and deeply-held skepticism of the country.”
Schiff said Democrats would evaluate the requests but added in a statement that the inquiry “will not serve … as a vehicle to undertake the same sham investigations into the Bidens or 2016 that the President pressed Ukraine to conduct for his personal political benefit, or to facilitate the President’s effort to threaten, intimidate, and retaliate against the whistleblower who courageously raised the initial alarm.”
In their questioning of witnesses so far, Republican lawmakers have been particularly focused on Hunter Biden, who received $50,000 a month for sitting on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was U.S. vice president. They also sought to have witnesses elaborate on why Trump may have been upset with Ukraine and therefore potentially justified in holding back military funding, including asking questions about Ukrainian politicians who said negative things about Trump during his 2016 campaign, the transcripts show.
Some Trump allies have suggested that the negative remarks amounted to Ukraine’s interfering in the 2016 election — a contention that Democrats, intelligence experts and even some Republicans dismiss as an attempt to muddy the waters over Russia’s systematic interference in the election to help Trump. That line of inquiry — including suggestions that Ukrainians were out to get Trump or that the Bidens did something corrupt — is expected to be a recurring theme for Republicans in public hearings this month.
The contrast between the two sides was evident during the testimony of the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., who told lawmakers Oct. 22 that the White House had threatened to withdraw much-needed military aid unless Kyiv announced investigations for Trump’s political benefit. The unexpected level of detail in Taylor’s opening statement made many in the room gasp, officials said, and Democratic lawmakers spent their first hour of questioning that day dissecting the details.
But when it was their turn, Republicans didn’t ask a single question about Taylor’s opening remarks during their first allotted hour, according to the newly released transcript of the session. Instead, they focused on the Bidens and a 2017 Politico article about how some Ukrainian officials had criticized Trump as a candidate in 2016.
“You mentioned that the company Burisma was a bit of a shady organization?” GOP staff attorney Steve Castor said, moving the conversation with Taylor toward the company that hired Hunter Biden. “Do you think it’s possible that he was tapped for the board because his dad was the vice president?”
Taylor demurred: “So, Mr. Castor, I’m here as a fact witness. I don’t have any facts on that.”
Republicans frequently complained about the handling of the probe and argued that the president was being denied his right to due process, the transcripts show. They also frequently criticized Schiff, accusing the majority of keeping them out of the loop on witness schedules, copies of subpoenas or opening statements.
“I would just state that if we’re going to continue this circus, I, at least, would like to know what time the circus begins,” Nunes said at one point.
In multiple interviews, Nunes used his time to question the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation and to press allegations of bias in the Justice Department. That included attempts to get witnesses to say that the “Steele dossier,” a document alleging links between Trump and Russia, had a Ukrainian connection.
Most witnesses told Nunes they had no idea what he was talking about.
“Are you aware of who paid for the dossier?” Nunes asked Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. When Sondland said no, Nunes pressed again: “Would it surprise you to learn that the Clinton campaign and the Democrat National Committee paid for the dossier?”
“I don’t know anything about it,” Sondland said, later echoing the same comment when Nunes persisted with his line of questioning. “I don’t know anything about that, Congressman, I’m sorry. … Again, I haven’t been following the Steele dossier.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) asked former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch about the origins of her nickname, Masha, seeming to suggest it was Ukrainian; Yovanovitch informed him it was actually Russian. Republicans also grilled her and her attorney about how her opening statement ended up in The Post.
Lawmakers sought to cast former NSC official Fiona Hill as a leaker, asking her why so many reporters have her cellphone number. Hill noted that she was previously a heavily quoted expert at the Brookings Institution. “I did not leak any information,” she testified. “I did not talk to the press.”
During the deposition of Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) raised questions about why the Purple Heart recipient was the only person to formally complain about a July 25 call in which Trump asked the Ukrainian president to “do us a favor” by investigating his adversaries.
Vindman — who said the request was “improper” and brought it to the attention of a White House lawyer — told Stewart he could only speak for himself rather than others who listened to the call. Stewart kept pressing him, eventually getting into an argument with Vindman’s attorney.
“I’m going to ask the same stinking question and I’m going to ask it the same way. … You don’t need to come in here and lecture us on how I will ask my questions,” Stewart said.
“I’m going to represent my client … and you’re not just going to run over my client. I’m sorry,” lawyer Michael Volkov replied.
Joe Biden has been a favorite target for Trump-allied lawmakers. Many have adopted Trump’s unsubstantiated assertion that Biden pushed for the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, because he was investigating Burisma.
In one session, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) tried three times to get George Kent, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, to say there was an investigation of Burisma at the time Joe Biden pushed for Shokin’s exit. U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said the probe into Burisma was dormant at the time.
“But you did testify that Shokin had an investigation into Burisma … correct?” Zeldin asked. After Kent replied, “I did not say that,” Zeldin tried again: “When did you learn of an investigation by Shokin into Burisma?”
“I just told you, I did not learn of an investigation. I’ve read claims that there may have been an investigation,” Kent said.
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) asked a host of unusual questions during the initial stage of the inquiry, including about whether Yovanovitch’s staff monitored the social media accounts of conservative and fringe figures. On his list of names was Jack Posobiec, the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist who circulated the bizarre conspiracy about a child sex ring.
“I don't know,” she responded.
Republicans also tried to get witnesses to back their unsubstantiated claims of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. After walking Taylor through news clips about Ukrainians’ weighing in against Trump, Castor asked him: “Isn’t it fair to say that, if you’re aligned with the Trump administration, isn’t it legitimate to have a good-faith belief that Ukrainians were operating against you in the 2016 election?”
Taylor said “if the reporting is correct … you could certainly have the opinion.” But a few minutes later he shot down Nunes’ assertion that Ukraine wanted Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to win in 2016.
“Again, according to this Politico document … there were a couple of Ukrainians who did what you said. When you say ‘Ukrainians,’ that paints a broad brush,” he said.
Such disagreements were common. During Sondland’s deposition, Zeldin suggested that the witness felt “unduly pressured” to agree with a Democratic question about whether it was “inappropriate to ask the Ukrainian government to conduct an investigation into a 2020 political rival.”
“I don’t think I felt unduly pressured at this deposition at all,” Sondland replied.