The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Transcripts show Republicans’ scattershot strategy in early days of impeachment inquiry

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) talks with journalists about the House impeachment inquiry. Newly released transcripts show that Meadows was an assertive questioner at two deposition hearings last month. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Republicans have complained for weeks about the secret House impeachment inquiry, accusing Democrats of rigging the process and interviewing witnesses behind closed doors — at one point storming the hearing room and chanting, “Let us in!”

But inside the secure room in the Capitol basement where the proceedings are taking place, Republicans have used their time to complain that testimony has become public, going after their colleagues who were quoted in media reports commenting on witness appearances, and quizzing witnesses themselves on how their statements had been released.

The efforts by GOP lawmakers to shape the Democrats’ inquiry emerged in full view for the first time Monday with the release of hundreds of pages of transcripts from two early witnesses: Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and Michael McKinley, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said Nov. 4 the testimonies of Marie Yovanovitch and P. Michael McKinley had been released. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

At one point, GOP lawmakers held up the questioning of McKinley to complain about a fellow lawmaker, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who had made a public comment about witness testimony the day before.

“Obviously, we’ve talked about confidentiality in here,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a top Trump ally. “. . . Is that a violation of the House rules?”

The Democrats’ point man on the inquiry, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), demurred, noting that he had told lawmakers not to discuss what happened in the depositions. But Republicans couldn’t let it go.

“I, like my colleague here, share the concerns,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.). “We need clarification on the rules that apply to confidentiality.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) comment on Ukraine diplomat Kurt Volker's Oct. 3 impeachment inquiry deposition. (Video: Reuters)

The release of the two transcripts Monday marked a new milestone in the Democrats’ investigation, which has thus far taken place largely out of public view.

While opening statements and some comments from witnesses have been unofficially released and captured in media reports, the transcribed exchanges among lawmakers, congressional staffers, the two witnesses and their lawyers mark the first time that the dynamics inside the hearing room have been fully apparent.

The Washington Post has previously reported that Republicans have used the process to ask probing questions about the whistleblower whose complaint sparked the inquiry — and whose identity and alleged political motives have become a focus of Trump and his allies — and to try to find evidence substantiating conspiracy theories surrounding a Ukrainian role in the 2016 election.

But the newly released transcripts from Yovanovitch and McKinley — who appeared on Oct. 11 and Oct. 16, respectively — underscore how the Republicans’ strategy at that relatively early stage in the deposition process was more scattershot, covering a range of topics.

GOP lawmakers during those two days touched not only on Ukraine’s ties to former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, but also on potential connections to Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton. One line of questioning appeared to suggest, without any evidence, that Yovanovitch might have improperly dealt in classified information, including a question about whether she ever sought to “unmask” the identity of individuals protected in government reports. The term echoed Republican complaints from three years ago that Trump aides’ identities had been unfairly revealed as part of the FBI’s Russia investigation.

Yovanovitch, who as an ambassador did not have such power, seemed confused by the reference.

“Is that a technical term?” she asked.

Meadows was among the most assertive Republican inquisitors, the transcripts show. He stuck largely to questioning the legitimacy of the process and trying to ferret out whether Yovanovitch or her sources harbored anti-Trump bias. He asked about the origins of her nickname “Masha,” querying, “Where did you get that name from?”

“Well, despite my posting to Ukraine, I’m actually half Russian, and it’s a Russian nickname,” said Yovanovitch.

Meadows then abruptly completed his round of questioning. “I yield back,” he said.

The transcript showed Democrats and Republican staffers trying to focus on the central issues surrounding her knowledge of the Trump administration’s relations with Ukraine, with Schiff imploring GOP lawmakers over and over to leave their complaints about process and bias at the door.

“We’re going to move forward with the deposition rather than address the mischaracterizations of both impeachment history and inquiries and process,” he said after Meadows tried to argue that “there are no rules that would give the authority of you to actually depose this witness . . . you’re out of order.”

Republicans alleged early in Yovanovitch’s interview that the witnesses were corrupting the process by leaking information to the news media before committee staffers were able to review it. They pressed Yovanovitch and her lawyer on whether she even had the authority to testify, given that the State Department had ordered its employees not to comply with congressional requests. Yovanovitch left her post as ambassador in May but remains an agency employee.

“Do you believe you’re authorized to testify here today on behalf of the State Department?” asked Steve Castor, an attorney for Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

Her attorney acknowledged that she had been directed not to appear but said she was not advised about how to respond to a congressional subpoena.

Castor also asked Yovanovitch and her lawyer if they knew how a copy of her opening statement came to be published by The Post as the closed-door interview was barely underway. Castor told her that Republican members “asked me to ascertain if you know how that may have happened.”

“She’s not going to answer that,” said her attorney, Lawrence Robbins.

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, pressed Yovanovitch on whether she had relationships with a Ukrainian oligarch who had donated to the Clinton Foundation. She said yes, but only because of his role in Ukrainian politics and hers as ambassador.

Perry also asked if her embassy had “monitored” conservative media figures and individuals close to the president, such as Donald Trump Jr., Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Rudolph W. Giuliani and a handful of other Trump lawyers.

To each, she answered, “I don’t know.”

Similarly, the transcript shows Jordan, whose office is running point for the GOP during the impeachment probe, spending considerable effort trying to determine whether Yovanovitch’s communications with other witnesses were proper. He seemed focused on her conversations with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, who told Yovanovitch about Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky despite the fact that she was no longer serving as ambassador to Ukraine.

Other Republicans pressed Yovanovitch for her opinion of a Ukrainian lawmaker who has pushed anti-Biden accusations, and they tried to pin her down on whether she personally intervened to influence any Ukrainian prosecutions — effectively picking up a line of argument that Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, used against Yovanovitch to push for her ouster.

They repeatedly asked her what she knew about Hunter Biden’s business arrangement with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma and how closely she worked with Joe Biden. She said she met the elder Biden only once during her time as ambassador to Ukraine but met him “several times over the course of our many years in government.”

The transcripts showed how, after hours and hours of testimony, the lawmakers could get punchy — and the room could get stuffy.

At one point, Schiff assured those in the room that the air conditioning would be turned on.

“My staff tells me it started to smell like a locker room in here,” he said.