WASHINGTON - Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton have emerged as key targets for House Democrats in their impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump after explosive testimony about the president's pressure on a foreign leader to investigate a political rival.
House Democrats on Tuesday began discussing the possibility of summoning both men - who would be the highest-ranking individuals to testify - as the investigation has accelerated in recent days with the cooperation of several current and former administration officials.
The actions of Mulvaney and Bolton attracted considerable attention after two witnesses testified that the acting White House chief of staff was involved in setting up a separate channel to handle diplomacy with Ukraine, which angered Bolton.
Despite stonewalling by the White House, investigators secured hours of testimony Tuesday from George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine. Michael McKinley, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is slated to testify behind closed doors Wednesday.
"We have been bringing witnesses in at quite a furious pace," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told reporters.
Last month, the White House released a rough transcript of a July 25 call in which Trump asked Ukraine to investigate former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter at a time when U.S. military aid was being withheld from the country. A whistleblower's complaint about the call sparked the impeachment inquiry.
In congressional testimony, witnesses have painted a picture of a White House bitterly divided not just over Ukraine, which has long been reliant on military aid and political support from the United States as it fights Russian-backed separatists, but also over which political appointees were calling the shots on foreign policy: the experienced national security staff, or a group of Trump loyalists and the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
In testimony Tuesday, Kent said Mulvaney organized a meeting last spring where officials decided to take Ukraine policy out of the traditional channels, putting Energy Secretary Rick Perry, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and then-special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker in charge instead.
Kent told House investigators that he was instructed to "lay low," focus on the five other countries in his portfolio, and defer to Volker, Sondland and Perry - who called themselves the "three amigos" - on matters related to Ukraine, Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., told reporters Tuesday.
Fiona Hill, the National Security Council's former top adviser on Russia and Europe, told investigators Monday that Bolton was infuriated by a shadow operation being conducted by Giuliani to pressure Ukraine into digging up dirt on the president's political rival.
Hill said Bolton, who instructed her to raise the matter with White House lawyers, likened Giuliani to a "hand grenade," according to two people familiar with her testimony. Hill also testified that Bolton wanted to make clear that he was not involved and very opposed to what he called the "drug deal" between Mulvaney and Sondland, the people said.
Schiff, in consultation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would decide on calling Mulvaney and Bolton to testify, but several Democrats said they wanted to interview the two.
"Mulvaney has the inside understanding of why the money was withheld on the security assistance," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, who said the two men should testify.
"They're going to be good witnesses," quipped Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich. "I suspect we will [need to hear from them]; we need to get the facts."
Pelosi again on Tuesday rejected calls by Trump and Republicans to hold a formal vote on an impeachment inquiry, arguing that neither the Constitution nor House rules require it.
The decision to forgo a formal vote was prompted by a combination of concerns, according to Democratic aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. A handful of vulnerable Democratic "frontliners" seeking reelection in GOP-leaning districts see some political peril in taking a vote to authorize a formal probe, while a broader swath of the caucus simply balked at the notion of having Trump and his Republican allies dictate the terms of the impeachment inquiry - an argument that ultimately swayed Pelosi.
Inside a caucus meeting Tuesday night, Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y., who represents a district Trump won by 15 points in 2016 and is one of seven Democrats who have not endorsed the impeachment probe, argued to Pelosi and other leaders that the Constitution gives the House broad latitude in pursuing impeachment and that the chamber would be ill-served to "play into Republicans' hands" and heed calls for a formal vote. "You said it perfectly," Pelosi replied, according to three people in the room, effectively shutting down further debate.
In a news conference after the meeting, Schiff defended the inquiry against GOP attacks targeting the secrecy of the closed-door interviews and asserting that the process has been unfair to Trump. Schiff compared the private nature of the probe to the secretive special-counsel investigations that preceded the articles of impeachment against Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Only after those probes were largely complete did the House vote to open formal impeachment proceedings.
Schiff, moreover, argued that Republicans were simply seeking to distract from Trump's alleged misdeeds: "They don't want to discuss the president's conduct. They'd rather talk process."
Pelosi left open the prospect of holding a vote later, and the Democratic aides said that moment could come if a judge were to rule against the House in court, or after the three investigative committees wrap up their initial probe and prepare to hand a case to the House Judiciary Committee for the drafting of formal impeachment articles.
"We're not here to call bluffs," Pelosi said. "We're here to find the truth. . . . This is deadly serious for us."
Discussions about next steps came as Vice President Mike Pence, the Pentagon, the Office of Management and Budget, and Giuliani refused to cooperate with the investigation. Asked how the House planned to compel Trump allies to comply, Pelosi declined to answer.
Trump ousted Bolton last month after a rocky relationship in which the two men clashed over policy on North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan, among other issues. The president disparaged Bolton as he left, saying he had made "some very big mistakes."
Bolton, who initially declined to comment, said in a text: "I will have my say in due course." He is reportedly writing a book.
Many of the revelations about Bolton's stance were first reported by The New York Times.
According to one person familiar with Hill's testimony, Bolton was so alarmed by the efforts of Giuliani, Sondland and Mulvaney to circumvent the National Security Council and the diplomatic corps that he dispatched her to raise the concern with White House lawyers.
The order came after Volker, Bolton, Sondland, Hill and Perry met in early July. During the meeting, Sondland blurted out to the other officials that there were "investigations that were dropped that need to be started up again" in Ukraine, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter. The officials understood him to be referring to Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, and Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden, who sat on its board.
Bolton went "ballistic" after the meeting, the official said.
Hill herself got into a confrontation with Sondland over his involvement in Ukrainian affairs, according to one person familiar with her testimony, as Ukraine is not in the European Union and thus not part of his ambassadorial portfolio. Sondland said he had been put in charge by Trump, the person said - something Hill likened to the bravado of Alexander Haig, the secretary of state who said he was in charge after a 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
Sondland, who obeyed State Department orders not to show up for a planned deposition last week, is expected to testify in the House's impeachment inquiry Thursday under subpoena. Text messages provided to the panel by Volker showed that it was Sondland who defended the president in early September, when other diplomats expressed concern that U.S. military assistance was being withheld from Ukraine to push its leaders to conduct a politically motivated investigation of Burisma.
Hunter Biden served on Burisma's board for five years; Joe Biden is currently making a White House bid.
Trump told Mulvaney in mid-July to hold back almost $400 million in congressionally approved military aid for Ukraine. That order came the same week Hill resigned from the National Security Council; it also took place one week before Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by phone, when he appeared to pressure Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and purported Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
It is not yet clear whether the White House will attempt to block parts of Sondland's testimony by asserting executive privilege over the president's interactions with the ambassador. But any claim of privilege could be distinctly weakened by the White House's decision to release a rough transcript of Trump's call with Zelensky, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The White House could have also missed an opportunity to claim privilege over Sondland's conversations by not asserting privilege over Volker's testimony. If lawyers for Sondland - or eventually the courts - decide that means the president waived his right to claim privilege over the matters discussed in the texts Volker shared with the committees, Sondland would be able to speak freely.
The White House sent Hill letters before her deposition Monday, warning her about respecting executive privilege, though it was never claimed officially to the committee. For those in government, testifying as the White House asserts privilege could come with professional consequences, but the White House has essentially no way to punish former officials - unless the information they share is classified, in which case disseminating it could be a crime.
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The Washington Post's Greg Miller contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON - Rudy Giuliani privately urged President Donald Trump in 2017 to extradite a Turkish cleric living in exile in the United States, a top priority of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to former administration officials familiar with the discussions.
Giuliani, a Trump ally who later became the president's personal attorney, repeatedly argued to Trump that the U.S. government should eject Fethullah Gulen from the country, according to the former officials, who spoke on the condition on anonymity to describe private conversations.
Turkey has demanded that the United States turn over Gulen, a permanent U.S. resident who lives in Pennsylvania, to stand trial on charges of plotting a 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan. Gulen has denied involvement in the plot.
Giuliani is now under scrutiny for his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump's political rivals. His earlier attempts to persuade the president to turn over the Turkish cleric represent another instance in which he appears to have been pushing a shadow foreign policy from his perch outside government.
The former New York mayor brought up Gulen so frequently with Trump during visits to the White House that one former official described the subject as Giuliani's "hobby horse." He was so focused on the issue - "it was all Gulen," recalled a second former official - that White House aides worried that Giuliani was making the case on behalf of the Turkish government, former officials said.
"We're not going to arrest [Gulen] to do a solid for Erdogan," the second official said, describing the internal thinking.
However, Trump appeared receptive to the idea, pressing his advisers about Gulen's status, the people said.
One former senior administration official recalled that Trump asked frequently about why Gulen couldn't be turned over to Turkey, referring to Erdogan as "my friend."
Administration officials were overwhelmingly opposed to the idea and told the president that the move could violate the legal process and damage him politically.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.
It's unclear why Giuliani was championing a cause of such high importance to Erdogan - one the Turkish president personally raised with both the Obama administration and Trump. In 2017, Giuliani unsuccessfully pressed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help on another matter important to Erdogan: helping stop the U.S. prosecution of a Turkish Iranian trader, The Washington Post reported last week.
Giuliani is not registered as a foreign lobbyist, as he would be required to do if he were being paid to lobby the U.S. government on a policy matter for a foreign interest.
Giuliani told The Washington Post in a phone interview late Monday that he never represented Turkey and so he does not need to register as a foreign lobbyist.
In a text exchange Tuesday afternoon, he declined to discuss whether he advocated for Gulen's extradition, writing: "can't comment on it that would be complete attorney client privilege but sounds wacky."
When told that multiple people described the conversations to The Post, Giuliani responded "Bull," and then liked the question with a thumbs-up emoji.
He did not return phone messages or respond to follow-up questions, except to add in a text that he "will not participate in an illegitimate, unconstitutional, and baseless 'impeachment inquiry.' "
Federal investigators are examining Giuliani's business dealings with two former associates who were arrested last week on campaign finance charges. A federal grand jury in New York has issued a subpoena to former GOP congressman Pete Sessions of Texas seeking records and other information on his interactions with Giuliani and his two associates. Giuliani has denied any wrongdoing.
In December, Trump told Erdogan his administration would take a look at Turkey's extradition request, the White House said at the time. In January, a U.S. delegation met with Turkish officials to discuss the request, according to Turkish state media.
Giuliani's conversations with Trump about Gulen came on the heels of a similar effort by Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser, and his then-associates to promote negative views of Gulen during the 2016 campaign and the presidential transition. "We should not provide him safe haven," Flynn wrote in a November 2016 opinion piece.
Flynn admitted in December 2017 to lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador and making false statements about work his consulting business did for Turkey. He has since argued in court that he is the victim of a government effort to smear him, although he has not withdrawn his guilty plea.
Reid Weingarten, an attorney for Gulen, said he would find it disturbing if Giuliani was pressing for the cleric's return to Turkey on the heels of Flynn's efforts.
"We have argued aggressively and I thought persuasively to both the Obama and Trump Justice Departments that the allegations against Gulen are false and that any effort to extradite him would fail legally and factually and would be an embarrassment to the United States," he said in a statement. "After Gen. Flynn's efforts on behalf of Turkey on this subject were exposed it is hard to believe Giuliani would follow suit."
Giuliani has had a wide range of foreign clients even as he serves as the president's personal attorney. In interviews in recent months, Giuliani has acknowledged working with clients in Romania, Brazil, Bahrain, Colombia and Ukraine. He has represented an Iranian dissident group once so controversial it was placed on the State Department list of terrorist organizations.
Giuliani has said that he does not need to register with the Justice Department for his overseas clients because he does not lobby U.S. officials on their behalf.
"I don't represent foreign government in front of the U.S. government," he told The Post earlier this year. "I've never registered to lobby."
However, senior administration officials were so concerned that Giuliani might have been paid to push Turkey's interests that, at one point in 2017, they confronted him and asked him not to bring up Turkish issues when he met with the president, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
When asked via text if he recalled the conversation, Giuliani responded by liking the question with a thumbs-up emoji.
Lobbying experts said Giuliani's private conversations with Trump about policy matters - including his push for Gulen's extradition - could violate lobbying rules if he were pressing the matters on behalf of a foreign client.
In the case of the cleric, "the principal beneficiary of his work would be the Turkish government," said Joshua Rosenstein, a Washington lawyer who specializes in foreign lobbying rules.
The conversations Giuliani reportedly had with Trump about Gulen in 2017 came the same year he was representing Reza Zarrab, a Turkish Iranian accused of corruption.
The trader held embarrassing and politically damaging information about Erdogan and other top Turkish officials in his government, it was later revealed in federal court when Zarrab pleaded guilty to orchestrating a multibillion-dollar conspiracy to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Erdogan had repeatedly lobbied Trump to release Zarrab, both in personal meetings and calls in the spring and summer of 2017, according to multiple administration officials and Erdogan himself. The Turkish president claimed publicly that Zarrab, charged in a conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran, was a political "hostage" of American law enforcement.
Giuliani joined Zarrab's legal team in March 2017 and flew to Turkey in late February to meet with Erdogan to discuss a possible "state-to-state resolution in this case," according to court filings in the Zarrab case.
In affidavits filed in federal court, Giuliani said that "at no time" he had "been involved in the representation of the Republic of Turkey" or acted as the country's agent.
He acknowledged that his law firm did work for the Turkish government but said he was walled off from such discussions.
"Neither [my associate] nor I represent the interests of Turkey or the United States," Giuliani said in a May 2017 affidavit.
However, lobbying experts said that his conversations with Trump and Tillerson to change U.S. policy on behalf of Zarrab, a foreign client, raised questions about why he did not register as a foreign lobbyist.
"It seems Giuliani was acting on behalf of a foreign principal and representing those interests before a U.S. government official, which can trigger the registration requirement," said Matthew Sanderson, a Washington attorney who focuses on foreign lobbying registration.
Giuliani maintained in an interview Monday that such registration was unnecessary.
"I have never lobbied for a foreign government," Giuliani said. He added that Zarrab was his client, not the Turkish government. "I was working for him," not Turkey, Giuliani said. (Under foreign lobbying rules, registration is required not only for people representing foreign governments but for those representing other foreign interests on political matters in the United States.)
Complaints about his foreign clients are "diversions by Democrats hoping to shoot the messenger," Giuliani said this month.