Key Moments From Day 2 Of The Public Impeachment Hearings

Nov 15, 2019
Originally published on November 15, 2019 8:47 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Here in Washington, so many moving parts in the impeachment inquiry. The House Intelligence Committee is working through the weekend this evening, taking closed-door testimony from a U.S. diplomat who's reported to have overheard a key phone call involving President Trump.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

However, the day started with open testimony from ousted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIE YOVANOVITCH: I come before you as an American citizen who has devoted the majority of my life - 33 years - to service to the country that all of us love.

CORNISH: The ambassador was recalled from her post in May. Her removal followed a smear campaign that Democrats say Rudy Giuliani was central to. He's the president's personal attorney. Yovanovitch said at the time of her removal she was told, simply...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOVANOVITCH: The president has lost confidence in you. That was, you know, a terrible thing to hear. And I said, well, you know, I guess I have to go then. But no real reason was offered as to why I had to leave and why it was being done in such a manner.

CHANG: In his opening remarks, House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff sought to lay the groundwork for why her testimony mattered.

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ADAM SCHIFF: The question before us is not whether Donald Trump could recall an American ambassador with a stellar reputation for fighting corruption in Ukraine, but why would he want to?

CHANG: Meanwhile, on the Republican side, ranking member Devin Nunes returned to an argument that he made earlier in the week. He said Yovanovitch, like others who have testified before her, had no firsthand knowledge of events that have led to the impeachment inquiry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEVIN NUNES: Did you ever talk to President Trump in 2019?

YOVANOVITCH: No, I have not.

NUNES: Mick Mulvaney?

YOVANOVITCH: No, I have not.

NUNES: Thank you, Ambassador. I'm not exactly sure what the ambassador's doing here today.

CHANG: He went on to say Ambassador Yovanovitch is not a, quote, "material fact witness."

CORNISH: So to unpack all of this, we've brought in NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Welcome back.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there.

CORNISH: And our White House correspondent Tamara Keith - welcome to you, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: We just heard this question from a Republican - like, what is Ambassador Yovanovitch doing there if she can't exactly say anything about the president's actions directly? Can you help us understand what the goal is of Democrats in bringing her before the Intelligence Committee and, more specifically, the public?

DAVIS: Marie Yovanovitch is still currently a State Department employee. She is a secondary player in this impeachment narrative. But the circumstances surrounding her firing are pivotal in the narrative of the impeachment story. Democrats brought her before the public today because they believe her firing was sort of a triggering event that led to the events in question that are at the heart of the impeachment investigation - the July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelenskiy and the administration's decision to withhold Ukrainian military aid.

Marie Yovanovitch today was not capable of offering any testimony at those events. But she did offer, in quite vivid detail, a campaign against her that she described as a smear campaign that Republicans did not rebut that essentially pushed her out of office.

CORNISH: I want to talk more about the idea of phone calls because a Republican I mentioned was Devin Nunes, Republican of California, ranking member on the committee. And he actually took a moment out at the open of this to read out a document. And the document was a phone call. But no, not the one we are all thinking about, Tamara. Tell us how this call came to be public - the timing, everything.

KEITH: Right. So this is what you call political theater. The White House released the transcript of an April 21 call between President Zelenskiy and President Trump. They released that just as this hearing was getting started.

CORNISH: Let's hear a clip of Nunes doing this.

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NUNES: (Reading) The president - well, I agree with you about your country, and I look forward to it. When I owned Miss Universe, they always had great people. Ukraine always very well-represented - was always very well-represented. When you're settled in and ready, I'd like to invite you to the White House. We'll have a lot of things to talk about.

CORNISH: So this is not a call that - where you hear something like, I need you to do me a favor, which is what everyone thinks about when they think about the phone call transcript.

KEITH: Right. So this is a call - April 21. It was purely a congratulatory call. They didn't talk about policy. They didn't talk about corruption. President Trump was calling Zelenskiy on the night of his big election. Trump was on Air Force One headed to a rally. And President Trump has been repeatedly saying read the transcript. In the past, there was only one call log, one transcript.

CORNISH: So the White House released more.

KEITH: And now the White House has released more.

CORNISH: OK. Does this take away the focus, though, from the phone call that the public has come to hear about, which happened on July 25 between the president and the head of Ukraine? And this is something that Adam Schiff brought up again, asking Marie Yovanovitch about her reaction to it because it was during that call that the president said something explicitly about Marie Yovanovitch. Here you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOVANOVITCH: She's going to go through some things. It didn't sound good. It sounded like a threat.

SCHIFF: Did you feel threatened?

YOVANOVITCH: I did.

CORNISH: Why was this moment of this line of questioning significant?

DAVIS: Well, part of it is the threat - the perception that the president was threatening Yovanovitch and continued those threats during the hearing. At the time of her testimony, the president was tweeting out negative assessments of Marie Yovanovitch.

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SCHIFF: As we sit here testifying, the president is attacking you on Twitter. And I'd like to give you a chance to respond. I'll read part of one of his tweets. (Reading) Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia. How did that go?

CORNISH: Tam, can you talk about the reaction from the White House, so to speak, to the president doing this tweet? It happens in real time. It happens nationally because Schiff puts it into the question. And how do they then - I don't know - for the lack of a better term, spin it?

KEITH: Yeah. So the White House came out with a statement from Stephanie Grisham, the press secretary. She says, the tweet was not witness intimidation. It was simply the president's opinion. Then later, the president himself was asked about it and said he was just exercising his freedom of speech. And what was interesting is that this happened right before a break. And when they returned from the break, Republicans were quite effusive towards Yovanovitch, praising her for her service. The tone toward her changed. It was also a moment in the hearing that allowed the chairman, Adam Schiff, to say the president's actions were, essentially, intimidating a witness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHIFF: What effect do you think that has on other witnesses' willingness to come forward and expose wrongdoing?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, it's very intimidating.

SCHIFF: It's designed to intimidate. Is it not?

YOVANOVITCH: I mean, I can't speak to what the president is trying to do. But I think the effect is to be intimidating.

SCHIFF: Well, I want to let you know, Ambassador, that some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously.

CORNISH: Is that term - once you start using terms like intimidation in what are legal terms; things that could have real ramifications, I think everyone's eyebrows go up. And what we should remind people is an impeachment inquiry - right? This is the part where you investigate and figure out, what are the things that, if you're going to charge the president with articles of impeachment, what those articles will be? So why is it significant that he's using that term?

DAVIS: You know, he's sort of winking at the fact that that kind of witness intimidation, at least how Democrats see it - Republicans clearly did not see it the same way - could be part of an article of impeachment. Democrats have made clear time and time again that the president's conduct in this investigation unto itself could be articles of impeachment, specifically the White House refusal to comply with this investigation, to comply with subpoena requests and document requests and now, potentially, witness intimidation, as they see it.

CORNISH: You guys have talked about some of the Republican response. No. 1, it was not to do any kind of character assassination of Yovanovitch herself, right?

KEITH: No, they...

CORNISH: They spoke very highly of her.

KEITH: They spoke very highly.

CORNISH: But they did raise a lot of questions about whether or not ambassadors can - whether or not the president can hire and fire whoever he wants. Here is Congressman Wenstrup of Ohio.

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BRAD WENSTRUP: The president has a right to have their own foreign policy and to make their own decisions. And with that, I yield back.

YOVANOVITCH: If I could just supplement one of my answers.

SCHIFF: Of course.

YOVANOVITCH: What I'd like to say is while I obviously don't dispute that the president has the right to withdraw an ambassador at any time for any reason - but what I do wonder is why it was necessary to smear my reputation falsely.

WENSTRUP: Well, I wasn't asking about that. But thank you very much, ma'am.

DAVIS: Republicans weren't asking about that because they don't have a good answer. She does not - has not disagreed that the president could pull her back any time. Neither the White House nor Republicans in Capitol Hill have ever given a substantive defense as to why her character and her reputation had been attacked, including by the president directly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOVANOVITCH: These events should concern everyone in this room. Ambassadors are the symbol of the United States abroad. They are the personal representative of the president. They should always act and speak with full authority to advocate for U.S. policies. If our chief representative is kneecapped, it limits our effectiveness to safeguard the vital national security interests of the United States. This is especially important now, when the international landscape is more complicated and more competitive than it has been since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray. And shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want.

CORNISH: And that caps off a week of diplomats saying that kind of thing. What are we going to be seeing in the next couple of days, maybe next week?

DAVIS: We've got eight witnesses testifying over three days, all people that have already testified behind closed doors in depositions.

CORNISH: So eight publicly.

DAVIS: Eight public hearings.

KEITH: Eight publicly - and then even this weekend, there is a closed-door deposition taking place.

CORNISH: I know both of you will be following very closely here and on the NPR Politics Podcast. That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Thank you.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

CORNISH: And White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.