- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The House impeachment hearings Tuesday did not move allegations of bribery closer to President Trump, as witnesses testimony mostly stuck to the transcript of his phone call with the Ukraine president that spurred the probe.

And yet Democrats and Republicans managed to extract from the proceedings a roughly equal amount of ammunition for the impeachment fight in Congress.

A key witness for Democrats, Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman helped bolster their case that Mr. Trump was asking for more than a “favor” in his phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.


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He described Mr. Trump’s request for investigations of political rival former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and meddling in the U.S. 2016 election as an implied “demand” because of the “power disparity” between the two leaders.

But the military officer also shot holes in Democrats’ claim of a White House cover-up of the July 25 phone call, a claim based on records of the call being put in a top-secret server.



“My understanding is that this was viewed as a sensitive transcript,” Col. Vidman said. “I didn’t take it as anything nefarious.”

In this fashion, the more than 10 hours of testimony presented Americans with a yin and yang of impeachment. There wasn’t the made-for-TV bombshell moment that Democrats were looking for to sell impeachment beyond their base.

And the longer these hearings go on, Democrats increasingly risk losing the public’s attention, said George Mason University political science professor Jennifer Victor.

“There’s a lot of excitement at first and this seems like a really big deal, but the longer it goes on and the more hearings there are … all the details sort of start to run together,” she said. “The main narrative isn’t really changing.”

Mr. Trump pushed Kyiv to investigate Mr. Biden and his son Hunter, who got a $50,000-a-month job on board of Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holding in 2014, while his father was spearheading Obama White House policy in that graft-riddled country.

Mr. Biden recently boasted of getting Ukraine’s chief prosecutor fired in spring 2016 by threatening to block a $1 billion U.S. loan guarantee. The prosecutor was widely viewed as not doing enough to combat corruption. But the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, also was looking into corruption accusations against Burisma and the Ukrainian oligarch running the company.

Democrats are hoping for explosive testimony when Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, faces the impeachment panel Wednesday.

He has emerged as a key go-between for Mr. Trump and Ukraine officials, guiding efforts in Kyiv to set up a White House meeting for Mr. Zelensky and secure commitments for investigations.

He told lawmakers in a closed-door deposition that he communicated to Ukraine officials that U.S. military aid and a White House meeting was contingent on their announcing the investigations. He presumed that was the reason Mr. Trump put a hold on $391 million of military aid, according to his deposition.

Mr. Sondland is poised to be a make-or-break witness, said Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican.

“This impeachment hearing will come down to tomorrow, regardless of which side you’re on — pro-impeachment or not,” he said. “His interactions are the ones closest to the president.”

Democrats argue the link between military aid and investigations constitutes a bribe or extortion, which would be grounds for impeachment.

Republicans pressed every witness on whether they engaged in bribery or were asked to conduct bribes. Each witness said no.

“I was never involved in anything that I would consider bribery or extortion,” Col. Vindman said.

Also denying knowledge of bribery, extortion or other crimes under the guise of foreign policy in Ukraine were Jennifer Williams, a State Department aide assigned to the office of Vice President Mike Pence; Kurt D. Volker, a former special envoy to Ukraine; and Timothy Morrison, the former senior director for European affairs on the president’s National Security Council.

“The problem is in an impeachment inquiry that the speaker of the House says is all about bribery, where bribery is the impeachable offense, not one witness has used the word ‘bribery’ to describe President Trump’s conduct, not one of them,” Rep. John Ratcliffe, Texas Republican, said when questioning Col. Vindman and Ms. Williams.

The two witnesses said they were concerned the July 25 phone call crossed the line from serving the national interest to Mr. Trump’s political interest. But they also testified that they never learned why the military aid was delayed for roughly two months, until September, shortly after the launch of the impeachment inquiry.

Although the military aid was delayed, it was ultimately delivered and there is no evidence that the Ukrainians began any investigations into the Bidens, at Mr. Trump’s behest or otherwise. Mr. Zelensky has said he did not feel he was being pressured or coerced on the phone call, a transcript of which the White House has released.

Mr. Volker said that he never connected the push to investigate the Ukrainian energy company Burisma with an investigation of the Bidens. The Ukrainians could have viewed it that way, he said.

“In retrospect, for the Ukrainians, it clearly would have been confusing,” he said.

Mr. Volker, a longtime diplomat, said he did not believe the elder Mr. Biden would engage in corrupt activities. But he also said there was no harm in investigating unfounded theories, such as Ukraine interference in U.S. elections.

“If there are things like that, why not investigate them?” he said. “I don’t believe there’s anything to them.”

The July 25 phone call spurred a whistleblower, who is believed to be a CIA analyst assigned to the White House, to accuse Mr. Trump of abusing his Oval Office power. The anonymous complaint to the intelligence-community inspector general set off the impeachment inquiry.

Three of Tuesday’s witnesses — Col. Vindman, Ms. Williams and Mr. Morrison — were on the Trump-Zelensky call, the first such people to testify publicly. Their insights promised to beat back the criticism from Mr. Trump and GOP lawmakers that the impeachment case was built on second- and third-hand accounts of events.

Col. Vindman, Ms. Williams and Mr. Morrison did not allege major omissions from the call record released by the White House.

The call record remained the chief exhibit in the impeachment hearings. The Democrats displayed two excerpts from the rough transcript.

Trump: “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike … I guess you have one of our wealthy people … The server, they say has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation.”

Trump: “The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, the Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”

The call record does not show a quid pro quo or extortion demand or other linkage to military aid, but Democrats argue that the threat to withhold aid was understood and part of an ongoing pressure campaign of “shadow” foreign policy conducted by Mr. Trump’s private attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Republicans argue that U.S. law requires that a president ensure that aid going to a foreign country isn’t diverted to corrupt officials, which justifies Mr. Trump’s remarks about the Bidens.

Mr. Trump also wanted Ukraine to look into a missing Democratic National Committee server that was hacked by Russia during the 2016 presidential campaigns. An American cybersecurity company called CrowdStrike examined the server to probe the hack, but the server disappeared before it could be handed over to the FBI. Mr. Trump subscribes to an unsubstantiated theory that the server ended up in Ukraine.

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