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As House probe intensifies, Trump mounts a strategy of offense

Despite the release of text messages among Trump administration officials referencing both the president’s desire for Ukraine to investigate the Biden family and the idea of withholding a relationship as leverage, President Donald Trump is insisting his actions reflect a presidential duty to root out corruption. Lisa Dejardins reports and joins Yamiche Alcindor and Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    From President Trump today, new denials that he abused his power. And, at the same time, a new trove of text messages adds fuel to the impeachment inquiry fire.

    Congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    On the White House lawn, President Trump started the day with a lengthy, freewheeling defense of his actions, including asking other countries to investigate the Biden family.

  • President Donald Trump:

    This is not about politics. This is about corruption. And if you look and you read our Constitution and many other things, we — I have an obligation to look at corruption. I have an actual obligation and a duty.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This as, at the Capitol, House lawmakers held a closed-door hearing with the intelligence watchdog, inspector general Michael Atkinson, who first flagged a whistle-blower's concerns about the president.

    But dominating the day was new information, pages of recent text messages between Trump administration officials. Some see them as proof the president was pressuring Ukraine for political reasons. Others disagree. The messages indicate the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was helping craft Ukraine policy and pushing for investigations in return for a White House visit.

    That made some other officials uncomfortable.

    To understand these text messages, first a look at those writing them, two longtime diplomats, Kurt Volker, the U.S. envoy for Ukraine, and Bill Taylor, the acting top diplomat in Ukraine, with them, one political appointee, Gordon Sondland, a hotel owner and Republican donor appointed by President Trump to be the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

    The timeline matters. July 25, the day of the controversial phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky. Before the call, Ukraine envoy Volker texted an adviser to Zelensky, writing: "Assuming President Zelensky convinces Trump he will get to the bottom of what happened in 2016, we will nail down a date for a visit by Zelensky to Washington," indicating, if Ukraine investigates, they will get a White House visit.

    Then, an important moment. In the last week of August, stories appear that the Trump administration is holding up aid money for Ukraine. Then, President Trump cancels a planned meeting with Zelensky in Poland.

    A few days after that, September 1, Bill Taylor, running the embassy in Ukraine, texts Sondland, the political appointee. And he asks: "Are we now saying the security assistance for Ukraine and White House meeting are conditioned on investigations?"

    Sondland doesn't say. He responds, "Call me."

    Just over a week later, on September 9, a few things happen. The intelligence inspector general notifies Congress about the whistle-blower complaint, and House Democrats announce they are investigating the Ukraine issue.

    That day, Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, seems to see a dangerous quid pro quo here, texting; "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for Ukraine for a political campaign."

    Sondland, the political appointee, responds: "I believe you are incorrect about the president's intentions. The president has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind."

    This as Congress is waiting for a response from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who's currently in Southeast Europe. Today was the deadline that Democrats set for him to turn over documents related to the Ukraine investigation. House Democrats are also planning to subpoena the White House for documents.

    But, today, President Trump said he doesn't know if he will comply.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I don't know. That's up to the lawyers. I know the lawyers think they have never seen anything so unfair.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The president himself raised new questions about his interactions with world leaders, when he said yesterday about China:

  • President Donald Trump:

    China should start an investigation into the Bidens.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Today, he insisted he won't tie that request for China to a long-awaited trade deal between the two countries.

  • President Donald Trump:

    One thing has nothing to do with the other.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But, as Mr. Trump and his allies mount a defense, today, one Republican senator, Mitt Romney of Utah, denounced the president's words and actions, tweeting: "The president's brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling."

    For President Trump and Congress, the disputes may stay in written form a few more days. Congress will be on recess, out of Washington, next week as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To help us better understand all this and more, Lisa joins me now here at our desk, along with our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor.

    Hello to both of you.

    So, Lisa, we thought there was a lot that was going on already today, much more, as you just reported. Where do things stand right now with regard to this impeachment inquiry from the Democrats' perspective?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:


    Let's tell you the big picture. Democrats in general think that this is different than their efforts on the Mueller report. They think the American public is paying closer attention, is more seriously paying attention to this.

    And, moreover, they say they're not seeing the kind of backlash they were when Democrats were being aggressive about the Mueller report. To me, that reads that there's still a moment of decision. But Democrats like where that stands on that front right now.

    But they also say they have some big decisions coming up. Judy, the biggest one is, how narrow do they keep this? We're seeing more layers each day, Giuliani, China, all of this. Do Democrats keep it narrowed to Ukraine or not? It's a big question for them.

    Meanwhile, there's more information even from the Senate. The Senate Republican Homeland Security chairman, Ron Johnson, told The Wall Street Journal today that he also was told there was a quid pro quo in this effort by Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the E.U.

    He said, Johnson, he asked the president. The president denied it. But the idea, Judy, is, officials thought there was a quid pro quo.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which is fascinating, that they're saying that openly.

    So, Yamiche, strategy from the White House, what are they — how are they dealing with all this? Do they have a strategy?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The White House appears to be mounting a strategy to go on the offense.

    The White House is now, I'm told by several sources, preparing a letter to send to Congress that will say, unless the House votes on the floor for a formal impeachment inquiry, the White House doesn't have to comply with any sort of document requests.

    So the president essentially is saying to Nancy Pelosi, look, until you hold a House floor vote, I don't have to do anything that you're saying. Nancy Pelosi has said several times that she doesn't believe that they have to have a floor vote to have a formal impeachment inquiry.

    She also points out that the Constitution doesn't say that. But what's important here is that the president, while he's sending this letter to Congress, he's really sending it to the American people. And he's really formalizing what Republicans have been saying all week, which is that Nancy Pelosi is actually not going through with the proper procedures for her impeachment inquiry.

    It's also important to note that the president is looking at possibly going to court now, and that this is really about them playing the long game and saying, House Democrats, take us to court, and maybe then we will provide whatever documents you want.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Yamiche, as you and Lisa have been reporting, this is now not just about the president. There are other senior figures in the administration who are caught up, Secretary of State Pompeo, waiting for his cooperation.

    Today, we learned they're asking Vice President Pence for documents. And just how tangled up are other people, top people in the administration, tied up into all this?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the people in the Trump administration who are facing document requests from House Democrats is growing by the day.

    We see Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He had a deadline for today to supply documents. It's still unclear whether or not he's going to actually supply any documents. But, as I said, the White House is saying now that, unless there's a formal floor vote, they don't have to do anything. So that might be the stance that Secretary Pompeo takes.

    It's also important to note that Vice President Pence is now being asked to provide documents not only about the call between President Trump and President Zelensky, but also he's being asked to call — he's being asked to provide documents about his meeting with the Ukrainian president in Warsaw, which happened in September, which happened on September 1, 2019, this year.

    So what you see is Vice President Pence really being pulled into this. Now, the president's office and the vice president's office both say that this is not a serious request by the House Democrats, and they think that House Democrats are really just trying to harass and really, they say, pursue a — quote — "partisan impeachment."

    So we will have to see how the House Democrats deal with this and how the White House responds.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it just — the story keeps growing and getting more challenging for all of us every day.

    Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins, thank you both.

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