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First official from OMB testifies in impeachment inquiry

Mark Sandy on Saturday became the first White House official from the Office of Management and Budget -- the office that withheld military aid to Ukraine -- to testify in the ongoing impeachment inquiry. His closed-door deposition followed a week of public hearings before the House Intelligence Committee. POLITICO reporter Heather Caygle joins Karina Mitchell for more.

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  • Karina Mitchell:

    For more on today's developments and the public testimony this week, political reporter Heather Caygle joins us from Washington, D.C..

    Let me ask you, what does Mark Sandy's testimony about withholding military aid add to the case Democrats are trying to make for impeachment?

  • Heather Caygle:

    Sandy is actually a very important witness because he's the first official from the Office of Management and Budget, OMB, to respond to a congressional subpoena and show up. House investigators subpoenaed three other OMB officials, including the acting director, in recent weeks, and they all refused to testify. They didn't even come up here.

    So Sandy is important for Democrats because he can perhaps shed some light on just how the military aid that the US was promised had promised to Ukraine, how that got frozen over the summer, where the directive came from, if, how closely the president was involved. These are all questions that Democrats have had a hard time getting answers from because the OMB officials previously subpoenaed hadn't testified.

    And so they're hoping that Sandy, who was pretty closely involved, at least initially in the freezing of the aid, can help shed some light on these questions.

  • Karina Mitchell:

    And certainly was aid that was very necessary for Ukraine. Help us understand why that nearly $400 million in aid was so vital to Ukraine?

  • Heather Caygle:

    Well, so Ukraine is fighting off Russian aggression right now and the military aid from the US is what Ukraine is relying on to do that. And they count on that money. Remember, the money had already been appropriated by Congress. So Ukraine assumed that that $391 million in aid was coming to them. And so when, you know, questions started to arise about this being frozen, where was the aid? Things like that, that's when some OMB officials like Sandy, started kind of internally sounding an alarm from what we have heard.

    And Ukraine started to get anxious. And the military aid is really the heart of Democrats investigation because they claim that President Trump used it as leverage to try to bribe Ukraine into opening an investigation into Joe Biden.

  • Karina Mitchell:

    Let me switch gears a little bit. Late yesterday we learned that David Holmes, a U.S. aid in Ukraine, said behind closed doors he revealed he overheard President Trump with Ambassador Sondland on the phone asking about an investigation and Sondland's response, essentially that Zelinsky would do anything for Trump.

    What wrench does that throw into the Republican rhetoric that this testimony so far has been sort of irrelevant? Or there is no smoking gun that's emerged from any of the witnesses that have testified this week?

  • Heather Caygle:

    So Mr. Holmes really undercuts a key part of the Republican defense, which is that all of the witnesses that have testified thus far and a lot of the evidence that Democrats have gathered to present against the president is all "hearsay." It's things that officials, senior diplomats have heard second hand.

    Well, Mr. Holmes was sitting next to Gordon Sondland at this restaurant in Ukraine, and he says that he heard the president on the phone asking about these investigations and was told by Sondland after the call that by investigations, President Trump meant investigation into Biden. And so this is not hearsay. This is a firsthand account of a senior official hearing the president ask about Biden being investigated by Ukraine.

    And so that really undercuts the Republican defense that all Democrats have is hearsay and they don't really have anything directly tying President Trump to this pressure campaign on Ukraine.

  • Karina Mitchell:

    And the pressure is mounting on Republicans. I want to go to President Trump's decision to attack Marie Yovanovitch on Twitter while she was testifying yesterday. That was really remarkable. How badly did that backfire? Because Republicans offered no support after he tweeted that message out. And Democrats are calling it witness intimidation.

  • Heather Caygle:

    Yes. So there was actually a break in the hearing after President Trump tweeted his attack. Chairman Adam Schiff read the tweet to your Y and then she responded. There was a break for House votes before the hearing resumed again. And so several Republicans, you know, on their way to the House floor said privately that they were dumbfounded by this tweet. This is kind of their worst nightmare.

    Trump is a very unpredictable president, and they had spent all week preparing for this hearing and encouraging their lawmakers on the committee to not attack your Yovanovitch, because she's a very well-respected senior diplomat. And they did not want to be looking like they were trying to discredit her while they were trying to discredit Democrats investigation. And so President Trump came out and did the exact opposite of that. And not only did he do that, but he did admit hearing.

    And so Republicans really didn't know how to respond. We saw that, as you said, they didn't defend the tweet. And then once the hearing resumed all of them who were asking her questions really took care to heap praise on her and her career. And I think that was kind of to try to help ease the pain that they thought that this tweet inflicted.

  • Karina Mitchell:

    And finally, I just want to ask you really quickly, how do you think Democrats have handled this situation? This week we saw the messaging change from quid pro quo to bribery. Is any of this really resonating with ordinary Americans enough for them to sort of change their viewpoint?

  • Heather Caygle:

    According to Democrats, yes, they have done some focus groups in very competitive districts that they need to hold on to next year to keep the House. And bribery and extortion are words that really cut through the noise for voters, much more so than quid pro quo.

    And so they think by pivoting to those kind of words that they'll be able to help make their case easier to voters who are still undecided.

  • Karina Mitchell:

    And many more words and more witnesses to come next week. Heather Caygle from POLITICO, thank you so much for being with us.

  • Heather Caygle:

    Thanks so much.

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