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House committees involved in the impeachment inquiry have released nearly 2700 pages of closed-door deposition transcripts. Many of the officials interviewed echoed the whistleblower’s concerns about President Trump's policy toward Ukraine. Trump, meanwhile, renewed claims that the whistleblower was guilty of wrongdoing. Lisa Desjardins reports and joins Nick Schifrin and Judy Woodruff to discuss.
Threats, lies and raising alarm bells.
Two new transcripts today from those inside the White House National Security Council adding to a week of testimony made public in the impeachment inquiry. All told, career diplomats and President Trump's own appointees detail a coordinated effort to influence Ukraine in irregular ways.
Lisa Desjardins brings us up to speed.
This morning, at the White House, a president with fighting words for the anonymous whistle-blower who first raised concerns about his Ukraine policy.
President Donald Trump:
The whistle-blower is a disgrace to our country, a disgrace. And the whistle-blower, because of that, should be revealed. And his lawyer, who said the worst things possible two years ago, he should be sued, and maybe for treason.
This was a defiant counterpunch, after the whistle-blower's lawyer sent a cease and desist letter to the White House, saying President Trump is threatening their client. It warned: "Should any harm befall any suspected named whistle-blower or their family, the blame will rest squarely with your client."
That hit a White House unified in pushback, as acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney rejected a House subpoena issued last night to testify today. Legally, White House lawyers argue staff there is immune from subpoenas, but the president's rationale is more tactical.
I don't want to give credibility to a corrupt witch-hunt.
Within hours, the latest House deposition transcripts dropped from lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman of the National Security Council, and Fiona Hill, who left the NSC earlier this year, this in a week that marked a new phase in impeachment, as House Democrats led by the House intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff moved to wrap up closed-door hearings, and move to public ones next week.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:
So those open hearings will be an opportunity for the American people to evaluate the witnesses for themselves.
As part of that shift, Democrats released some 2,677 pages of testimony given from behind closed doors this week. That was from eight key witnesses.
Six had roles at the State Department, including current and former ambassadors and Foreign Service officers, and two were from the National Security Council.
So what did we learn? Democrats see a pattern.
Rep. Adam Schiff:
We are getting an increasing appreciation for just what took place during the course of the last year, and the degree to which the president enlisted whole departments of government in the illicit aim of trying to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political opponent, as well as further conspiracy theory about the 2016 election that he believed would be beneficial to his reelection campaign.
Democrats point to revised testimony by the ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sondland, that he tied military aid money to investigations the president wanted.
Four other transcripts this week confirmed that Sondland raised those investigations as a condition for things Ukraine wanted. All eight agreed on one thing: President Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani ran an outside channel to the president, and the president was shifting Ukraine policy, ignoring diplomats, removing an ambassador, and risking key support for Ukraine.
Giuliani himself has not testified, and has not been asked to testify by the House. In the past, he has insisted he did nothing wrong and is being politically attacked. Republicans say, in these transcripts, there's no direct link to the president for those orders about Ukraine.
They point out that Gordon Sondland testified that the president specifically said no quid pro quo, and that former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker testified he heard nothing illegal from the president's July phone call with the Ukrainian president. Republican Jim Jordan:
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio:
Those facts are consistent. Those facts are clear. And Ambassador Volker, in his testimony, as the special envoy, as the guy who has — who is the professional here, the guy who has been focused on this, who is the special envoy to Ukraine, backed all that up in his testimony.
Jordan himself became news today. In a highly strategic maneuver, House Republicans moved him onto the Intelligence Committee, removing another member, so that Jordan can be part of questioning witnesses in public hearings that start next week.
And Lisa joins me now, along with our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Nick Schifrin.
Hello to both of you.
A lot of reading today, Lisa, yet again. You were saying almost 800 pages. Tell us, what are the main things that stood out?
Well, what is significant today is, these are the two people who worked and one still working on the National Security Council.
These are folks who are longtime students of foreign policy and intelligence, so they really are experts on this subject matter. And these are, again, two more voices very highly concerned about what was happening.
So let's look at what we got from the transcripts today from Fiona Hill and also Alexander Vindman.
First of all, they agree that the acting White House chief of staff was linked to the idea that Ukraine needed to come up with something in order to get something from the United States. We will talk about that more in just a second.
And then, also, it speaks to Giuliani's motivations. Why was he pushing so hard in Ukraine to oust an ambassador and also to sort of derail normal process there for the United States?
And, then, finally, they both talked about what they saw as a very significant risk to the United States' national security because it would be signaling that it is no longer as strong of a supporter for Ukraine. They were very concerned.
I do want to mention one thing also about these testimonies. Republicans say that Democrats have strategically been putting forth the most damaging transcripts this week to the president.
However, on the other hand, perhaps some of those who would defend the president have decided not to testify at all.
They have been asked.
They have been asked, but have not testified.
Have decided not testify.
So, Nick, the first point Lisa made had to do with the White House acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. Let's talk some more about how he fits into all this.
Yes, so the key is a July 10 meeting that Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman, the two National Security Council staff members who Lisa just talked about, testified today — or, rather, we got their depositions today.
They were both in this meeting. This was a meeting between U.S. and Ukrainian officials. And there's actually a photo of that meeting or right after that meeting, U.S. officials, Ukrainian officials.
And the person second to the right, the tall one, the bald one, second to the right, is Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union. And Fiona Hill says, this is what happened inside that meeting.
He said — she says — quote — "Ambassador Sondland was talking about how he had an arrangement with Chief of Staff Mulvaney for a meeting with the Ukrainians, if they were going to go forward with investigations."
This is the first time that we know of, of a government official making this explicit. Ukraine's government had to conduct two investigations, one into the 2016 elections and one into Burisma, the energy company that Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, was on the board of, before Ukraine could see or Ukraine's president could meet President Trump.
That order, according to Sondland, was authorized by Mick Mulvaney. And this is what Alexander Vindman says about the same meeting.
He says — quote — "Ambassador Sondland emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver investigations into the 2016 elections, the Bidens and Burisma. This was the first time it emerged kind of with a government official discussing it."
Vindman says, before that point, it had been discussed by Rudy Giuliani, mostly in the media. And at that meeting, National Security Adviser John Bolton turned to Fiona Hill and said, whatever Mulvaney and Sondland were doing, he called it a drug deal and he called Giuliani a hand grenade.
And the big question, of course, is, why was Mulvaney — if Mulvaney was doing that, where did that come from?
And then Giuliani, you mentioned his name in the report. It's coming up again.
Lisa, we're not only looking at what he's doing, but we're also beginning to understand why he was doing it.
This has been a central question for me all week. And Fiona Hill was particular — had a lot to say about this. She isn't just someone from the National Security Council. She's a former intelligence officer. She worked in this field.
And she's someone who looks at people's motivations and strategy for individuals. And she had something to say about this that I think stood out.
Let's look at her quote here about Giuliani and why the U.S. ambassador of Ukraine was being forced out.
She said: "The most obvious explanation seemed to be business dealings of individuals who wanted to improve their investment positions inside of Ukraine, and also to deflect away from the findings of not just the Mueller report on Russian interference, but also the Senate report."
So let's take those apart quickly.
The business dealings. She mentioned a name that I had not seen in testimony before, a man who is an oil billionaire in Florida. She says he was funding Giuliani's efforts, in the interest of the energy sector.
She also goes on to talk about the Mueller report and say she felt that Giuliani was trying to distract from negative headlines about the Mueller report, as that was sort of taking up a lot of the space in American news coverage.
At that point.
And all of this raising so many more questions.
So, Nick, you follow national security, foreign affairs for the "NewsHour."
We have to ask this question. Hearing so much about Ukraine, about Russia implied here, what are the implications of all this for foreign policy?
We heard from Hill. We heard from Vindman.
And we heard from all of those people who Lisa's piece laid out this week unanimity that the official policy that — President Trump's, by the way, official policy toward Ukraine was helping Ukraine in terms of economic, military and diplomatic assistance. And that was important to U.S. national security and an important deterrence to Russia.
And the irregular policy, which we read today, led by Gordon Sondland, led by Rudy Giuliani, was detrimental to U.S. national security and helpful to Russia.
Fiona Hill called the investigations that Giuliani was advocating, including about the 2016 election, she called them conspiracy theories, and focusing on them meant the U.S. was less prepared to prevent 2020 meddling.
And here's what Alexander Vindman said.
He said: "I realized that, if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play, which undoubtedly would result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained, and this would undermine U.S. national security."
President Trump's policy was to support Ukraine. When security assistance was temporarily blocked, he was going against the consensus of the entire administration and what the administration believed was in U.S. national security policy.
Its policy implications so important for us to keep in mind throughout all this.
And, Lisa, just quickly, you were telling me, tomorrow, we will learn from Republicans?
Republicans have the — they have the chance to ask for their own witnesses. They will lay out who they would like. Of course, under the rules that the House Democrats passed, Democrats must, some of them at least, agree for those witnesses to be called.
I know that Republicans are going to say they want to call the anonymous whistle-blower. I would be surprised if any Democrat agrees to that. So, we're laying the groundwork for some potential conflict early on.
We will see who Republicans want to talk to in the next day.
With the public hearings that start next Wednesday.
Lisa Desjardins, Nick Schifrin, thank you both.
And next week, the "PBS NewsHour" will begin special live coverage of the House impeachment hearings. And that is on Wednesday, November 13, at 10:00 a.m. Eastern.
Check your local listings. All of our coverage will also stream live on our Web site and on YouTube, on Facebook and Twitter.
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