ROBERT COSTA: Impeachment hearings begin, but will the public be swayed? Dueling political arguments.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?
REPRESENTATIVE DEVIN NUNES (R-CA): The main performance – the Russia hoax – has ended, and you’ve been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel.
MR. COSTA: As career diplomats testify.
WILLIAM TAYLOR: (From video.) A member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations.
MARIE YOVANOVITCH: (From video.) Shady interests the word – the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want.
MR. COSTA: Week one of public impeachment hearings comes to a close with many lingering questions, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Public impeachment hearings began this week with opening statements by Adam Schiff, Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; and Republican Devin Nunes, the committee’s ranking member. They revealed the fault lines in Congress and the nation.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) If we find that the president of the United States abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections – or if he sought to condition, coerce, extort, or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his reelection campaign, and did so by withholding official acts, a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars of needed military aid – must we simply get over it?
REPRESENTATIVE DEVIN NUNES (R-CA): Ambassador Taylor and Mr. Kent, I’d like to welcome you here. I’d like to congratulate you for passing the Democrats’ star chamber auditions held for the last weeks in the basement of the Capitol.
MR. COSTA: Those remarks set the stage for the ongoing battle over President Trump’s conduct, his allies’ pressure campaign of Ukraine, and whether it merits impeachment.
Joining me tonight are four reporters fresh, or maybe a bit tired, after long days inside the Capitol and at the White House: Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Heather Caygle, congressional reporter for POLITICO; and Michael Crowley, White House correspondent covering foreign policy for The New York Times.
The focal point of this House inquiry remains the seasoned envoys who came forward to bear witness, civil servants who spoke of rattled diplomatic ranks and alliances. And on Friday former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified and President Trump tweeted as she spoke.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) 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: “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” Would you like to respond to the president’s attack that everywhere you went turned bad?
MARIE YOVANOVITCH: (From video.) Well, I mean, I don’t – I don’t think I have such powers, not in Mogadishu, Somalia, and not in other places. I actually think that where I’ve served over the years I and others have demonstrably made things better.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) What effect do you think that has on other witnesses’ willingness to come forward and expose wrongdoing?
MARIE YOVANOVITCH: (From video.) Well, it’s very intimidating.
MR. COSTA: As Michael recently wrote with his colleagues in the Times, quote, “rarely has the State Department, often seen as a staid pillar of the establishment, been the center of a revolt against a president and his top appointees.” Michael, we saw the president of the United States respond in real time to impeachment testimony. What kind of clash do you see between the executive branch and the nonpartisan civil servants who form the diplomatic corps?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: Well, it’s a clash that has been ongoing for years now, and it’s really kind of reaching a crescendo. You know, career civil servants and Foreign Service officers at the State Department, people who have spent a life serving as diplomats, feel that under President Trump they have been disrespected, their profession has been degraded, foreign policy has been warped in ways that they have never seen before. Their morale is terrible. There have been budget cuts or huge attempted budget cuts at the State Department – many of the ones that Trump wanted to do haven’t – didn’t actually go through, but terrible for morale. And so there’s a deep frustration and a sense of morale just being at rock bottom.
What has happened in the last few weeks with the impeachment inquiry is a kind of swelling of pride that in a way now the civil service, the Foreign Service officers are fighting back, they’re standing up. They’re showing America and the world the best that they have to offer. I mean, people like Marie Yovanovitch and Bill Taylor are, you know, exemplary diplomats who have enormous respect from their colleagues and peers. And so there’s pride. But there’s still a sense of, I think, deep foreboding that things are going – they may be a little better now, there may be a moment where these civil servants are showing what they can do and standing up for their core principles, but that the long-term picture for them is not good.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, you just came over here to the studio from the White House, there all day with PBS’s coverage. What was the White House strategy here? Or was this just a president lashing out?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: The White House strategy was to have a rapid response team. And that rapid response team was supposed to be part of the White House counsel staff. It was supposed to be comms directors. It was also supposed to be legislative affairs assistants. What was saw the president become the number-one person who was talking for the White House. And what we saw was the president responding in real time to a public hearing in a way that we have not seen in other public hearings. Think of Robert Muller and the special counsel, his personal attorney Michael Cohen. They all came before Congress and had really high-profile public hearings.
But the president wasn’t responding in the way that he was responding to Ambassador Yovanovitch. He really went after her and said: Look, this is a bad ambassador, and really took it personally. And then he defended his tweets, even as Republicans on the Hill were saying what the president did was not really right. Think of Liz Cheney. She’s the third-ranking Republican in the House. She said the president shouldn’t have tweeted that. Jim Jordan, who was put on the House Intel to defend the president later said, hey, you know what, this is someone – Ambassador Yovanovitch is someone who is a tough woman, who I praise her service. So what you have is really the White House on an island by itself. And that island has President Trump attacking Marie Yovanovitch.
MR. COSTA: Dan, you came to Washington in 1972 to report on this town and politics. You’ve seen an impeachment of a president over a burglary – at least an impeachment proceeding with President Nixon. You saw an extra-marital affair lead to a trial in 1999 and impeachment in the House for President Clinton. What do you make of today and what it tells us about this moment and the institutions in this country?
DAN BALZ: Bob, we’ve used the word “extraordinary” around this table for the past three years almost every Friday night. And I think it’s a justifiable word again this week. To see what the president did in the middle of this hearing I think caught everybody by surprise. And one of the things you could see is after he did that the Republicans were in many ways set back, one after another ended up praising the ambassador, or the former ambassador, in ways that were a little bit surprising given that they are trying to drive a wedge into this proceeding. So I think that we are at a stage in this where the lines are clearly drawn, and yet the president continues to have the capability to kind of upend the table. And it puts Republicans in a very difficult spot. And given testimony that we’ve heard, testimony that is coming, and some things that broke late in the day, he’s got a number of bad days ahead of him. Now, where this all ends we’ll wait and see, but today was an example of the kind of problem he’s got.
MR. COSTA: Let’s hear a little bit more of that testimony. The hearing started Wednesday with testimony from Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He offered new information about a presidential call.
WILLIAM TAYLOR: (From video.) The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations. Ambassador Sondland told President Trump the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.
MR. COSTA: Heather, we had these two ambassador testify this week, then breaking news Friday night, David Holmes, the State Department aide who overheard President Trump’s call with U.S. Ambassador Sondland said that the president – the Ukrainian president will, quote, “do anything you’d ask him to,” this is according to CNN, and the Ukrainians were willing to do the investigation. You cover Speaker Pelosi, House Democrats. When they go home this week and they huddle with each other on the phone, and they step back and look at all this testimony and this breaking news, what do they feel they’ve accomplished in this inquiry?
HEATHER CAYGLE: Well, Democrats, they think that, you know, they have been able to methodically and thoughtfully make this case to the public with these hearings this week. For them going into these hearings, they looked back on how they handled the Mueller report, and they felt that those hearings in the Judiciary Committee were a disaster. So for the most part, this week was about letting these career officials, these diplomats, these very well-respected individuals tell their story, and tell what they’ve heard, and get out of the way. And now they’ll turn to – we have eight more folks who are going to testify next week, very high-profile people. And Democrats are trying to figure out how best to sell this to the public. And that’s why we’ve seen them use some more commonplace words, like bribery, this week instead of things like quid pro quo, because they have done polling that shows that quid pro quo doesn’t really break through to voters, but bribery does. And it is in the Constitution as an impeachable offense.
MR. COSTA: And we learned more about this call Ambassador Sondland had with President Trump back in the summer. Does this bring – all this testimony – bring it closer to the president, Michael, when you look at the testimony?
MR. CROWLEY: Sure. I mean, in this case you have a phone call to Ambassador Sondland, who I think is in a terrace restaurant in Kiev, or Kyiv, as we’re supposed to be saying now. And the president speaks so loudly through the phone that two embassy officials who were with Sondland in the restaurant can hear the president’s voice. And according to the account that was given the House today, Sondland evidently held the phone away from his ear because the president was blasting so loudly in his ear.
Now, let’s set aside for a minute who might be intercepting a call like that. You are in a city that the Russians very heavily surveil. So it is not a secure phone call. But we now have these two people who heard the president’s voice and also heard Sondland after he hung up the phone essentially recount what these embassy staffers heard the president say, which is basically: I want the investigations. All he really cares about when it comes to Ukraine policy is investigating Joe Biden and this, frankly, totally debunked theory that Ukraine hacked the Democratic servers in the 2016 election.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, so much of this is about the culture around President Trump, in his administration, his inner circle. We just saw on Friday Roger Stone, his long-time confidant, convicted by a federal court of lying to Congress. When you think about the pressure campaign by Rudy Giuliani, who you’ve covered extensively, what is the –
MS. ALCINDOR: As have you. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: And we’ve all gotten those calls from Mayor Giuliani. So what kind of culture emerged from this testimony? And does the White House have a response for how they conducted foreign policy?
MS. ALCINDOR: The culture at the White House is really – at the center of it is President Trump. And President Trump is looking at the U.S. government and is – I think neutrally and objectively we can say he’s saying: How can all these agencies make sure that I continue to be reelected, continue to have political success? And how can I use these people around to go to these foreign countries and make sure I get information that will help me personally. That’s something that I think President Trump is saying he has the right to do as president. Mick Mulvaney in that kind of stunning press conference said: This is foreign policy. This is how elections work. This is what we do.
MR. CROWLEY: Get over it, he said. (Laughs.)
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, get over it. So there’s this idea that President Trump is essentially now going out and saying: My personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, you need to go and work with these people. Even though you’re not an official employee of the United States government, go out and find what I need you to find when it comes to – when it comes to these Biden investigations.
MR. COSTA: That’s such a good point, Yamiche, because the president believes he has the right to do this. He said today he has a right to free speech. He can talk about the witnesses whenever he wants. He says he has a right to fire the ambassador. He may have the right to, Dan, legally speaking, but what about the norms in this country when it comes to dealing with the foreign policy branch of the government, different people who work on diplomacy? How does that affect the presidency when it – when they interact with the diplomats in this way?
MR. BALZ: I mean, he’s literally correct that diplomats serve at the pleasure of the president, as do all senior-level officials in the government. And presidents have the right to designate an emissary to carry out aspects of foreign policy who may not be exactly in the mainline of, you know, the State Department on special assignment, or things like that. But traditionally people who are in those positions or asked to do those kinds of things are doing it to carry out the policy of the United States government. And what we’ve learned so far is that what Rudy Giuliani was doing was carrying out a policy specifically to help President Trump on a political mission, as opposed to carrying out policy with respect to Ukraine that has been longstanding policy. And so he’s warped the process through doing this, even though he has a right to free speech, certainly, and a right to decide who should or shouldn’t be an ambassador.
MR. COSTA: For House Democrats, is all about Ambassador Sondland now? Who is the key witness? Ambassador Bolton, he’s being held up in federal court, his possible testimony. What are they really looking for to build upon this week?
MS. CAYGLE: Well, I think Holmes, the fellow who testified behind closed doors tonight, they may be asking whether he should come publicly. They are trying to finish the public hearings next week, which is why we are seeing eight witnesses come over three days. It will be an enormous amount of testimony.
MR. COSTA: Why are they doing it with that kind of timeline?
MS. CAYGLE: Well, they want – Thanksgiving is the next week. They know that people are going to turn away from this and probably focus on their family. And when they come back they want to pivot to the House Judiciary Committee in the first week of December and move to markup articles of impeachment, if that’s what they choose to do, which many lawmakers say privately they will, and that will in theory allow them to vote on the articles the third week of December and then, you know, Congress leaves for Christmas.
MR. COSTA: Do we know exactly what the articles would be based on your conversations with House Democrats?
MS. CAYGLE: There’s a lot of speculation. They do say that they have enough to do obstruction of Congress, just given all of the stonewalling and things like that. They do say that they have enough to do obstruction of justice given things like what President Trump did today, attacking Yovanovitch, which they say is witness intimidation. And then abuse of power, which is the case that they’re trying to make here. They have told me privately that they don’t want to do more than a handful of articles because they don’t want to lose the public’s attention and, you know, overwhelm the folks who may be undecided about this and have, you know, a middle-of-the-road opinion going into the election next year.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stick with this, about the arguments they’re making to the country, and dig into the evolving strategies from Democrats and Republicans. Here’s Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan.
REPRESENTATIVE JIM JORDAN (R-OH): (From video.) Four facts will never change: the transcript speaks for itself; there was no conditionality, no quid pro quo in the transcript; no pressure, no pushing, no linkage to investigations; and of course, President Zelensky didn’t pledge to do any investigations prior to the aid being released, and the Ukrainians didn’t know that the aid was even on hold at the time of the call.
MR. COSTA: Speaker Pelosi on Thursday discussed possible bribery charges.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) Quid pro quo, bribery – bribery – and that is in the Constitution, attached to the impeachment proceedings.
QUESTION: (From video.) So what was the bribe here?
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) The bribe is to grant or withhold military assistance in return for a public statement of a – of a fake investigation into the elections.
QUESTION: (From video.) So could –
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) That’s bribery. Yes?
MR. COSTA: As Heather wrote for POLITICO, quote, “the speaker’s remark is one of her strongest statements yet.” Yamiche, Heather also brought up how the Democrats are moving away from quid pro quo. What is the White House moving toward? Is it an argument about, quote, “secondhand information”? What’s the counterargument over at the West Wing?
MS. ALCINDOR: There are, by my count, at least 15 different responses by the White House. There’s everything from this is all hearsay to this is an unfair process to these Democrats just are mad about the 2016 election and they just want to basically undo it and are trying to find any sort of way to get President Trump out of office. We don’t see, I think, a central message from the White House, and what we saw today was the president – he’s met with at least 120 House Democrats – I mean, sorry, 120 House Republicans. He also – he’s also met with 42 Republican senators. After all those meetings he then started tweeting about Ambassador Yovanovitch and upended all of the Republican messaging. So there is – I don’t see a central messaging strategy from the White House as it goes forward.
MR. COSTA: Dan, where is the country on this? You’ve studied polling.
MR. BALZ: When the Ukraine story first broke we saw a spike in support for impeach and remove from office, in some ways a rather surprising one given where public opinion had been through the Mueller report. I think what we’ve seen since then is a hardening of the lines. The support for impeachment in a number of the recent polls has not gone up much, if at all, from where it was in the early stage of the Ukraine story, whereas the opposition has ticked up a little bit. And I think that we’ve seen that certainly in the way the Republicans have approached this and the degree to which there are no – there are no real cracks publicly yet in most of the Republican conference in either the House or the Senate. There are a few people, but for the most part everybody’s standing firm. So I think it is a challenge for the Democrats. The politics of this are, obviously, fraught. It seemed as though the speaker was drawn into moving in this direction as opposed to wanting to do so – that she felt a constitutional obligation given what we have learned over the last month or – plus. But the politics of it are difficult, and I think that’s what the Democrats are going to be wrestling with as they push forward.
MR. COSTA: And there could be a curveball, Michael. We have an IG report possibly coming out in the next couple weeks from the Department of Justice looking at the Russia probe into President Trump’s campaign. Attorney General Bill Barr was at the White House this week. We’re not entirely sure about the subject of that meeting, but that IG report looms on the horizon. We began tonight talking about clashing of institutions. What could that IG report mean to this impeachment inquiry?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think it does circle back to what you said at the top. And one of the arguments that we are hearing from the president and his defenders is, in effect, this is the deep state. They’ve been trying to stage a coup against him since the day he was inaugurated, and the bureaucracy is fundamentally Democratic. These people wanted Hillary Clinton to win and they’ll do anything that they have to to get President Trump out of office. That was essentially the argument in the Russia investigation coming from the president and his allies, it’s a deep-state coup, and you are seeing echoes of that today. And in fact, you know, we’re hearing the same words, verbatim in some cases. And so that IG report could make the case that the Russia investigation itself was somehow fundamentally unfair, extralegal, and politically motivated, and the president I’m sure will say: You see, this is just happening to me left and right, that’s all they want to do. And I think a lot of his supporters will accept that argument and tune it out and say it’s the swamp and they’re out to get him.
MR. COSTA: And this idea of a deep state, you see this in the Republican argument about the whistleblower. They keep saying that Democrats must call forward the whistleblower. How is that factor and that dynamic playing into the proceedings on Capitol Hill?
MS. CAYGLE: Well, they brought the whistleblower up again today, Republicans did. And Democrats have a fairly coherent argument against it, which is Republicans keep saying that all the witnesses they’ve called so far have not heard anything firsthand, this is all hearsay; well, the whistleblower account by their definition would be hearsay because he was compiling reports that he had heard from White House officials who were on the call with the president and the Ukrainian president. So Democrats look back at the Republicans and they say, why should we call him if – or her – if this is just hearsay and you guys are going to dismiss it anyway? And so I think, you know, that’s a back and forth, but this just shows how Republicans’ defense and strategy is kind of all over the map and they haven’t been able to find anything that sticks. They said privately today – there was a break in between the hearing after the tweet and the rest of the hearing to break for votes – and they said that, you know, they were very dumbfounded by Trump’s tweet because they had spent many hours this week having mock hearings, and senior Republican leaders had cautioned their lawmakers do not attack Yovanovitch, do not attack Yovanovitch, and then President Trump did that and they had to, you know, defend it or dismiss it in a way.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, you brought up how the president’s been meeting with all these Republican senators. There’s a trial in the Senate on the horizon. I was at the Senate this week talking to different Republicans. There’s a divide over whether the trial should be five weeks, like it was for President Clinton in ’99, or whether it should be six to eight weeks – Senator Burr was talking about that – or whether it should be very short, a week long – Senator Paul, Trump ally, is talking about something like that, a very short trial. What does the White House want?
MS. ALCINDOR: I think the White House in some ways wants whatever ends in President Trump being acquitted. I think that that’s the most important thing to them. I think that there is some thought that if you drag it out and it starts going into the Democratic primaries and people are voting in Iowa while this trial is still going on, that that could be in some ways distracting because you have several senators running for office, running for the Democratic nomination, that would have to be sitting for this trial. So that would be Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, others. But I think there’s also this idea that President Trump wants this to be over. He is really – these tweets today and all sorts of kind of comments that he’s making, this is not the president that we’ve seen deal with other public hearings. So I think that the president is – even as he says that he kind of welcomed the impeachment inquiry and wanted to make his case to the American public, I think we can see a president that’s very agitated by all this.
MR. COSTA: But some of these senators, the Republicans, are pretty quiet. They keep saying they’re jurors, they don’t want to comment. What’s your read?
MR. CROWLEY: My read is that I don’t see a fissure. You know, I think of it like, you know, can there – will these hearings have a stick of dynamite that will sort of blast it open? You know, will there be some witness and some moment that really changes the dynamic? I’m thinking you need a big blast to do it. You know, what we’ve seen so far has been kind of chipping away bit by bit, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough. We’ll see what happens, but you know, the Republican senators have hung pretty tight. There were some pretty dark days during the Mueller investigation. Sure was a lot of reason to think the president might have been obstructing justice. That didn’t do it for them. So I think people who are – who are counting on that are going to be holding their breaths for a long time.
MR. COSTA: What explains that, Dan – the Republican Party, despite not loving President Trump privately, sometimes publicly, sticking with him at this time of crisis?
MR. BALZ: I think it’s the division in the country and the degree to which those lines, as I said earlier, have been and continue to be very, very hardened. I would think that the one thing that would affect Republican senators is if there were a significant move in public opinion away from the president. His approval rating, as we’ve known for three years, has basically traveled in a very narrow range. It doesn’t go very high or very low from where it started out. That I think is why we see what we see in terms of impeachment. The impeachment public opinion today is similar to his approval rating. That doesn’t move much.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. Thanks so much for coming in on a Friday night. Really appreciate it. It was busy.
So make sure to join us, though, for the Washington Week Extra. We will continue this discussion online and talk 2020.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night.