ROBERT COSTA: Explosive testimony caps another week of impeachment hearings.
AMBASSADOR GORDON SONDLAND: (From video.) I followed the directions of the president. We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the president directed us to do so.
MR. COSTA: Top officials speak out.
FIONA HILL: (From video.) Ambassador Bolton said that Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up.
MR. COSTA: Republicans hold firm.
REPRESENTATIVE DEVIN NUNES (R-CA): (From video.) For the last three years it’s not President Trump who got caught, it’s the Democrats who got caught.
MR. COSTA: And Democrats press on.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) We are better than that. (Sounds gavel.)
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The impeachment inquiry closed this week with testimony from officials detailing pivotal moments in the Trump administration’s pressure campaign of Ukraine.
Joining me tonight are four reporters who know this story, who have been covering it all week: Carol Leonnig, investigative reporter for The Washington Post; Abby Phillip, political correspondent for CNN; John Bresnahan, congressional bureau chief for POLITICO; and Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for NPR.
Now let’s catch up. Looking back at this week’s critical moments, we learned more about President Trump’s conduct and the evolution of what Ambassador Gordon Sondland acknowledged was a quid pro quo arrangement.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL ALEXANDER VINDMAN: (From video.) It was improper for the president to demand an investigation into a political opponent.
AMBASSADOR GORDON SONDLAND: (From video.) Mr. Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky. Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election, DNC server, and Burisma. Everyone was in the loop.
DAVID HOLMES: (From video.) I then heard President Trump ask, so he’s going to do the investigation? Ambassador Sondland replied that he’s going to do it, adding that President Zelensky will do anything you ask him to do.
FIONA HILL: (From video.) He was being involved in a domestic political errand and we were being involved in national security/foreign policy, and those two things had just diverged.
MR. COSTA: Gordon Sondland: “Everyone was in the loop.” Carol, you’ve been digesting this as a reporter all week. When you look at Ambassador Sondland’s testimony, what mattered? What did you learn, someone who’s been covering it and knows the facts?
CAROL LEONNIG: Ambassador Sondland, who initially tried to say in his testimony that he doesn’t really remember whether or not the president was seeking an investigation of his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, on this particular day laid bare everything he thought. Looking back, piecing it all together, he knew there was a quid pro quo, and he knew it had been at the instruction of the president through his agent, Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney. The most striking thing about what I view as Gordon Sondland’s flip-flop is he finally came clean in describing this is really what it was; I didn’t want to say it exactly this way, but this is what it was.
ABBY PHILLIP: He also seemed to try to still want to protect himself. I mean, there was a key moment in Sondland’s testimony where the only thing that he disputed about David Holmes’ reiteration of the call that he had with the president was that he mentioned to Holmes that Biden came up specifically. He says I don’t think that that part of it is true, and the reason why he insists on that is because he wants to claim that he didn’t know that the investigation into Burisma was really an investigation into Joe Biden until the very end. That’s the part that a lot of people believe strains credulity because it seems to protect Sondland even while he seems to admit later on he believes that it ended up being a quid pro quo, and a lot of people involved in this – as he pointed out, “everybody was in the loop” – seemed to know that there was an investigation into Burisma that was being demanded, but a lot of these individuals still don’t want to acknowledge that they knew that that was, as Fiona Hill put it, a political errand.
MR. COSTA: One of the people challenging the credibility of that assertion was Dr. Fiona Hill. What was the power of her testimony, John, when you look at it, especially as Democrats try to use her as a way to counter what Republicans are saying?
JOHN BRESNAHAN: Well, she confronted Sondland directly inside the White House, and she has this argument with him and says, you know, what you’re doing is wrong, and tells him that to his face, and that was just stunning. You think about it, they’re having – it’s like a scene out of a movie. They’re having this argument in the White House, you are breaking the law and – you know, and then she goes and relates this all to then-National Security Director (sic; Adviser) John Bolton and he says, go tell the lawyers, and he immediately sends her because he knows that this is troubling. I mean, that’s a really hugely dramatic movie, it was like – moment. It was like something out of a movie. It was really kind of stunning.
MR. COSTA: That’s a great point about the movie-type atmosphere, but it was a culture that was revealed inside of the Trump administration. And was it about President Trump himself? Did Sondland and others really reveal the president and his own involvement?
SUSAN DAVIS: In many ways they did, and I think Fiona Hill’s testimony was also really interesting because she didn’t necessarily apologize to Sondland, but she did say after hearing his testimony it was even more clear to her that he wasn’t – he just thought he was doing his job, and she understood that in a way because she thought he was operating outside the system, and she realized he thought he was operating within the system. I think the sum total of effect of all of these testimonies this week is that, with the exception of one defense line still standing, almost every line of defense the White House has put up for either the president’s decision-making or his behavior or the rationale was undermined by some element of testimony this week – no quid pro quo, it was all hearsay, it was a perfect call, he had reason to believe that there was Ukraine meddling – systematically was taken apart this week by the sum total of these witnesses.
MS. LEONNIG: And you know, I totally agree; you summed it up beautifully. I also think it is going to be a movie at one point – (laughter) – because, you know, just think –
MR. COSTA: Carol, we need you in the newsroom. (Laughter.) We’re taking screenplay offers right now.
MS. LEONNIG: Thank you, but I really – I find this moment the most interesting, on July 10th. You hit on it. Fiona Hill is sent running after Gordon Sondland by her boss, the national security adviser, John Bolton: Watch those guys. Watch those drug dealers. Follow them and see what they’re doing. She follows them to the basement. She breaks into the room. They’re with the Ukrainians. Gordon Sondland is talking about we need you to do these investigations, you need to give the president what he wants, and she says what you’re doing is wrong, and the Ukrainians are standing there and Sondland says, let’s let the Ukrainians – you know, let’s get them out of the room right now. And they’re literally standing in the hallway in the basement of the White House unattended. Just this – just it’s unbelievable. But to your point about culture, it’s about a group of people who are all like, how can I help the king get what he wants?
MR. COSTA: But Abby, you’ve been on the campaign trail reporting for CNN, talking to voters. When you step back and you look at the testimony, do your sources in the Democratic Party feel like this has broken through to voters on the impeachment front, and what are voters talking about when they hear this testimony?
MS. PHILLIP: They do not think it has broken through, not in the same way that you might expect given how dramatic it all is. The problem is that people are not following it that closely, and among Democratic voters they care much more about policy issues than they do about what they believe they already know, which is that – they already believe that President Trump is corrupt; they don’t necessarily need all of this mountain of evidence in order to make that clear to them. And in fact, I was talking to a Republican pollster recently who was remarking about how stable the polling has been, how there have been so few shifts in public opinion. Democrats have solidified in believing that the president needs to be removed; independents have only shifted a couple of points, only a few points, and Republicans have lined up behind the president. So we are in a remarkable moment in the sense that the evidence is so clear, and yet the polling shows that the electorate still is very balkanized in their political camps, and very little that’s happening right now is moving them.
MR. COSTA: Any cracks in the Republican Party? You look at someone like Representative Elise Stefanik from New York, she was seen as a relatively centrist Republican.
MS. DAVIS: Moderate, yeah.
MR. COSTA: Friendly with the leadership. She was out in front for President Trump.
MR. BRESNAHAN: Will Hurd. Mike Turner.
MS. DAVIS: She was out in front. Will Hurd, Republican from Texas. I think Will Hurd is even a more – better example of why there’s no cracks. He’s retiring. He’s the kind of Republican who has the freedom to maybe break with the party because he’s not seeking reelection. His closing statement yesterday, he basically said I’m a no on impeachment, and I think this is a line you’re going to hear a lot from Republicans is that he said, you know, I didn’t like the way the president conducted his foreign policy, I don’t think he exercised the best judgment, but there’s nothing that I’ve seen here that I think warrants removal from office. And if you don’t have Will Hurd willing to break with the party, you don’t really have anyone.
MR. BRESNAHAN: I agree with you. And the Senate Republicans, they’re not moving. And Trump is working very hard to keep Senate Republicans in line. He’s taking them into the Oval Office. He’s even meeting with Mitt Romney. You know, he’s bringing Mitt Romney into the White House, a guy – you know, and they’re sitting there and, you know, he’s trying to make – trying to be nice to everybody under Mitch McConnell’s direction. Mitch McConnell said to him a, you know, while ago, hey, you better start turning around with Senate Republicans.
I think one thing also that struck me this week that was amazing about this whole scandal is how many people knew? There were a lot of people in Washington and Kyiv who knew.
MR. COSTA: Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo –
MR. BRESNAHAN: Dozens of people. And it doesn’t break out into the open until late August, when there’s reports on the aid being held up. And even then, we didn’t know right away. But there’s – I went through it – there’s a couple dozen people who knew, which is just stunning to me, the atmosphere in the White House.
MR. COSTA: That’s so true. So why aren’t Democrats waiting to hear from Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, Ambassador John Bolton, who’s been referenced in so many of these hearings. Why are they moving forward? And is the puzzle incomplete until we hear from those people?
MS. LEONNIG: I think the puzzle is definitely incomplete. I’ve had a source tell me that we are only halfway through this game in terms of knowing everything that happened. What’s missing? Mulvaney, Bolton, Pompeo. Pompeo may leave office before we get any answers from him. But the truth of the matter is, guys, those people are not going to testify unless a court tells them to. It’s not going to happen. And you can see why Chairman Schiff wants to move forward, get the articles, get the vote, move forward, doesn’t feel like he really needs their testimony yet. It could come in the Senate trial, though.
MR. COSTA: Let’s dig into the Republican side, though, because as Chairman Schiff moves forward you saw today the president was battling. And on Thursday, Dr. Hill challenged this rising GOP assertion that Ukraine tried to undermine the Trump campaign in 2016.
FIONA HILL: (From video.) Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country, and that perhaps somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that is being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.
MR. COSTA: This has been debunked, this idea that Ukraine meddled by numerous fact checkers, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and others.
MS. DAVIS: Congress, and the intelligence community, and – (laughter) –
MR. COSTA: So what’s the significance of Dr. Hill, not a media organization, debunking it under oath?
MS. DAVIS: Yeah. Well, if you go a little bit into Fiona Hill’s background, she came back into work for this administration after 2016 because of the Russian interference in the election, that she felt compelled to get back into government over this existential threat of meddling with our elections. So I think this is sort of the culmination of her life’s work. And I think having – hearing members – people in positions of power, people who know better, people who have a responsibility to the public muddying the waters to the public of understanding what was happening there and had a platform to chastise them.
I mean, that comment, she obviously didn’t name names, but seemed pretty clearly directed at Devin Nunes, the top Republican member on the committee, and other members who have at least entertained the president’s concerns about Ukraine meddling. Republicans did note, and accurately, that the House and Senate’s Intelligence Committees have officially recognized that Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. What the House Republicans did not do was go as far to acknowledge that they did so to benefit Donald Trump.
MS. PHILLIP: And they continue to imply that Russia’s meddling in 2016 was just par for the course, that it wasn’t systematic in nature, and that other countries – we heard this literally in Fiona Hill’s hearing – that other countries also meddled. And they include Ukraine in that. And it seemed the purpose of Fiona Hill’s opening statement was to put on the record that she believed that it was important that everybody realize that this is part of a Russian effort to destabilize the U.S. electoral system, but also to destabilize the U.S.’s relationship with Ukraine. A weakened Ukraine is in Russia’s interest. And that’s exactly what this conspiracy theory has achieved. The president had this negative view of Ukraine that was based almost entirely on rumor and innuendo that, according to Fiona Hill, was planted in our system but the Russian intelligence services.
MR. COSTA: And it’s not going away anytime soon, John. Senator Graham has pursued documents from the State Department about Hunter Biden, Vice President Biden, Burisma. Where does this go, this angle from the GOP?
MR. BRESNAHAN: Well, it seems like they are going to play this card if it comes to a Senate trial. Graham is seeking documents from the State Department, as you know, and he’s also looking for a – wants to speak to Alexandra Chalupa, who is a former DNC operative who had gotten information from the Ukrainians in 2016, some information. And, you know, the accusation was there was this big Ukrainian, you know, effort to hurt Trump. And Trump keeps saying it, he said it today on Fox News, he’s talking about CrowdStrike, and even the Fox News hosts were like, OK. I just thought it was – you know, and can we say one other thing? Can we get Fiona Hill to do an audiobook, please? (Laughter.) Just an audiobook, Fiona Hill, reading anything.
MR. COSTA: John, you’re already planning a movie, an audiobook. (Laughter.)
MR. BRESNAHAN: I’m busy. I’m busy.
MS. LEONNIG: I have to just chime in and say, you know, I couldn’t agree more with what Abby said about the power of Russian intelligence forces, security forces, trying to divide, you know, our country. They’re succeeding that regard too. She points out, Fiona Hill, that we are now fighting over objective fact. We are fighting over objective fact, which is just –
MR. COSTA: What about the IG report, Carol, that’s coming next month from the Department of Justice? The Washington Post and New York Times reported on Friday, quote, “The Justice Department watchdog finds political bias did not taint top officials running the FBI’s Russia probe, but documents other errors.” What is – what have you learned about this upcoming IG report? And is this part of the GOP counternarrative to impeachment or is it an independent document that should be taken seriously?
MS. LEONNIG: So I think it’s a serious document. I mean, the IG is no fool. In fact, he’s quite rigorous and serious at the – and I think this is going to be very interesting. However, it’s much valued by the GOP as, like, another example of how the FBI and the DOJ were crooked, and corrupt, and going for Donald Trump in a coup to get rid of the election results of 2016, to try to unseat him and undermine him. Well, that’s not really what the IG found. According to our reporting, and The New York Times reporting, the IG found essentially that a low-level lawyer, who’s now been dismissed, altered an email that was part of the surveillance effort to get the warrant, apply for the warrant to surveil Carter Page, a former Trump aide. And that alteration didn’t do anything to change the facts that justified getting a warrant for this Trump aide who was meeting with quite a few Russians during the campaign.
MR. COSTA: Vice President Biden spoke out on Friday about Senator Graham, his longtime friend in the Senate.
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah. And made it clear that he believes that Graham is living in fear of President Trump, which is not wrong. I mean, Lindsey Graham is running for reelection in –
MR. COSTA: He seems pretty convinced by all this, Senator Graham.
MS. PHILLIP: Senator Graham? I mean, I – sometimes he does. But then sometimes he doesn’t want to answer questions about it. I mean, I think it’s very telling that he said at various points he wasn’t going to even listen to any of the evidence that was being presented. I think he would – he’d be willing to listen if he felt like he could rebut it. But he chose to simply avoid it. I do think Graham has decided, and it makes a lot of logical political sense that in a state like South Carolina you cannot be on the wrong side of the president of the United States. He needs Trump in order to win politically. And I think that’s where he’s really – he’s put all his eggs in that basket right now.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stay with that, because if you think about when we look ahead, as John and his colleagues at POLITICO have reported, House Democrats are still discussing the next steps. Judiciary Committee members have received little guidance from party leaders on how the panel will conduct the proceeding or the timeframe for completing them. And based on what Abby just documented, so astutely, you have a Republican Party with Senator Graham and others who don’t want to break from President Trump. So this moves to the Judiciary Committee in the coming weeks, then eventually probably to the House floor. But what’s the outlook for Democrats to get a Republican to come along? You’ve already mentioned some of the retiring Republicans aren’t really there. Is this going to be a party line vote?
MR. BRESNAHAN: I see that at this point. I don’t know – the Republican leadership, Kevin McCarthy and the other Republican leaders in the House, they don’t think they’re going to lose one member. And at this point, I think they’re probably right. If they don’t lose somebody like Will Hurd, or Mike Turner – both of whom publicly expressed dismay over the Trump’s call when they first heard about it – I mean, I see it as very unlikely they’re going to pick up anybody. It would have to be a retiring member or somebody Trump can’t touch, because this is Abby’s point. We – they are impeaching a president in an election cycle. You know, a first-term president, which has never happened before. And you know, he runs the party. And this particular president, he uses fear and intimidation on his own party. And you know, in a way that no president in our memory has ever done. I mean, he’s tweeting at Marie Yovanovitch in the middle of her – the middle of her testimony. It’s extraordinary.
MR. COSTA: So what’s your outlook on a Senate trial, Sue, with Republican control?
MS. DAVIS: I mean, I don’t think – this is the thing about the impeachment story, is the outcome’s never really been in doubt. I don’t think at any point in this process anyone’s truly believed that there’s 67 votes to throw Donald Trump out of office. And I don’t think that outcome has changed. The next chapter I think is really interesting is the White House has some decisions to make because the Republicans and the White House have complained a lot about the process. But as this shifts into Judiciary, the rules of the game change. And the White House can send counsel into these sessions, including closed-door briefings. They can offer written testimony. They can ask questions. And they need to decide how much they want to engage in this process to present a better case for the president or continue to call it a sham process, and ditto in the Senate. How much are they going to engage in this process or stand back, and how much loyalty are they going to continue to demand? Are – they demand calling Hunter Biden to the floor of the Senate; are they going to give Republicans any room not to do that? I mean, his ability to jam his own party is much greater than Democrats’ right now. (Laughs.)
MR. BRESNAHAN: And I’d point out one of the big moments in Clinton’s impeachment was when Clinton’s lawyer, David Kendall, cross-examined Ken Starr in the House Judiciary Committee, which – could you see, what if Trump’s lawyer tries to cross-examine Adam Schiff in the House? That could be fascinating. I’m not sure it would happen, but I mean, the possibility it could happen. And they’ve already talked about, well, maybe Schiff should be a witness on the Senate side. I don’t even know if that’s allowed, but it’s – I mean, the dynamics there could be absolutely fascinating.
MR. COSTA: Carol, you’ve long reported on the federal courts. When you think about Don McGahn, his case about testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, it’s about to be decided by a federal court. And how they decide on Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, could affect whether John Bolton comes before Congress. Are House Democrats’ hands tied a bit as they move forward because of the courts?
MS. LEONNIG: I think this situation is awkward for them. It’s not impossible that we’re going to hear the testimony of senior advisors, but basically Don McGahn, John Bolton, Pat Cipollone, all of them can stand on a very strong legal foundation that past courts have found if you’re a senior advisor to the president, if you are whispering in the president’s ear, some of the things you all discuss are privileged and they’re protected by executive privilege, deliberative privilege. You can make that argument.
There’s one little exception. It may be too late for this trial, but Harriet Miers, the Supreme Court ruled in that case that you have to come forward. You can decline to answer certain questions that implicate privilege, meaning a whisper about something you actually discussed with the president, but when it comes to your own actions – Mulvaney’s actions, Bolton’s actions – you should be allowed to testify and answer those questions. So the court may rule go in, sit for the questions, answer the ones you want, decline the ones you think are privileged. But it all may be ultimately too late because this is going to go to the Supremes. The White House is not going to let a trial court judge tell them who goes into the witness box.
MS. PHILLIP: And so far that strategy has been, I think, incredibly effective. It’s changed the trajectory of this whole impeachment hearing because, as you pointed out, Carol, we’re maybe halfway through of an actual fact-finding mission here about what happened, and they can’t get to the other half because the documents are not being provided, the call logs are not being provided, there are material witnesses who are not coming forward. And as long as that continues to be the case – and it seems like it’s likely to be the case – Democrats can only go so far. They may be forced to write articles of impeachment only based on really a kind of half-knowledge of what’s going on or what went on over the summer when it came to Ukraine. And John Bolton still has an opportunity to do something. We’re not – it’s not clear what exactly he’ll do, and that might move things forward a little bit. But I think still the absence of documentation is really – has really hamstrung Democrats.
MR. COSTA: So what do we know, when you’re up at the Capitol, about the articles of impeachment, the specifics about what we’ll see from out of the House Judiciary Committee?
MR. BRESNAHAN: We don’t know a lot right now. I think we’re going to see it’s going to be – well, we expect inside the Judiciary Committee it will be based on the Clinton model. There will be four different phases. There’d be, you know, what is an impeachable offense; that would be opening phase. Then they’d – Schiff and maybe some of the other chairmen in the House will present a case, then the Republicans will present a case, and then they draft an article of impeachment. Are they going to use some of the information from the Mueller report? That’s the big debate now. There’s a lot of Democrats, especially on the Judiciary Committee, who would like to see that. They feel it plays into the whole pattern or the president’s pattern of behavior, obstructing Congress and obstructing investigations. But there is also a danger to that, and driving away any chance of any Republican support. They may do it if they don’t think they’re going to get any Republicans.
MS. DAVIS: The only specific article that Adam Schiff has brought up time and time again is obstruction, that the White House’s unwillingness to provide those documents and data, fighting subpoenas, he has said time and time again will be considered evidence of obstruction and possible articles of impeachment. So it would be shocking if they move forward with articles if obstruction of the investigation isn’t one of them. But how they structure this about the ask, about the withholding of the military aid, I mean, we’re going to get into the nitty gritty of what specifically Democrats are saying is the impeachable offense here, and I think it goes to the Republican defense – which I think is a good one politically – to say don’t look at the decision-making, look at the outcomes. In the end, Ukraine got the money. In the end, he met with the president. In the end, they never had to announce investigations. That’s, they think, their best line of political defense.
MR. COSTA: We have to leave it there. I know we could talk all evening. (Laughter.) Sometime the show is too short. (Laughter.)
But before we go, our friend Sharon Rockefeller, the president of WETA and a longtime champion of this program, was awarded the National Medal of the Arts this week at the White House.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) She helped established WETA as one of the preeminent public broadcasting networks in the nation, producing PBS NewsHour and Washington Week, among other programming. Now maybe I’ll start getting some good publicity on those particular shows, Sharon. (Laughter.) Could you please start working on that, Sharon?
MR. COSTA: Mr. President, we will keep reporting.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night.