ROBERT COSTA: Congress and a nation divided.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) It’s a sad day because nobody comes to Congress to impeach a president – no one.
MR. COSTA: A historic House vote formalizes impeachment proceedings against President Trump as evidence mounts about a possible quid pro quo and as more officials are called to testify.
The president and Republicans respond with fury.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) You can’t impeach a president who did nothing wrong. You can’t impeach a president that has the greatest economy in the history of our nation.
REPRESENTATIVE JIM JORDAN (R-OH): (From video.) Your trying to put a ribbon on a sham process doesn’t make it any less of a sham.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. After five weeks of closed-door testimony, the House voted along party lines on Thursday to approve a resolution that establishes the rules for the next public phase of the impeachment process. The vote closed a tense week in Washington as another round of witnesses testified about the president’s conduct and lawmakers sparred.
REPRESENTATIVE JAMES CLYBURN (D-SC): (From video.) The impeachment inquiry has built a powerful body of evidence around President Trump’s call with President Zelensky of Ukraine when he told the foreign leader I’d like you to do us a favor, though.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) History will ask you when you cast this vote – when you cast a vote to justify something that has gone on behind closed doors – what do you know what happened there?
MR. COSTA: Joining us tonight are four reporters who have been on the frontlines of this story at the Capitol and at the White House: Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News; Vivian Salama, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and Jake Sherman, senior writer for POLITICO and co-author of Playbook.
Let’s begin with that House vote. Speaker Pelosi remains at the center of this debate, driving the inquiry and her party’s strategy. And as Jake wrote in today’s Playbook, quote, “Democrats have several key hurdles over the next few days to keep their ranks together. At the moment they’re about to head into a recess week. The big question: How do they keep the momentum going?” Jake?
JAKE SHERMAN: So they have to get this in public. They have to move this hearing, these depositions from behind closed doors to a more public setting, and that’s what this vote was about this week. People are going to go home and they’re going to get questions, and Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership want them to talk about them defending the Constitution. They say almost to a person they didn’t come to Congress to impeach a president, but here they are, they’ve found themselves in a moment that they can’t turn their backs on. This is what Pelosi thinks. But again, they’re about to have a bunch of witnesses come to Capitol Hill, or not come to Capitol Hill and not testify, and that’s a challenge for Pelosi over the next week to keep the drumbeat up. But I think today Pelosi in New York, speaking to Bloomberg, said there will be hearings this month, so it’s going to be a big month.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, what are you hearing about the scheduling and the timing?
NANCY CORDES: I think Jake’s absolutely right about how quickly they want to move. Even as they schedule about a dozen depositions for next week – I think a lot of those individuals won’t show up – they’re also going to be starting to release the transcripts of the 13 depositions they’ve already done as early as the first part of next week, and we could get word next week about public hearings that they’d like to start holding the week after that – a few big blockbuster public hearings in the House Intelligence Committee as they try to lay out this story, a pressure campaign on the Ukrainian government through the words and the narratives of the diplomats and White House officials who lived through it.
MR. COSTA: What’s the view at the White House? Do they see the Democrats moving forward in a commanding way?
PETER BAKER: I think this reminds me, actually, of the day that Bill Clinton was impeached in December 1998. And after the vote, at the end of the day, he had the House Democrats rallying behind him. One of his aides, Doug Sosnik, walked into the office of another aide and said, you know what, except for being impeached this is kind of a good day. (Laughter.) And that’s how I think it was for President Trump this week. Except for the fact that this vote indicated he will be impeached, it was a pretty good day because he held the Republicans together. It means that it’s going to be a party-line impeachment absent some dramatic change in the environment – some public hearing that changes our understanding, some explosive evidence we haven’t seen yet – because it’s a whole lot easier as a Republican in the House to vote to have an inquiry than to actually vote for an article of impeachment. So if you can’t vote or didn’t want to vote or don’t think there’s a reason to vote for an inquiry, it’s going to be hard to see how they would vote for an actual article of impeachment.
MR. COSTA: Vivian, Peter mentioned the Republicans for now are holding together. How did the White House hold the GOP together this week?
VIVIAN SALAMA: Well, a lot of it was just outreach by the president. And what we’ve seen is very interesting, where there wasn’t really much of a strategy for the last month. The president, obviously, likes to control the message – not just on this, but in general he likes to control messages – and so there was a lot of talk about the formation of a war room for a while, and then it went away, and now there’s discussion about possibly separating the impeachment strategy from the rest of the White House strategy. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, Peter – you would know more – but that’s sort of the way that the Clinton White House approached this issue as well, where they said, you know what, let’s separate it; let’s have the president and the White House staff focus on policy issues – you know, promoting the economic growth and things like that that are going to get him into the election year – and have other people from outside come in and focus on the impeachment strategy. And so that’s a lot of talk, but right now we don’t see it happening. And Republicans are going to him, really pressing him, saying this is the way to move forward, but until now we don’t have a concrete plan.
MS. CORDES: But frankly, the White House doesn’t need to do that much to keep people in line as long as Republican support for the president stays as high as it is. There’s a new Washington Post poll out that shows that only 18 percent of Republicans think this president should be impeached. If the numbers stay like that, then Republican lawmakers really don’t see a value to them stepping out of line and voting in favor of an impeachment inquiry or in favor of impeachment itself.
MR. BAKER: Right.
MR. COSTA: Jake, what about when you look at the Democrats? There were two breakaways from Speaker Pelosi: Congressman Van Drew of New Jersey, Congressman Peterson of Minnesota. Were there more cracks that we didn’t see behind the scenes, and what did you make of those breaks?
MR. SHERMAN: No, there are not. Democrats are remarkably unified here. Pelosi’s done an amazing job at controlling a process and selecting a chairman in Adam Schiff, the Intelligence Committee chairman, who she trusts, who is managing a very tight process at the moment. Van Drew is kind of a(n) interesting case. He voted no on speaker. That’s not a way you can vote; you have to vote for a human being. Collin Peterson – Donald Trump won Collin Peterson’s district by nearly 31 points. He has been around since 1990. He’s always kind of voted far right of his party. So I mean, listen, Democrats are sticking together. There’s bumps on the road. There are questions about how the process is playing out and questions about what it will look like in public, where it’s going to get a lot stickier and a lot more partisan.
MR. BAKER: I think that’s right, and I think the important thing, though, is that they want it to remain partisan, right? That’s what the Trump people want. Just like Bill Clinton wanted the 1998 impeachment to be partisan because it meant that he would be acquitted in the Senate, where you need a two-thirds vote to convict, so does Donald Trump want this to remain partisan. So the argument about process may go away to some extent because they now have voted an impeachment process up, but the Republicans want to keep it us versus them. As long it’s us versus them, he’ll be – he’ll stay in office.
MR. COSTA: Do they want this to drag into the election year in 2020?
MR. BAKER: I don’t think – you know, it’s already in the election year. The president has – sorry – the president has three rallies in the next week alone. You’re going to hear a lot about this in these three rallies in the next three – next week alone, and that’s the problems with the idea of having a war room. Clinton was part of the White House that didn’t focus on it, at least in public – of course, in private he did. In this White House, the president would be the guy leading the war room.
MS. CORDES: Well, and if it does drag into an actual election year, 2020, that’s going to be a big problem for six candidates in this very large Democratic field. There are six Democratic senators. If there is a Senate trial that lasts for weeks in the month of January or February, those are very important days that instead of being out on the hustings, you know, campaigning in Iowa or New Hampshire, they’re going to have to be sitting in their seats for many hours every single day – they can’t speak – on the Senate floor, and that is not what any candidate wants to be doing in an election year.
MR. COSTA: And that’s on the horizon, but for now there’s this procession of current and former Trump administration officials who testified this week. Vivian has been covering the depositions, along with others at this table, and her reporting looks at the latest key witness: Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council. He listened to the call between President Trump and President Zelensky of Ukraine over the summer, and Vindman said in his written statement that the summary released by the White House did not match his own recollection of the call. He also said the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, told Ukrainian leaders that, quote, “need to deliver specific investigations to secure a meeting with Mr. Trump,” a nod to that alleged quid pro quo. The significance of Vindman – has this turned the probe on Capitol Hill in a more significant direction? Does it give Democrats more of the ammunition following the testimony by Ambassador Taylor?
MS. SALAMA: This was a big week for depositions because we heard from two – not just one – two current NSC officials with firsthand knowledge of the phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky in July. And both of them said that they had some concerns because of the fact that President Trump raised the issue of investigations in the phone call. This was something, of course – hearing it from current NSC officials, both of whom claim to have, you know, come in a – in a non-partisan manner to talk about this, this was obviously something that was very troubling for a lot of people – Republicans reacting to it, Vindman in particular, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, a Purple Heart. He was an Iraq War veteran, wounded in Iraq. He came out there and he said, I just want to do my job, and I was concerned because of the fact that I heard the president talking about this issue and raising bipartisan – he called it concern of an appearance of a partisan play. And so this was one thing that he said in his opening statement.
But the other interesting thing that came about this week is the circle closing in increasingly on Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union – Gordon Sondland now playing a very key role, as did Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, because we see now from a number of depositions that there were concerns that he was going out there – and people with firsthand knowledge that he was going and telling the Ukrainians, you need to open an investigation either to secure a meeting with President Trump or for your aid to come through. And to hear that from NSC officials – current NSC officials was very, very, striking.
Of course we still don’t have them saying any of these things coming out of the president’s mouth, and that’s going to be the challenge moving forward for a lot of Democrats who are looking, obviously, to move this into a trial phase at some point – is that you don’t have this coming out of the president’s mouth. What you have is the phone call, which everyone talks about a quid pro quo – do they link directly withholding of military aid to Ukraine to the investigations to Biden? They are both raised in the phone call, but there is no explicit link. But with Gordon Sondland, you do have a very explicit link, according to these alleged testimonies.
MR. BAKER: The truth – the truth is, though, you’re right about that, that they don’t have a transcript of the president saying quid pro quo or something, as explicit as they might like, to prove that, and that’s where the Republicans are seizing on to some extent.
But they don’t necessarily have to. In the Nixon case, one of the articles of impeachment held him responsible for the actions of his aides, right? So if you are able to prove, as an investigator, that Sondland, and Giuliani, and others acted in a corrupt way in some fashion, or a way that was an abuse of power, you can hold the president accountable, at least according to that precedent.
MR. SHERMAN: And I would also add that Democrats are planning to use the president’s obstruction – or what they see as the president’s obstruction – as an article of impeachment: not allowing these people to testify, holding them back from hearing rooms. I mean, this is a – Democrats said for a long time we’re going to take them to court, and then they decided, actually, no. This is enough to bring articles of impeachment against the president.
MS. SALAMA: Absolutely.
MR. COSTA: There were attacks from Republicans about the lieutenant colonel, Mr. Vindman, saying he may be a spy, making spurious allegations about him. But Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a member of the Republican leadership in the House, had this to say amid all those statements:
REPRESENTATIVE LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): (From video.) (In progress) – questioning the dedication to country of people like Mr. Vindman – Lieutenant Colonel Vindman. I think that we need to show that we are better than that as a nation. It is shameful to question their patriotism, their love of this nation, and we should not be involved in that process.
MS. CORDES: You know, I was there when she said that, and that came very early on as these attacks just got started on cable. And you got the sense that Republican leadership was coming out and saying that, not just to discourage their own members from making those kinds of attacks on Vindman, which they heeded, but also to send a message to the president himself: Hey, don’t you go down this road, either. They just did not think that that was going to be beneficial to him or to the party, to go after someone who had served his country, who had won a Purple Heart and was clearly still serving his country in a very important role as the top Ukraine advisor to the president.
MS. SALAMA: Well, and the president did go down that road, and that was what was so interesting. The next day he was tweeting the – calling Vindman – not by name, but calling him a never-Trumper, and this has been the strategy that he’s taken where he’s saying, OK, so they’re serving in the administration; maybe they’re not Democrats, but they’re never-Trumpers. And that’s the defense that he’s taken against these people.
MR. COSTA: That’s the strategy from the White House; that’s the attack. But when you step back, Jake, and you think about is there any contesting of the facts here – official after official, ambassador after ambassador keeps laying out what appears to be an alleged quid pro quo on the president’s part: military aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation. How does the House see that – those facts assembling, and what’s the White House’s response to the substance of all this?
MR. SHERMAN: That’s the interesting thing about this case, right? I mean, Democrats and Republicans kind of agree on a basic set of facts: that the president had this call with the leader of Ukraine and asked him to investigate Joe Biden. Now Republicans say there’s nothing wrong with that. All of government and all of politics is a quid pro quo. He wasn’t asking them to do anything illegal. He wasn’t doing anything illegal. And Democrats say, no, actually this is really bad. This is not what presidents should be doing, and this is a high crime and misdemeanor. And that’s the interesting thing here – is that with every testimony you’re just getting more color about an episode that we kind of already know the broad outlines of.
MR. COSTA: So if Mr. Morrison – Tim Morrison, the top Russia expert on the National Security Council who testified about Sondland; if you have Lieutenant Colonel Vindman move to this public phase, does this change the dynamic among Republicans?
MR. BAKER: You know, it would have to be something rather stunning in order to change that dynamic right now. Already the Republicans have heard from Colonel Vindman, they’ve heard from Bill Taylor, they’ve heard from all these people who – they’ve heard from Mick Mulvaney, who got on television and said, yes, there was in fact a connection between holding back the aid and an investigation. And they tried to take it back.
So there’s no real dispute in some ways about the facts at this point; it’s how you characterize them. And unless some of these witnesses get up there and are so dramatic, and change public opinion, I don’t see why that would change Republican minds.
MR. COSTA: Could this lead to a pretty speedy impeachment process and vote if all the facts are already here in the depositions?
MS. CORDES: Absolutely. And I think that’s what Democrats would like to see happen, partly because they are wary of getting painted by Republicans as a party that only cares about impeachment and nothing else. Already that’s the main case the Republicans are making is that the Democrats have been wanting to impeach this president for three years, and they’ve now just found an excuse to do it. So if they can keep things moving, they feel that public sentiment has shifted and they don’t want to take the chance of it shifting back, so they’re going to try to move swiftly. And every House leader that I talk to is eager to get this done by the end of the year.
MR. COSTA: But they’re going to face challenges if they’re trying to move swiftly because, if you look ahead, the White House continues to contest the whole impeachment process and has urged officials to resist congressional requests. Nancy, in fact, asked House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler about this on Thursday.
MS. CORDES: (From video.) You say that you have the right to impose appropriate remedies if you determine that the president is unlawfully blocking witnesses. What do you mean by that?
REPRESENTATIVE JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): (From video.) One party to a litigation unlawfully blocks the investigation, as this president has been doing – although we hope he won’t continue doing it – you may have to take some steps, so we may have to draw adverse inferences and we may have to do other things. We’ll see.
MS. CORDES: (From video.) What kind of punishments are you considering?
REP. NADLER: (From video.) I’m not considering anything at the moment. We’ll see what happens.
MR. COSTA: And one of the prominent possible witnesses on the Democrats’ radar is John Bolton, the former national security advisor. As Peter wrote this week, quote, “there may be no one in Washington that investigators want to question more than Mr. Bolton.” And he reportedly called Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, a, quote, “hand grenade who is going to blow everybody up.”
Bolton’s testimony – possible testimony looms, but his lawyers and others in the Trump administration are challenging whether they should appear, whether they have to appear.
MR. BAKER: John Bolton’s lawyers said he will not appear voluntarily. He needs, in effect, a subpoena. But even if he gets a subpoena, he’s very likely to go down the route that his deputy, Charles Kupperman is going down. They’re represented by the same lawyer. And what they did is they went to court and said, look, the White House says this, the House says that. Who am I supposed to listen to? Please, Judge, you make up the decision. If Bolton goes that direction, that could slow things down.
And to the point that you just made about speed, the question is whether or not – as Jake mentioned as well – do we – does the House go to court, do they fight out this litigation, or do they simply move on? They would like John Bolton to testify. Because he was fired by – or quit under protest, depending on how you look at it – (laughter) – from the White House, he would seem to be a powerful witness.
MS. CORDES: What I was told today is that you can do both. They can move to the public phase of testimony, have some big public hearings, and they can continue to do depositions. Now obviously they’ve got to cut it off at some point if they hand everything over to the House Judiciary Committee, but even if they move to public hearings, let’s say, in the middle of November, they could still do a deposition or a hearing with John Bolton if they have that opportunity. They will talk to him any time they have the chance.
MS. SALAMA: And his – so many people who have come and been deposed so far have brought up John Bolton in numerous contexts in terms of him telling NSC officials to go and report some of their concerns to – and his concerns to the NSC’s attorney, general counsel; him, again – like Peter has reported calling Rudy Giuliani a hand grenade and realizing he’s up to something, and he didn’t like what he was up to; abruptly ending a July 10th meeting with the Ukrainians because Gordon Sondland had raised the issue of linking aid to a meeting with the president. And so all of a sudden John Bolton comes out weeks after his departure from the White House – again, depending on what circumstances you prefer to view it as – and he played a very key role in basically waving red flags at a time that – you know, a number of people – he was always viewed as a hawk. Some people found him – felt he was a little bit too abrupt with his foreign policy views, you know, perhaps was courting a war with Iran, but all of a sudden he’s in a way this unlikely hero in this context because of the fact that he was starting to raise red flags and say something wrong is going on.
MR. COSTA: Regardless of whether Mr. Bolton testifies or not, Jake, I was talking to a House Republican this week, a member of the Freedom Caucus – they said al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader who was recently killed; the president’s airing ads during the World Series touting all of his economic record – and they still feel like they’re in a comfortable position. But over in the Senate, talking to Republicans privately this week, one of them privately said to me it’s like a horror movie because they don’t know what’s around the corner. How do you see the Republicans as this moves public, regardless of whether Bolton comes or not?
MR. SHERMAN: So House Republicans believe – and you could – we could believe it or not – that there are a bunch of seats, a dozen or so seats, that Democrats control that Donald Trump won, and those people cannot have impeachment hung around their head. And maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong; we don’t know the answer to that, but that’s Kevin McCarthy’s very strong belief. In the Senate, I mean, you have a more tricky situation in which no one, as you said, is willing to defend this president because they don’t believe he’s been completely truthful about what he has done and how he has comported himself behind the scenes and on the international stage. Also, there are a bunch of seats that are up that are tough for Republicans to keep: Cory Gardner of Colorado, Joni Ernst of Iowa. I mean, these seats are going to be tough, and if you add impeachment into the mix we just don’t know how that plays politically.
MS. CORDES: Case in point, just today the president said again that his call with the Ukrainian president was perfect and everybody says so. He said this on the same week that two of his top aides testified behind closed doors that they were so troubled by the phone call that they went to White House lawyers.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, you mentioned the – you mentioned the Washington Post poll. It brings up the question, is it breaking through, the testimony, at least at this moment?
MS. CORDES: I don’t think – you know, I think that until we see public testimony I don’t know that we’re going to see big shifts in the numbers, if then. But my point is that that’s why Senate Republicans are so wary about defending the president on the merits or on the substance, as he said this week he’d like them to do, because they don’t know what the substance is.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, in fact, a veteran of the Clinton impeachment told me the other day, he says, look, in these kinds of cases the facts always get worse, they never get better – the longer you go, they get worse. But that poll is fascinating because it does say the country is right down the middle, 49-47, and guess what those numbers are like? Almost identical to the popular vote in 2016, right? The country has not moved in three years. Nobody has changed their mind.
MR. SHERMAN: And I hate to say this because it sounds like a talking point, but House Republicans do have a point, right? These are private hearings that are being conducted –
MR. COSTA: But they’re going to be public.
MR. SHERMAN: They are, but they’re – they’ve been conducted now for a month without the president’s counsel. And I understand this is standard operating procedure, but if you bring that message out to the American people, we saw that in 2009-2010 when House Republicans went to every district in America and said the healthcare bill was written behind the scenes.
MR. COSTA: But why, then – the senators remain uneasy. They’re not singing that line over in the Senate, the Republicans.
MS. SALAMA: Well, because they have a transcript that was released by the White House where the president blatantly asked the president of another country to –
MR. COSTA: And they face a trial.
MS. SALAMA: Yes, and they face a trial. And so he asked another president to get involved and to conduct some investigations that relate to the U.S. election. That is already uneasy, quid pro quo or no quid pro quo. It is a very uneasy position for Republicans to be in and it’s right there, released by the White House. Everyone should read that transcript and formulate their own opinion, but the Republicans have and that’s where they are now.
MR. COSTA: One last tough question for Peter Baker on this special Washington Week: the Washington Nationals, world champions. (Laughter.)
MR. SHERMAN: Not a tough question.
MR. BAKER: Greatest week in the history of the world. It’s awesome, my goodness. What a Washington Week, by the way: the same week that the House of Representatives opens – votes to open an impeachment inquiry against the president of the United States, the team has the first World Series championship in 95 years. It’s the only thing, of course, that’s brought the county – you know, the city together, anyway, and what a story. It’s like a movie, right? These guys were down and out from the beginning, 19-31, to come back and win against the dominating team of our year, it’s an amazing thing.
MS. SALAMA: They’re going to merge. Those two stories are going to merge because the Nats are going to the White House on Monday, so we’ll – we shall see.
MR. BAKER: Exactly, they’re going to go visit the president, who was booed when he visited game five.
MR. COSTA: And Jake, you are a long-suffering Nationals fan. I would see Jake at RFK by himself back in ’06 and ’07. (Laughter.)
MR. SHERMAN: Don’t say – don’t say that live. Yeah, I mean, this is a – this is great for the city. I felt like some nights I was the only person watching mass and watching these broadcasts of a lowly team. My wife put up with it for way too long, and it’s been an amazing thing to see.
MR. COSTA: Great. Well, I’ll be at the parade tomorrow, maybe see some of you there. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and good night.