Full Episode: Latest developments in the impeachment inquiry

Oct. 25, 2019 AT 9:28 p.m. EDT

The panelists discussed the two major developments surrounding the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. The conversation later turned to the changing dynamic in the Middle East.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Explosive testimony upends the impeachment debate.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This was the worst hoax in the history of our country.

MR. COSTA: President Trump lashes out at Democrats as the Justice Department launches a criminal probe of the Russia investigation.

REPRESENTATIVE MATT GAETZ (R-FL): (From video.) We’re going to go and see if we can get inside.

MR. COSTA: And Republicans storm an impeachment hearing.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) The attempted impeachment of President Trump is inconsistent with due process as we know it.

MR. COSTA: After bombshell testimony from a top diplomat.

REPRESENTATIVE TED LIEU (D-CA): (From video.) Bill Taylor gave a devastating opening statement. They’re freaked out. They’re trying to stop this investigation.

MR. COSTA: Next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: Good evening. The House impeachment inquiry that has gripped Washington was jolted this week by two major developments, essentially two new crosscurrents that could affect the debate for weeks to come. First, America’s top diplomat in Ukraine, Ambassador William Taylor, gave damaging testimony behind closed doors, testifying that the White House did threaten to withdraw military aid unless Ukraine announced probes that would politically benefit President Trump. The testimony by Taylor, an Army veteran and a respected diplomat, undermined President Trump’s insistence that there was no quid pro quo. Then, late Thursday came reports that Attorney General William Barr has opened a criminal investigation of the FBI’s conduct during the 2016 campaign, even as the DOJ inspector general is wrapping up his own investigation of related issues. Those proceedings have been cheered by the president and by Republicans, who see them as a counterweight to the House impeachment probe. House Democratic Chairmen Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler released a statement in response, quote: “If the Department of Justice may be used as a tool for political retribution or help the president with a political narrative for the next election, the rule of law will suffer new and irreparable damage.”

Joining me tonight, Karoun Demirjian, congressional and national security reporter for The Washington Post; Catherine Lucey, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal; Amna Nawaz, national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios.

Karoun, you’ve been following this impeachment inquiry all week at the Capitol, but for the DOJ to now be opening a criminal investigation, what’s the significance of that development amid all the other impeachment news?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: Well, the timing has to be pleasing the president because it presents a counter-narrative for what’s been going on. You have the impeachment investigation which we know right now looking at the Ukraine connections, and you have the investigation into the origins of the Russia probe which – Russia and Ukraine are not that separable, let’s just say that, giving the president something to focus on, something that he can now double down on as the focus is heating up on impeachment. Look, Durham has been a criminal prosecutor who’s been in charge of this investigation for a while. In a way he has always had, because of the role he plays, the ability to empanel a grand jury or to, you know, issue indictments against individuals. We don’t know that he’s actually taken those steps yet. So the actual significance of what this means, does this actually end up pulling in career investigators from the FBI or elsewhere for some form of malfeasance, or does this just end up being, you know, a political gift to the president at a time at which he’s feeling like people aren’t really behind him and he wants his troops to, you know, rally around him?

MR. COSTA: What’s the significance of the attorney general being involved in this kind of investigation? Does it raise questions about the independence of the DOJ?

AMNA NAWAZ: Look, I think President Trump has always been pretty clear about the role that he thinks the traditionally independent Department of Justice should play, which is that he should be able to direct the work that they’re doing, and by extension the work that the attorney general is doing. We know Attorney General Barr is involved in this investigation that’s being led by John Durham, who’s the U.S. attorney in Connecticut. And so there are obvious questions there about what exactly was the motivation for opening this investigation in the first place, but Barr messaged this very, very early on, right? He said before Congress I do believe spying occurred on the Trump campaign, I would be willing to explore the origins of the Russia investigation, and he’s also been part of some of the efforts to protect the president politically. He’s pushed back on the subpoena efforts to try to get at the president’s tax returns as well. So this fits perfectly in line with that. Raising it to a criminal probe, though, ups the ante, right? It kind of turbocharges it. It kicks it up a notch. I don’t have any other metaphors for it. (Laughter.) But it, as Karoun mentioned, gives them all of those powers now. We don’t know what evidence led to that, though. You can’t just in the Department of Justice say we’re suddenly going to make this a criminal investigation. Some piece of evidence had to lead to that; we don’t know what that is.

MR. COSTA: But here’s what I don’t understand, Jonathan. There is the DOJ probe led by the attorney general investigating the origins of the Russia probe, and then you have the inspector general also within DOJ doing his own report. How do they align, if at all?

JONATHAN SWAN: Well, we don’t know. We don’t know what the IG report’s going to say. We don’t when it’s going to come out. And I think we should be very cautious about saying that this is counterprogramming in terms of when we’re learning about this criminal investigation being elevated as a criminal investigation. Number one, we don’t know when they made that decision, when he said, OK, it’s past the threshold where I believe there’s – that crimes could have been committed. Durham is a serious prosecutor. He’s a serious guy with a serious reputation. He’s not seen as a partisan hack. He has a storied career. Now, in terms of the way that – counterprogramming would mean that Adam Goldman and Katie Benner at The New York Times were used in this sort of way, and I – they’re two of the best Justice Department reporters, so I think it’s quite possible this could have been opened – we don’t know when it was opened. It could have been opened, you know, weeks ago, and it could be as simple as a leak investigation. We know there was so much classified information leaked in the early period of the Russia investigation. So this is all just to say there is so much we don’t know, and people are going to spin this in the ways that they want to do. You know, they’re going to be hysterical about it. But I think that it could – it could be as simple as Barr doing what Trump wants to do and then Durham following the facts and keeping a fairly open mind.

MR. COSTA: Catherine, let’s take a stroll down from the DOJ on Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, and you had Ambassador Taylor behind closed doors give this damaging testimony about a quid pro quo arrangement inside the Trump administration. How is the White House reacting? Is this something that they see as a major turning point?

CATHERINE LUCEY: Well, this is a significant moment in this process. This is the most detailed – some of the most detailed testimony we’ve seen so far. There was a 15-page opening statement really laying out in sort of cinematic terms – it was – I think maybe you – it was beautifully written, the way that Taylor sort of takes us into taking the job. It reminded me of movies where someone is brought into a different world, like, say, in like Goodfellas, or I recently saw Hustlers – (laughs) – where someone’s taken into a totally different world and they suddenly start to realize what’s going on and they’re trying to figure it out. And he comes to realize, you know, there’s two different foreign policies going on, and then sort of this leads into his explanation of what he understands to be happening with the president’s engagement on Ukraine. The White House is continuing with a messaging that is a lot focused on process. They are attacking the process on the Hill, they are – and they are also trying to discredit a lot of the witnesses. So you heard the president today criticizing Taylor, you know, and we’ll see if that sticks. This is a decades-long, you know, career diplomat, you know, who came forward and who was hired by this – by this administration.

MR. COSTA: And you’re standing outside, notebook in hand, of the SCIF, the secure area inside of the House, while all these people testify, but Ambassador Taylor in particular. When you’re there as a reporter, take me inside the room. What were you hearing from members about how it went and why it mattered?

MS. DEMIRJIAN: Ambassador Taylor’s testimony has had the most impact of any of the people who have come in thus far in this impeachment probe, and it’s because of the details of his testimony. It’s also because he names names and connects dots in other ways that people have not. Even when he wasn’t in the room, he was in touch with the people who were in the room, and he lays out a narrative of exactly how the Giuliani campaign led – group on Ukraine policy started to diverge from the more traditional routes, how – when you had the secretaries of state and defense and CIA and the national security adviser all saying, wait, we should be sending that aide there. You then had the Mulvaney camp being like, hmm, maybe not. And he actually paints a timeline also of when the freeze on the funding came, when, to him, it seemed like there was a quid pro quo going on here, when he was told specifically by people in the administration that, yes, the money is being leveraged in order to secure a promise from the Ukrainian president to conduct investigations into the energy company that Joe Biden’s son was on the board of. And this 2016 hack – this conspiracy theory around the DNC server that was hacked in 2016. The theory says that it somehow ended up in Ukraine, and if it were found it would prove that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 elections, not Russia. That’s been widely debunked already. The fact that Taylor was so powerful, though, is, I think, a reason why you saw an eruption – a political eruption the next day.

MR. COSTA: Let’s talk about that, that political eruption. Because you’re there covering it, and you see the testimony itself is a gamechanger for the House Democrats as they build their case against the president. But, as Karoun said, House Republicans decided to take matters into their own hands. Trump loyalists forced their way into a secure interview room on Capitol Hill, blocking witness testimony for hours.

REPRESENTATIVE ANDY BIGGS (R-AZ): (From video.) We’re going to go in there today and demand we get our rights as members of Congress.

MR. COSTA: What was it like when they actually stopped the testimony from happening?

MS. DEMIRJIAN: Well, I mean, they delayed the testimony for about five and half – five and half hours from starting. That was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper, who eventually talked about kind of the nuts and bolts of how the Ukraine military aid works. There were a lot of interesting parts of this. (Laughs.) It was certainly a display that we watched as they stormed into that room. There’s nothing that actually prevents those lawmakers from walking into the SCIF. The SCIF is not, like, a locked box. Members of Congress have enough security clearance to go in. Also, about a dozen of the people who were storming into that SCIF already had the right to be there, because they are members of these three panels. And just finally, I should make the point that, you know, a lot of the argument has been about process, as Catherine was referring to. The Republicans are a part of this process. They have the right to ask questions in these interviews. They are getting equal time. They don’t like the fact that this is happening, but they’re not being iced out the way that – claim that they were.

MS. NAWAZ: It’s also worth pointing out that entire spectacle took place the day after President Trump is calling on Republicans to take off the gloves, and show up, and fight for him. He wants to know that members of his own party are actually showing up and on his side of this fight. And this was one way they could display that. It’s also worth pointing out the obvious hypocrisy, because a few years ago when Republican Trey Gowdy was leading closed door investigative sessions into the U.S. attacks – the attacks on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi, he argued that they should be closed door for a reason. Those reasons are that there’s national security interests at play. And also, it gives witnesses a chance to be open and honest about their testimony.

MR. COSTA: Let’s pause for a second and talk about the House Republicans, and Republicans in general, making process the issue. Jonathan, is that because they don’t feel like they’re able to engage on the substance of the testimony, they’d rather make it about the process?

MR. SWAN: There are some House Republicans, I think, probably a small group, that would be quite happy to fight on the substance. But it’s a small group. And where there is no appetite to fight on the substance is in the Senate – none. So the backstory to this resolution that Lindsey Graham, you know, unfurled yesterday that was actually very tame, and it was really just –

MR. COSTA: What was it?

MR. SWAN: It was a process argument. It was a very soberly written, tame argument against the process. No substantive defense of Donald Trump. The backstory to that was Lindsey Graham wanted to write a letter to Pelosi that was actually going to be fairly bombastic. And, you know, this is a sham, et cetera, et cetera. He pitched the letter to the Republicans at their lunch last week and the response was not good. And the reason they didn’t want to do it – even people who support Trump – for two reasons.

Number one, you write a letter like that, anyone who doesn’t sign on, you’ve created an enemies list for Trump, immediately. Number two, you don’t get many signatures, it’s very embarrassing, he looks weak. So what ends up happening? Lindsey Graham shifts to a resolution. He writes this resolution. It’s still a little too hot. Mitch McConnell cools it down. And you get this very milquetoast document that everyone can agree on.

But it’s a very clear sign of what’s going on in the Senate. Why this matters is Republican senators do not want to defend Donald Trump on the substance. And the most they’re willing to go is this sort of finicky process argument to say that, you know, they should change the way they’re doing it.

MS. LUCEY: I would add a number three to that, which is a lot of them feel like they don’t know where this is going, because they don’t.

MR. SWAN: That’s definitely true.

MS. LUCEY: And they don’t feel like they’re getting clear guidance from the White House.

MR. SWAN: That’s also true. (Laughter.)

MS. LUCEY: That’s a four – so we have four reasons there. And that’s the other thing that we’ve seen playing out inside and outside the White House is on the Hill and allies of the president outside of the White House have been agitating for more. And Jonathan and I both are working on sort of, you know, are they going to set up a so-called war room? Are they going to have more formalized process? Are they going to bring people in?

MR. COSTA: And you have to wonder, they’re making this argument, as you were saying about closed testimony and a closed process, but there is growing support among Democrats to hold open hearings soon. As Karoun wrote this week, Democrats believe that they have at least two smoking guns. One is President Trump’s July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The second is acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s October acknowledgement of a quid pro quo. So you could have John Bolton, the former national security advisor, other ambassadors who have already testified behind closed doors, in just a few weeks testify publicly, what’s the White House strategy then? And what are you expecting to see from House Democrats? How soon will we see people actually in the air – their hands in the air, testifying in public?

MS. DEMIRJIAN: I do not think it will be before mid-November just because of the interview schedule that they’ve already announced, and the subpoenas that have been sent out do take us through that first week of November in terms of scheduling closed door things, or trying to, right? But if we could see potentially before Thanksgiving some of these individuals start to come up – I mean, that’s the point at which the White House is really going to lose control of what the message is, because the Democrats are very, very focused right now on choosing who’s the best candidates to deliver that message. They think Taylor is extremely compelling. They think former Ambassador to Ukraine Masha Yovanovich, extremely compelling. And there’s not unanimity on what John Bolton would do, but a lot of people think that he could deliver a really devastating punch to the president, given that he’s one of the president’s guys.

At this point, though, it’s going to be very interesting to see how the counternarrative from the Republicans changes. I mean, there was a decision today in the courts to release the Mueller grand jury information. And while that’s not directly related, it kind of is a little bit of an acknowledgment from the courts that you actually are running what we consider a legit impeachment inquiry. You don’t have to do a bunch of, you know, preliminary steps to make sure that you have a sanctioned process. And that has been the base of what the GOP has been arguing – that this is not legitimate because it hasn’t been established. And that kind of got undercut. So that may require some pivoting now from the GOP heading into next week.

MR. COSTA: So all that’s on the horizon. How fragile is the Republican coalition as they confront the facts, as they confront everything that’s coming ahead?

MS. NAWAZ: You have to imagine there’s going to be a moment of reckoning at some point, right?

MR. COSTA: What prompts that, though?

MS. NAWAZ: Well, look, a lot of the Republicans are weighing their own reelection bids right now. If you are a vulnerable Republican in 2020, you have to very carefully weigh how closely to align yourself with the president when you don’t know where the facts of this impeachment inquiry are going to lead, or whether to stand up with other members of your party and vociferously defend him right now. I think a lot of people are weighing that decision very, very carefully. And I don’t think there’s enough facts that we’ve had revealed from the investigation to inform that decision.

MS. LUCEY: Certainly we’re seeing from the White House, they are making some efforts now to try and get more of a process in place. Jonathan reported today and we confirmed with our sources that they are doing more regular meetings. They are considering maybe bringing in another staffer. But I think it’s also important to remember with this White House that there’s a core group of people who feel like they’ve survived a lot of things before, and that they can survive this. That they have been through Mueller. They’ve been through Kavanagh. They’ve been through Access Hollywood. That they really do believe that they keep their heads down, that there is a path forward.

MR. COSTA: What about in that – our original point of the discussion was about the DOJ criminal probe. Do we expect Senator Graham, as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to follow up on whatever comes out of the Department of Justice in their investigations? Is that going to be a track, or not?

MR. SWAN: Well, that’s what some pretty prominent people close to the president want to happen. They want Lindsey Graham – people like Donald Trump, Jr. are very, very frustrated with Lindsey Graham, and have been saying so publicly. They’ve actually started a hashtag #WheresLindsey. And there –

MR. COSTA: So he’s under pressure from his own allies.

MR. SWAN: Huge pressure. He’s getting lit up. Tucker Carlson did a segment that lit him up. Don Jr.’s been – started this hashtag #WheresLindsey. And they’re not satisfied by this resolution. I quoted a source close to Don – the president’s eldest son yesterday saying he’s got to use his powers as judiciary chair. We’re sick of hearing him talk it up on Fox. They want to see him use that role to actually counter – push back against the House Democrats. I don’t know specifically what they want him to do, but there’s going to be a huge amount of pressure on him to do something in terms of witnesses or whatever. Lindsey Graham said he doesn’t want to turn it into a circus, but he might feel a bit of pressure.

MS. DEMIRJIAN: Well, the problem that they have is twofold. One, there’s a whole constitutional thing about the House being able to start the impeachment proceedings and the Senate having to act like a jury. They can’t, you know, poison the jury too much, otherwise, you know, they potentially lose that platform. But also, the calculation for Lindsey Graham, I mean, look, it was a week or so ago that he said he was going to give Rudy Giuliani a platform to speak in the Judiciary Committee, and we’re not listening to – we’re not hearing him say the same thing right now because, really, who is the White House going to trot out that is being so elbowed out of this process that’s going to save them at this point? Rudy Giuliani is a bit of a loose cannon when he goes in public, and if he’s going to do it behind closed doors that’s going to take way too much spinning to counteract what’s going on in the House, which is already well on its way, and it seems almost guaranteed to end up in an impeachment vote on the floor.

MR. COSTA: As all of this happens on the impeachment front, there’s moving parts in foreign policy. Turkish troops moved into a slice of northeastern Syria last week after President Trump decided to withdraw U.S. forces, and on Wednesday he announced Turkey had agreed to a permanent ceasefire.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This is something they’ve been trying to do for many, many decades. Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand.

MR. COSTA: President Trump also announced the creation of a narrow safe zone between Turkey’s southern border and the northern part of Kurdish territory. Now, with the U.S. effectively out of the area, President Erdogan of Turkey and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a power-sharing deal this week for the region, changing the dynamic in the Middle East. Amna, what does this deal mean for Russia as it tries to have more of a presence in the Middle East?

MS. NAWAZ: It means exactly that, Russia has much more of a presence and much more influence it can exert in that space.

MR. COSTA: To what end?

MS. NAWAZ: Well, for a number of reasons. One is just part of a larger geopolitical sphere, right, that they’re more aligned with Turkey now, Turkey is closer to them on a number of ends. We saw this previously with tensions between Turkey and the U.S. in a deal for a(n) air missile defense system called the S-400 they bought from the Russians; the U.S. didn’t like it. There have been tensions for a while between the U.S. and Turkey, which is a NATO ally we should remember. But that alliance that the U.S. had with the Kurdish-led forces on the ground, the SDF forces that they stood up, that was always a tenuous alliance because the stronger alliance was always with Turkey, so it was never a question of when the U.S. was going to leave because we knew the U.S. would have to leave at some point. The big question, of course, was how they were going to leave. And by all accounts, including a senior State Department official I spoke to the day after that call between President Trump and President Erdogan, it was total chaos in terms of how that decision was reached.

MR. COSTA: Catherine, why inside of this White House did you have President Trump and many of his advisors pulling back on sanctions on Turkey, giving President Erdogan essentially what he wants?

MS. LUCEY: I think the president was looking to resolve this, and I think anytime you think about this president’s foreign policy you really have to think about it in the America first frame. And the thing that he keeps coming back to is getting troops out of these regions, reducing our foreign – our presence abroad, and I think this sort of fed into that idea still, that he was able to at least try and get some troops out, he was able to sort of try and declare this finished.

MR. COSTA: Is it part of his 2020 pitch?

MS. LUCEY: Well, certainly I was – I was at his rally in Texas last week and he talks a lot about trying to reduce, you know, engagement in foreign wars or longstanding foreign conflicts, and that’s very popular with his base.

MS. DEMIRJIAN: The problem, though, is that he’s still potentially sending more troops to protect oil fields with no allies now, and those troops that he’s puling out aren’t immediately coming home, and –

MR. SWAN: America’s presence in the Middle East increased in the week that he was ending endless wars; they sent 1,800 troops to Saudi.

MS. DEMIRJIAN: And they’re actually more in danger now because they don’t have a capable ally who’s potentially inclined to stick their necks out again for, you know, helping protect the U.S. troops that are on the ground.

MR. COSTA: What does this mean for the Kurds in the region, this new deal?

MS. DEMIRJIAN: It’s not a great deal for the Kurds. The Kurds lost their strongest ally when we stepped away and turned our back on them. The Kurds are kind of sitting ducks now because nobody likes the Kurds in the region. The Turks think that they are, you know, supporting what the Turks consider to be a terrorist element within their country; they want to have just established land rights, basically. They’ve got some of that in Iraq, but the Syrian government doesn’t like them that much either. They are left now having to take the deal that the Russians brokered. And look, the thing to remember also about Russia is that they are – they are very good at manipulating instability in countries along their borders to maintain control. That’s a dangerous game in the Middle East right now, and we have lost an important foothold in one of the most dangerous areas, and the stakes of that could be catastrophic going forward.

MR. SWAN: You have to give Donald Trump points for accuracy. It is true that they have wanted this for a long time, but they is Turkey. They’ve wanted to clear out the Kurds for a long time.

MS. DEMIRJIAN: Yeah, correct.

MR. SWAN: And I was in Baghdad on Monday and I interviewed the president of Iraq, Barham Salih. He is one of the most important Kurdish figures in the world. He led Iraqi Kurdistan. He was tortured by Saddam Hussein when he was a child. And he said to me he is sick, worried about ethnic cleansing, about the fear of ethnic cleansing, and when he heard – and you just imagine to Barham Salih’s ears when he hears the president of the United States say it needed to be cleaned up. That was, like, a quote that Trump said about the Kurds. To Barham Salih’s ears with that history, that is a chilling phrase.

MR. COSTA: Beyond the Iraqi president, what does the world make of what happened this week?

MS. NAWAZ: There is also the very sudden undoing of what has been longstanding U.S. policy in the region that happened over a phone call between two individuals. I mean, all the gains that were made to counter ISIS in the region that were done on the backs and on the lives of those Kurdish-led forces, those could be undone by ceding that territory to parties that aren’t as interested in fighting them as the U.S. was. We’ve also got those forces now being forced back into the arms of Bashar al-Assad, which is the only place they’re going to find security right now. That’s not good for the U.S.

MR. COSTA: Can we expect Republicans to fight back against this administration’s position?

MS. LUCEY: Well, you’ve seen bipartisan opposition to this. And it’s interesting, this comes at a moment where the president really needs Republicans with him, and it’s one of the number of occasions in the last couple weeks where Republicans have broken with him. So we had this. We had the effort to have the G-7 at Doral. We had some of his comments. And so you’ve seen a number of points where the party has been prepared to put some distance between themselves and the president.

MR. COSTA: Thank you all for joining us tonight on Washington Week. Really appreciate it. And thank you for sharing your evening with us.

Make sure to check out our latest Washington Week Extra. Watch it live on our website or on social media.

I’m Robert Costa. Go Nationals!


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