Trump impeachment inquiry Q&A: What did we learn this week?

October 11, 2019

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The impeachment inquiry into President Donald John Trump began Sept. 24. In this occasional feature, WTOP News will touch on the week’s events — and answer some of the questions they raise — as this historic process unfolds in D.C.

Week of Oct. 7–11

Q: Who is Marie Yovanovitch?

She’s a 33-year veteran diplomat, and had been the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she was recalled from her post back in May. On Friday, she testified in a closed-door session. House investigators had invited the longtime foreign service officer to testify, then had to issue a subpoena after the State Department told her to decline the invitation.

In prepared remarks released Friday, Yovanovitch said the president had pressured the State Department to remove her from her position “based, as best as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”

She singled out the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani: “I do not know Mr. Giuliani’s motives for attacking me,” she said. “But individuals who have been named in the press as contacts of Mr. Giuliani may well have believed that their personal finncial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”

In a July 25 phone call, Trump told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that Yovanovitch was “bad news,” according to a partial transcript from the White House. He added, “She’s going to go through some things.”

In addition, Yovanovitch rejected claims from Giuliani and others that she had tried to stop a Ukrainian prosecutor from investigating Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

Yovanovitch’s testimony Friday will no doubt keep the now-white-hot spotlight on Giuliani and the White House in terms of their interactions with Ukraine.

Q: Who are the two indicted businessmen and what’s their connection to the impeachment inquiry?

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were arrested Wednesday on a four-count indictment which was unsealed Thursday. House Democrats later subpoenaed the pair.

The Florida men, both U.S. citizens born in the former Soviet Union, are accused of a scheme to funnel foreign money to U.S. politicians in an effort to influence relations with Ukraine. Their alleged schemes, for instance, involved a $325,000 donation to America First Action, which is a super PAC supporting Trump’s reelection, as well as to an unidentified congressman, reportedly Texas Republican Pete Sessions.

Froman and Parnas also allegedly worked with a congressman to force out Yovanovitch.

And as The Associated Press points out, “The men had key roles in Giuliani’s efforts to launch a Ukrainian corruption investigation against Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden and his son Hunter.”

Parnas and Fruman were reportedly spotted dining with Giuliani at the Trump International Hotel shortly before their arrest Wednesday at Dulles International Airport.

In Thursday’s “Inside the SCIF” newsletter, WTOP’s national security correspondent J.J. Green reports that the pair were on their way out of the country when they were arrested.

I’m hearing that the two men were about to board a “one-way” flight out of the U.S. The big question ruminating in official Washington is how much influence these two men had — because they allegedly had something to do with the removal of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

Giuliani was set to leave the country as well on Thursday, reports The Atlantic.

Q: The White House said it wouldn’t cooperate with the impeachment inquiry in a letter Tuesday. What can House Democrats do if the administration continues to defy their subpoenas and requests for information?

A stonewalling strategy against the inquiry was made official with that eight-page letter to House leadership, which deemed the investigation “constitutionally invalid.”

Citing “many deficiencies we have identified in your proceedings,” the letter by presidential counsel Pat Cipollone also accused Democrats of seeking “to overturn the results of the 2016 election and deprive the American people of the president they have freely chosen.”

This is the part when you’re likely to start hearing the words “constitutional crisis” a bit more frequently.

“It’s now the official position of the White House that soliciting foreign election interference is appropriate,” Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Washington Post.

What happens next? An additional impeachment article, this one on obstruction, is a strong possibility, as is a healthy amount of courtroom activity.

Q: Gordon Sondland didn’t appear for a deposition before a House panel on Tuesday. Why does that matter?

It’s an example of how the White House will be defying House investigators in the days ahead,  and it means Sondland can expect a subpoena.

Trump tweeted that he’d “love” to send Sondland, the United States’ European Union ambassador, to testify, but that doing so would put him before “a totally compromised kangaroo court.”

The no-show, though, keeps investigators from what could be important evidence. A whistleblower’s complaint and text messages released by another envoy last week portrayed Sondland as a potentially important witness to allegations that the president sought to dig up dirt on a Democratic rival in the name of foreign policy.

Sondland’s no-show was “obstruction of the impeachment inquiry” into Trump, said the committee chairmen running the inquiry — Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings.

Soon afterward, Sondland was subpoenaed. He’s now set to appear next Thursday.

On a related note, Giuliani said Tuesday he too would not cooperate with the Democrat-led House investigation.

Over in the Republican-controlled Senate, however, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — outspoken Trump ally Lindsay Graham — invited Giuliani to testify about corruption in Ukraine.

Senate Democrats on the panel welcomed the invite.

Q: Anyone else get subpoenas this week?

  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry, whose name has come up in reports that he had been “conveying or reinforcing the President’s stark message to the Ukrainian President,” got one Thursday.
  • Defense Secretary Mark Esper and acting White House budget director Russell Vought got one Monday. The House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees demanded that Esper and Vought produce documents — which had previously been requested by Oct. 15 — that are believed to help explain the events behind White House-Ukraine interactions.

WTOP’s Capitol Hill Correspondent Mitchell Miller and national security correspondent J.J. Green contributed to this report. Get a recap of all of the action on the Hill, including the latest on the impeachment investigation, in WTOP’s “The Week on the Hill” podcast.

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