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

October 24, 2019

(Getty Images/iStockphoto/lucky-photographer)

The impeachment inquiry into President Donald 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.

Oct. 19–24

The week began with some backpedaling from Trump’s acting chief of staff.

Days after acknowledging a White House push for a quid pro quo (i.e., military aid in exchange for a Ukrainian investigation of U.S. Democrats), Mick Mulvaney repeatedly denied saying what he had, in fact, said on Oct. 17.

That backpedal would share headlines with his announcement, in the same news conference, that the U.S. would host the 2020 G-7 summit at Trump National Doral Miami. The plan prompted talk of another article of impeachment — arguing it would have violated the constitution’s emoluments clause — up until the president tweeted a backpedal of his own.

The Mulvaney fallout would also share headlines with the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings. The Maryland Democrat had served a key role in the House’s impeachment investigation, as he had been chairman of its Oversight Committee.

The joint panel’s work would pause temporarily for their late colleague’s memorial services, but one deposition was rescheduled to Saturday. The weekend proceedings are in keeping with a process that is moving more rapidly than past inquiries, as Axios pointed out Tuesday.


Q: How big was Bill Taylor’s testimony on Tuesday?


Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida called it “damning.” Another Democrat, Rep. David N. Cicilline of Rhode Island, called it “devastating to the president.”

“There were sighs and incredulous reactions to what we heard. Because he laid it all bare, he laid it bare — the timeline, all of it,” Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri, told The Washington Post.

According to a 15-page opening statement obtained by journalists, Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, detailed a “highly irregular” diplomatic channel involving Energy Secretary Rick Perry (who plans to resign Dec. 1); former special representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker; U.S. ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland; and Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Taylor, you’ll recall, sent this text message to Sondland: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

On Tuesday, the career diplomat contradicted those ongoing White House denials of a quid pro quo, and described in detail how he discovered the U.S. was withholding not only military aid to Ukraine but also the opportunity for new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to visit the White House.

What the administration wanted in return, Taylor said he was later told, was for Zelenskiy to open an investigation into both 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and, as contended in a conspiracy theory, 2016 election interference by that country.

“[Sondland] said that President Trump wanted President Zelenskiy ‘in a public box,’” Taylor wrote.

Taylor’s testimony, it should be noted, also implicated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence.

Trump loyalists like Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, though, persisted with the White House’s current no-quid-pro-quo line, and told reporters, “There is not evidence that there was any condition to the aid.”


Q: So what exactly happened on Wednesday?


Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., left, and Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., film a video in front of an entrance to a secure area after Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper arrived for a closed-door meeting to testify as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, Wednesday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Investigators had been scheduled to hear from their first Defense Department witness, Laura Cooper.

But Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, as he did last week during Fiona Hill’s deposition, again tried to interrupt the proceedings — this time successfully — with other House Republicans opposed to their closed-door nature. Roughly 20 to 30 members barged into the SCIF where the proceedings are being held.

Republicans who sit on the participating House committees — Oversight, Intelligence or Foreign Affairs — have been allowed to participate in the investigation, as pointed out last week. (Oddly, some of those who are on a participating committee and are privy to testimony, like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, took part in the incident, BuzzFeed reported.)

The testimony itself was delayed for about five hours.

Bloomberg would later report that Trump had advance knowledge of the plan to disrupt the testimony.

The man running the investigation, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, has said that the closed-door proceedings are meant to prevent coordinated testimony. The 2014 House Select Committee on Benghazi, which was Republican-led, was handled in a similar fashion.

Democrats have indicated that public hearings could be weeks away.


Q: What’s a SCIF, anyway?


SCIF is an acronym for “sensitive compartmented information facility.” Think of it as an extra-secure room safe for handling classified information. Protocols require leaving electronic devices outside of it.

Some of the Republican congressmen involved in Wednesday’s incident brought their cellphones with them — which, as Third Way’s Mieke Eoyang pointed out, is quite problematic from a security perspective. (At least one, Rep. Alex Mooney, even used his phone apparently.)

Given that fact, you might hear more about this in the future. A letter Wednesday afternoon from the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, asked House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving to “take House-wide action.”


Q: Who is taking over as chair of the House Oversight committee?


Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, is serving as acting chair for now. But according to Roll Call, “she is not a shoo-in.”

Other colleagues Roll Call cites as possible successors: Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia; Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri; Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts; and Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee. The Hill reports that Rep. Jackie Speier of California is also interested.

Democrats have about a month to name a successor, per House rules.


Earlier:

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