Trump commits new offence which could lead to impeachment in the middle of his own impeachment hearing

The president’s tweet about Marie Yovanovitch during her testimony may amount to witness intimidation

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Saturday 16 November 2019 20:28
Trump uses UN setting to attack critics in rambling speech: 'How can they impeach for that?'

It should not, perhaps, be surprising in the extraordinary state of affairs of Trumpworld that in the middle of his impeachment proceedings the president would tweet something which could lead to a further article of impeachment.

The tweet disproves Mr Trump’s claim that he was ignoring the hearings which he had claimed would go nowhere, and attacked using his usual terms against investigations into his conduct – a “worst ever witch-hunt”, “totally fake” and so on.

The tweet showed what was emerging was getting to him and bought an element of drama to the sessions, something they had hitherto been lacking. At the same time the standing ovation from the public gallery for Marie Yovanovitch was a spontaneous moment of popular support for the former US ambassador to Ukraine traduced by the president in the formal proceedings.

The Republicans in the committee could not do much to counter Ms Yovanovitch’s testimony, or respond to the revelation by Adam Schiff, the Democrat chair, of Mr Trump’s tweet while it was taking place, with the observation that it could amount to witness intimidation.

Devin Nunes, the senior Republican, whose worship of the president is such that his hometown newspaper in California described him as a “Trump stooge” could only muster that the former Ambassador’s evidence was “more appropriate for the subcommittee on human resources at the Foreign Affairs Committee”.

Away from these moments there has been criticism that the hearings have lacked the “wow” quality. This is partly because there have simply been so many allegations against Mr Trump – political, financial, sexual – during his presidency that nothing much shocks any longer.

But, in its steady, methodical way, the hearings are laying the basis for the case against Mr Trump, his coterie and their activities in Ukraine.

William Taylor, the acting ambassador to the former Soviet state, has tied Mr Trump to the key issue in the impeachment proceedings. He described a telephone call in which the president pressed Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, for details about the investigation he wanted Ukraine to carry out into the activities of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

This was followed by Mr Sondland’s alleged comment that the president only really cared about Ukraine policy insofar as it would help him in the 2020 election campaign against the senior Biden.

A recurring theme in Mr Taylor’s testimony was that while Mr Trump threatened to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless they started the Biden investigation, Ukrainian soldiers were dying fighting Russian-backed separatists: a powerful and emotive message.

David Holmes, a political counsellor at the Kiev embassy, backed Mr Taylor’s version of the Trump conversation in closed-door testimony obtained by CNN. He also reportedly testified that Mr Sondland’s view was that “Trump did not give a s*** about Ukraine” and only cared about “what benefits the president”.

These are credible witnesses with distinguished service and the Republicans did not attack their character, complaining instead that the testimonies were secondhand accounts of conversations.

Marie Yovanovitch received a standing ovation following her testimony

As well as witness intimidation, Mr Trump has handed the Democrats the opportunity of another accusation against him through his defence of his telephone call to the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. During it he effectively demanded, in conjunction with other approaches made to the Ukrainians by emissaries like Rudy Giuliani, for the Biden inquiry in return for military aid.

Mr Trump called the conversation “perfect”. House speaker Nancy Pelosi responded with: “What the president has admitted to and says it’s perfect, I’ve said it’s perfectly wrong, it’s bribery.” This is a word of some significance – it is in the US constitution as a reason for a president to be removed from office.

Democrat officials say they are hoping, indeed expecting, Mr Trump to continue giving them gifts through his tweets and statements. In the meantime, seven witnesses, some of them with potentially highly damaging evidence against the president, are due to appear from next week.

The list is comprised of Jennifer Williams, an aide to vice president Mike Pence; Lt Col Alexander Vindman, special envoy to Ukraine; Kurt Volker, former National Security Council (NSC) official; Tim Morrison, a political adviser; Mr Sondland; Laura Cooper, a Pentagon official; and Fiona Hill, a former NSC official who was a protege of John Bolton.

It is still unclear whether Mr Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser, will appear before the hearing. A letter from his lawyer to the house stated Mr Bolton was “part of many relevant meetings and conversations” pertaining to the impeachment hearings, but would only appear if a judge ordered him to do so.

In a released closed-door hearing, Ms Hill described in a previous appearance the way Mr Bolton “immediately stiffened” when Mr Sondland “blurted out” that he had worked out a deal under which Mr Zelensky would get an audience at the White House in return for a Biden inquiry.

Mr Bolton, according to Ms Hill, later told her to relay the message to the White House lawyers that “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and [White House acting chief of staff Mick] Mulvaney are cooking up”.

A while ago Mr Bolton, at a conference in Kiev, told me that in his view while people around Mr Trump would get burnt in the various investigations which were raging, Mr Trump himself would escape.

That was before Mr Bolton was appointed to, and subsequently sacked from, his post in the administration.

We wait to see whether the former national security adviser testifies against Mr Trump and proves himself wrong about the supposed invulnerability of this president.

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