Donald Trump has compared the impeachment inquiry surrounding him to “a lynching” in an apparent bid to inflame controversy and distract from Bill Taylor’s deposition on Capitol Hill, the US charge d’affaires for Ukraine who discussed his alarming text exchanges with Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker during the session.
“So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!” the president tweeted, prior to Mr Taylor’s arrival.
The outrage followed Mr Trump’s call to his fellow Republicans to “get tougher and fight” at a drawn-out White House Cabinet meeting on Monday in which he also rubbished the US Constitution’s anti-corruption Emoluments Clause as “phoney”.
Mr Taylor, a diplomat who has sharply questioned Mr Trump’s policy on Ukraine, meanwhile provided lawmakers with a “disturbing” account, including establishing a “direct line” to the quid pro quo at the center of the impeachment probe , Democrats said on Tuesday.
Lawmakers emerging after hours of the private deposition said Mr Taylor, in a lengthy opening statement, recalled events that filled in gaps from the testimony of other witnesses.
They said Mr Taylor kept records of conversations and documents.
“The testimony is very disturbing,” said New York Representative Carolyn Maloney. Minnesota Representative Dean Phillips used the same word. Asked why, he said, “Because it’s becoming more distinct.”
Mr Taylor’s appearance was among the most watched because of a text message, released by House investigators earlier in the probe, in which he called Mr Trump’s attempt to hold back military aid to Ukraine “crazy.”
Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Mr Taylor “drew a straight line” with documents, timelines and individual conversations in his records.
“I do not know how you would listen to today’s testimony from Ambassador Taylor and come to any other (conclusion) except that the president abused his power and withheld foreign aid,” she said.
Lawmakers did not discuss other details of the closed-door session, which was expected to continue into the evening. Mr Taylor declined to comment as he entered the deposition. He was the latest diplomat with concerns to testify. Like the others, he was subpoenaed to appear.
But the career civil servant’s delivery was credible and consistent, people said, as he answered hours of questions from Democrats and Republicans, drawing silence to the room as lawmakers exchanged glances.
Mr Taylor laid out the quid pro quo of the White House’s decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless the new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, agreed to Mr Trump’s requests to investigate Democrats, according to a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorised to discuss the private testimony.
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Donald Trump has called on his Republican peers to “get tougher and fight” as the impeachment inquiry surrounding him intensifies, addressing colleagues at a White House Cabinet meeting in which he also rubbished the Constitution’s anti-corruption Emoluments Clause as “phoney”.
“We have some that are great fighters, but they have to get tougher and fight, because the Democrats are trying to hurt the Republican Party before the election,” the president said on Monday. The Democrats are “vicious and they stick together”, he added, arguing for his own side to follow their example and maintain a unified front.
The president singled out Utah senator and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney for particular criticism: "They don't have Mitt Romney in their midst. They don't have people like that. They stick together."
The inquiry is continuing to interview senior State Department figures this week after the likes of Fiona Hill, George Kent and Gordon Sondland appeared on Capitol Hill last week, the diplomatic officials giving their insights into the running of American foreign policy in Eastern Europe under the Trump administration in defiance of the White House's call for stonewalling.
Trump's attack on the Emoluments Clause followed his being forced to reverse his decision to host next year's G7 summit of world leaders at his Florida golf resort, the Trump National Doral Miami, a matter he has repeatedly griped about on Twitter.
"I don't think you people, with this phoney Emoluments Clause - and by the way, I would say that it's cost anywhere from $2bn to $5 bn to be president," he said during the meeting, once more mangling his syntax.
California congressman Eric Swalwell wasted no time in pointing out the error of his ways when the comment emerged.
Yesterday's meeting was also noteworthy for beginning with this extraordinary prayer from housing and urban development secretary Ben Carson, in which he thanked God for Donald J Trump.
Here's Alex Woodward's report.
On Twitter last night, Trump was quick to congratulate Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau on his re-election, attempting to paint the situation as a "wonderful and hard fought victory" when it actually looks like an extremely chastening outcome for the incumbent.
The president fired out no fewer than 20 retweets overnight - without the necessary due care and attention.
One of the accounts he posted (it's still there at the time of writing) was called "DJT's Butt" and its bio reads: "I am @realDonaldTrump's butt. Whatever he says, it's really me that's saying it. Follow me, or I will nuke you! #PutinPower #MAGA." Brilliantly, it was started in January 2017 to coincide with Trump's inauguration.
You can, incidentally, following the latest updates on Canada below with Conrad Duncan.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi has meanwhile published a four-page fact sheet laying out the opposition’s evidence for her contention that Trump “betrayed his oath of office, betrayed our national security and betrayed the integrity of our elections for his own personal political gain”.
The document is divided into the subheadings The Shakedown, The Pressure Campaign and The Cover Up and records every detail established so far about the the president's notorious 25 July call with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky in which he appeared to ask for a political favour in exchange for the delivery of almost $400m (£309m) in military aid, including the text message exchanges between Sondland, US envoy Kurt Volker and acting ambassador Bill Taylor.
The latter is due to appear before the Democratic-led House of Representatives Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight Committees today, incidentally.
Taylor, a former Army officer and career US diplomat now leading the US embassy in Kiev, is of particular interest to investigators because of his leading role at the embassy in Ukraine. He raised concern about the military assistance being withheld from Kiev in order to put pressure on Zelensky to investigate Trump's domestic 2020 rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, between 2014 and 2019.
Taylor mentioned his concern on 9 September in one of the aforementioned text exchanges with Volker and Sondland that was later made public. "As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign," Taylor wrote.
Taylor was tapped to serve as charge d'affaires in Kiev, where he served as US ambassador from 2006 to 2009, after Trump abruptly recalled ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in May after she came under attack from his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Yovanovitch testified in Congress on 11 October.
Committee members said they were eager to hear from Taylor. They want to know about the text messages as well as any telephone calls he may have had with other US officials and with Giuliani, who has played an informal role in US relations with Ukraine.
"We know he's an important witness because of the exchange of text messages. We know he's the one who suggested it's crazy to withhold aid," said Democratic representative Ted Deutsch, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Democrats in the House of Representatives meanwhile blocked a Republican effort to censure House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff over statements he made related to the impeachment investigation.
As expected, the Democratic-controlled House voted 218-185 to block consideration of the Republican measure, thus shelving it.
Republicans accused Schiff of misleading the public by, among other things, saying he did not know the identity of the CIA whistleblower who first sounded the alarm over the Zelensky call.
Schiff - the subject of near-daily attacks on Twitter from Trump - was in defiant mood yesterday and had the backing of his colleagues.
A vote to censure a House member registers the chamber's deep disapproval of misconduct that falls short of expulsion.
Since 1832, 23 House members have been censured, which requires them to stand before their fellow legislators while the House speaker or presiding officer reads aloud the censure resolution as a form of public rebuke.
Schiff is one of a handful of House Democrats leading an investigation into whether Trump may have committed an impeachable offense surrounding his dealings with Ukraine.
In the coming weeks, Democrats are expected to decide whether to hold a full House vote on lodging formal charges against Trump. A House vote in favour of impeachment would trigger a Senate trial to determine if the Republican president is guilty of any of the charges and thus should be removed from office.
Trump's latest soft soap interview with his old pal Sean Hannity was aired on Fox News last night - and was notable for its near total lack of worthwhile news lines.
Aside from giving Trump a platform to bemoan the impeachment inquiry and inflate the cost of the Mueller report...
...Hannity's only real scoop was teasing out the revelation that Trump no longer takes The New York Times at the White House and may soon drop his subscription to The Washington Post too.
The almost avant-garde futility of the exercise did not go unnoticed.
If Trump has given up skimreading the headlines of The NYT and The Post, he will miss their reporting this morning that an Oval Office meeting in May with Hungary's authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orban and a phone call with Russian president Vladimir Putin helped sour his attitude towards Ukraine, lines emerging from George Kent's private deposition before the inquiry last week.
Behind closed doors, Trump is thought to believe it is Kiev - and not Moscow - who sought to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election, telling aides: "They tried to take me down." It's a view not shared by the intelligence community, at odds with US foreign policy and dismissed by many of Trump's fellow Republicans, but it is part of a broader scepticism towards Ukraine held by Putin and Orban, the former's key regional ally in Eastern Europe.
Trump's embrace of an alternative view of the country suggests the extent to which his approach to Kiev - including his request that Zelensky do him a "favour" and investigate Biden - was coloured by a long-running, unproven conspiracy theory that has circulated online and in some corners of conservative media.
Those testifying in the impeachment inquiry, now entering its fifth week, are recalling that Trump's views on Ukraine were seen as a problem by some in the administration. Sondland, Volker and other witnesses have described the president as suspicious of Ukraine despite well-established American support for the fledgling democracy there.
"President Trump was sceptical," Sondland testified. He added that only later did he understand that Trump, by connecting the Ukrainians with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, was interested in probing the 2016 election as well as the Biden family. "It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing President Trump's mind on Ukraine was Mr Giuliani."
"Our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it," Trump told Zelensky during their "perfect" phone call, according to a rough transcript released by the White House. "I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike. The server, they say Ukraine has it."
Trump was airing the conspiracy theory view, shared by Giuliani, that the security firm CrowdStrike, which was hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to investigate the 2016 hack of its email, may have had ties to Ukraine.
CrowdStrike determined in June 2016 that Russian agents had broken into the committee's network and stolen emails that were subsequently published by WikiLeaks. The firm's findings were confirmed by FBI investigators and helped lead to Mueller's indictments of 12 individuals from Russia's military intelligence agency. But the loose conspiracy theory contends that the DNC email hack was a setup, bolstered by fake computer records, designed to cast blame on Russia.
Even the president's Republican allies have tried to dissuade Trump from it. "I've never been a CrowdStrike fan; I mean this whole thing of a server," said Republican congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina last week. Meadows, a confidant of Trump, said he's sure Ukraine had some role in the US election. But he views the search for the email server as farfetched. "I would not, on my dime, send a private attorney looking for some server in a foreign country," he told reporters.
Perhaps contributing to the conspiracy theories surrounding CrowdStrike and the DNC is the fact that the FBI never took possession of the actual computer server that would have held the hacked emails. Instead, the FBI relied on the forensics provided by CrowdStrike. The FBI had "repeatedly stressed" to the DNC its desire to have access to servers, former FBI director James Comey testified at a March 2017 hearing before a House panel. But he acknowledged it is not unusual for the FBI to use such forensics in place of the actual hard drive during cyber investigations.
Other Republicans have also tried to convince Trump it was not Ukraine that was involved. Trump's former Homeland Security adviser, Tom Bossert, said Giuliani had done Trump a disservice by pushing the false story.
"I am deeply frustrated with what he and the legal team is doing and repeating that debunked theory to the president," Bossert said in September on ABC. "It sticks in his mind when he hears it over and over again...That conspiracy theory has got to go. They have to stop with that. It cannot continue to be repeated."
White House personnel director Sean Doocey has, according to The Wall Street Journal, been forced to tell the president that neither of his choices to replace Kevin McAleenan as acting Homeland Security secretary are eligible for the job.
Trump had wanted either immigration hardliner and acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli (last heard from planning to deface the Statue of Liberty) or Customs and Border Protection chief Mark Morgan for the gig but both options have been shot down by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.
Ken Cuccinelli (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Mark Morgan (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
Neither man has served more than 90 days under the last Senate-confirmed post holder, Kirstjen Nielsen, which is the reason being given for the verdict.
Halting immigration at the US southern border remains an obsession for Trump, who believes it to be an election-winning issue, but overseeing the policy has proven to be a poisoned chalice, with child seperation and unsanitary conditions in detenion camps just two of the issues that have inflamed public outrage.
McAleenan is leaving a post he only took on in April saying he has achieved all he realistically could given the political realities of the task.
Three Democratic senators - Jeff Merkley, Ed Markey and Mazie Hirono - have introduced new legislation that aims to stop Trump holding meetings with foreign heads at state at his own properties in the wake of the Doral affair.
Wittily, they've called it the Scrutinising White House Activities that Make Profits (or, SWAMP) Act.
“It’s time for Congress to step in and make it crystal clear: President Trump cannot profiteer off of his meetings with foreign leaders - not with the G7, not ever,” Merkley said in a statement.
Ultimately, the bill is not expected to pass the Republican-held Senate so amounts to little more than a publicity stunt. It does, however, serve to draw attention to an increasingly serious conflict of interest concern with a president who considers the Constitution's Emoluments Clause "phoney".
His acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was perhaps more revealing that he intended to be when he said on Fox News Sunday this weekend: "At the end of the day [Trump] still considers himself to be in the hospitality business."
US defence secretary Mark Esper contradicted Trump on Syria when he spoke to reporters on Monday, saying troops would likely remain in the northeast of the war-torn state despite the president’s abrupt announcement of a total withdrawal.
After arriving for a visit in Afghanistan, Esper (whom Trump called "Esperanto" over the weekend) said some soldiers would be needed in order to prevent oil from falling into the hands of Isis or others.
“We have troops in towns in northeast Syria that are located next to the oil fields,” Esper said. “The troops in those towns are not in the present phase of withdrawal... The purpose is to deny access, specifically revenue to Isis and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities.”
Here's Chris Riotta's report.
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