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Trump news: President asked about Ukraine 'investigations', impeachment hearings told as Democrats reject effort to force whistleblower testimony

Follow the latest updates from Capitol Hill

Andrew Feinberg
Capitol Hill, Washington DC
,Chris Riotta,Clark Mindock,Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 13 November 2019 21:50 GMT
William Taylor: withholding aid to Ukraine 'crazy'

The House impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump is beginning its first public hearings with Bill Taylor, acting US ambassador to Ukraine, and State Department official George Kent. Both witnesses delivered joint-testimony to Congress as the president derides the process as a “partisan sham”.

Mr Trump has meanwhile reportedly been threatening to fire his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney over his recent blunders. He also previously considered axing Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the US intelligence community, over his handling of the whistle-blower complaint about his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, as senior Republicans insist they will not be watching the hearings and Mr Trump hosts his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House on Wednesday, progressive Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is calling for the resignation of senior Trump aide Stephen Miller over racist emails he sent to the right-wing news site Breitbart, in which he advocated white nationalist ideologies.

Following a meeting between the two leaders, Mr Trump repeated to reporters at a press conference that the day's public impeachment hearings are a "witch hunt" and a "joke".

"I haven't watched, I haven't watched for one minute because I've been with the president which is much more important as far as I'm concerned," Mr Trump said.

But the leaders were at odds following their controversial summit, to which five Senators were invited, discussing Turkey's cease-fire against Kurdish forces in Syria, as well as a two-day $100b trade deal and Turkey's acquisition of Russian anti-aircraft weapons.

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Hello and welcome to The Independent's rolling coverage of the Donald Trump administration.

Joe Sommerlad13 November 2019 09:20

Bill Taylor, George Kent to testify in House impeachment inquiry's first public hearings

The House impeachment inquiry investigating Donald Trump will hear from its first public witnesses on Wednesday, with the acting US ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and State Department official George Kent testifying to Congress before a rapt international audience. 

Here's a rundown of the morning's events, taking place in the Longworth House Office Building, normally where the powerful House Ways and Means Committee sits on taxation matters.

After House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff and ranking member Devin Nunes give their opening statements, Taylor and Kent will tell the striking if sometimes complicated story of a president allegedly using foreign policy for personal and political gain ahead of the 2020 election.

So far, the narrative is splitting Americans, mostly along the same lines as Trump's unusual presidency. The Constitution sets a dramatic, but vague, bar for impeachment, and there's no consensus yet that Trump's actions at the heart of the inquiry meet the threshold of "high crimes and misdemeanors." Whether Wednesday's proceedings begin to end a presidency or help secure Trump's position, it's certain that his chaotic term has finally arrived at a place he cannot control and a force, the constitutional system of checks and balances, that he cannot ignore. The country has been here just three times before, and never against the backdrop of social media and real-time commentary, including from the president himself.

"These hearings will address subjects of profound consequence for the nation and the functioning of our government under the Constitution," Schiff said in a memo to lawmakers. He has called it a "solemn undertaking" and counseled colleagues to "approach these proceedings with the seriousness of purpose and love of country that they demand".

"Total impeachment scam," tweeted the president, as he does virtually every day.

Impeachments are rare, historians say, because they amount to nothing short of the nullification of an election. Starting down this road poses risks for both Democrats and Republicans as proceedings push into the 2020 campaign.

Unlike the Watergate hearings and Richard Nixon, there is not yet a "cancer on the presidency" moment galvanising public opinion. Nor is there the national shrug, as happened when Bill Clinton's impeachment ultimately didn't result in his removal from office. It's perhaps most like the partisanship-infused impeachment of Andrew Johnson after the Civil War.

Trump calls the whole thing a "witch hunt," a retort that echoes Nixon's own defence. Republicans say Democrats have been trying to get rid of this president since he first took office, starting with former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference to help Trump in the 2016 election.

Bill Taylor (J Scott Applewhite/AP)

Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi was initially reluctant to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. As Democrats took control of the House in January, Pelosi said impeachment would be "too divisive" for the country. Trump, she said, was simply "not worth it." After Mueller's appearance on Capitol Hill in July for the end of the Russia probe, the door to impeachment proceedings seemed closed. But the next day Trump got on the phone...

For the past month, witness after witness has testified under oath about his 25 July phone call with Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and the alarms it set off in US diplomatic and national security circles. In a secure room in the Capitol basement, current and former officials have been telling lawmakers what they know. They've said an earlier Trump call in April congratulating Zelensky on his election victory seemed fine. The former US reality TV host and the young Ukrainian comedian hit it off.

But in the July call, things turned. An anonymous whistleblower first alerted officials to the phone call. "I have received information from multiple US government officials that the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election," the person wrote in August to the House and Senate Intelligence committees. Democrats fought for the letter to be released to them as required. "I am deeply concerned," the whistleblower wrote.

Trump has insisted the call was "perfect." The White House released a rough transcript. Pelosi, given the nod from her most centrist freshman lawmakers, opened the inquiry. On Tuesday, she laid out the message she wants people to hear Wednesday: "The truth." "It's a calm day, it's a prayerful day, it's a solemn day for our country," Pelosi told reporters. "It's a sad day which I wish we never had to face."

George Kent (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

Defying White House orders not to appear, witnesses have testified that Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was withholding US military aid to the budding democracy until the new Ukraine government conducted investigations Trump wanted into Democrats in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter.

It was all part of what Taylor, the long-serving top diplomat in Ukraine, called the "irregular" foreign policy being led by Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, outside of traditional channels. Taylor said it was "crazy" that the Trump administration was withholding US military assistance to the East European ally over the political investigations, with Russian forces on Ukraine's border on watch for a moment of weakness. Kent, the bowtie-wearing State Department official, told investigators there were three things Trump wanted of Ukraine: "Investigations, Biden, Clinton."

The framers of the Constitution provided few details about how the impeachment proceedings should be run, leaving much for Congress to decide. Democrats say the White House's refusal to provide witnesses or produce documents is obstruction and itself impeachable.

Hearings are expected to continue and will shift, likely by Thanksgiving, to the Judiciary Committee to consider actual articles of impeachment. The House, controlled by Democrats, is expected to vote by Christmas. That would launch a trial in the Senate, where Republicans have the majority, in the new year.

Joe Sommerlad13 November 2019 09:35

Trump 'threatened to fire' acting chief of staff, intelligence community inspector general

The president has meanwhile reportedly been threatening to fire Mulvaney over his recent blunders and previously considered axing intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson over his handling of the whistleblower complaint about his call with President Zelensky, according to The Washington Post and New York Times respectively.

Trump was reportedly angered by Mulvaney's performance in a press conference on 17 October in which he appeared to admit the withholding of £400m (£312m) in military aid to Ukraine was undertaken as part of a plan to strong arm the country into carry out an embarassing investigation into the Bidens.

Mick Mulvaney during his ill-fated press conference (Leah Mills/Reuters)

Senior aides reportedly encouraged the president not to do anything rash, no doubt recalling the sacking of FBI director James Comey in May 2017. “I don’t think you’ll see him going anywhere until after December,” one Trump adviser told The Post. “But the president was very unhappy with that press conference. That was a very bad day for the president.”

As for Atkinson, Trump was reportedly angered by the official's decision to treat the complaint as credible - a matter of "urgent concern" - and report it to Congress on 9 September. The president called on Atkinson to testify to the House investigators over his decision-making in a tweet on Saturday:

Joe Sommerlad13 November 2019 09:50

Recep Tayyip Erdogan visiting White House

Aside from the drama on Capitol Hill this morning, Trump is hosting his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House today as relations between the two Nato allies are at their lowest point in decades.

Ankara has rebuffed Washington and has warmed its ties with Russia - even buying a Russian air defence system - despite being a member of Nato. Turkey also is facing a backlash over attacks on Kurdish civilians during its incursion into Syria last month.

Erdogan makes a speech during a meeting with US businessmen in Washington last night (Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

Some in Congress denounce  Erdogan's repressive tactics at home and say he should never have been invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But Trump says Turkey has been a critical US ally for decades, cites the strong economic upside to the relationship and maintains that the two countries have enough in common to overcome their differences.

Joe Sommerlad13 November 2019 10:05

House investigators announce next week's witness line-up

After Taylor and Kent, ousted Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch will appear on Friday to give her side of the story after she was allegedly recalled from Kiev in response to a smear campaign against her spearheaded by Rudy Giuliani.

Next week's menu features: National Security Council (NSC) official Alexander Vindman; Jennifer Williams, an aide to vice president Mike Pence; former US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and NSC official Tim Morrison all testifying on 19 November.

Testifying on 20 November will be US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, deputy assistant secretary of defence Laura Cooper and undersecretary of state David Hale.

Former NSC official Fiona Hill will testify on 21 November.

If you just can't get enough of all the drama, here's the inside story of the Zelensky call.

Joe Sommerlad13 November 2019 10:20

‘Doing something else’: Republican senators insist they will not be watching hearings 

Millions of Americans are expected to watch today's hearings but Senate Republican are insisting their TVs will be switched off - even though they will be expected to serve as trial jurors should the House ultimately vote to impeach the president. 

Of eight Senate Republicans questioned by the AP on Tuesday evening, seven said they wouldn't be tuning in. "Tomorrow I'm going to be paying attention to what we're doing in the Senate," said majority leader Mitch McConnell.

"I'll be doing something else," said Lindsey Graham, an ardent Trump ally, who argued he didn't want to legitimise a process he has twice called "bulls***" because it was an unfair effort by Democrats aimed at weakening Trump.

Among other Republican senators, Texas's John Cornyn said he didn't need to "waste time going through all the drama over there" while his fellow Lone Star State representative Ted Cruz doubted he'd view the "partisan circus."

Here's Chris Riotta on a GOP memo obtained by CNN yesterday revealing the party's strategy for defending Trump.

Joe Sommerlad13 November 2019 10:35

President hails 'amazing warrior' Sean Hannity ahead of impeachment hearings

Trump himself is saying very much what you might have expected so far: tweeting extensive quotes from Fox News and even hailing Sean Hannity as an "amazing warrior" for his rabid attack on today's "phony showtrial" in defence of the president.

Joe Sommerlad13 November 2019 10:50

AOC calls on Stephen Miller to resign over white nationalist emails to Breitbart

Away from the impeachment proceedings, Trump's senior aide Stephen Miller, the architect of many of his cruellest "zero-tolerance" immigration policies including family separation at the border, is facing calls to resign after a cache of racist emails he sent to the right-wing news outlet Breitbart between 2015 and 2016 was handed on to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

Progressive Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has led the call for Miller's removal after a "reformed" far-right journalist, Katie McHugh, handed over some 900 emails to the SPLC in which Miller advocated extremist and white nationalist ideologies, pushing stories on to the publication in the hope it would disseminate them.

The White House has said the development is a partisan move to discredit Miller and "clearly a form of anti-Semitism to levy these attacks on a Jewish staffer", a line of argument as staggeringly disingenuous as it is offensive.

Miller's own uncle, retired neuropyschologist Dr David Glosser, has previously denounced his nephew as "an immigration hypocrite" and said their family would never have been allowed to enter the United States and escape pogroms in turn-of-the-20th-century Belarus had Stephen Miller's poisonous attitudes been prevalent at the higher tiers of government at the time.

Joe Sommerlad13 November 2019 11:05

Senior Trump official 'lied about CV and doctored Time magazine cover'

Less seriously, another Trump appointee is facing ridicule for exaggerating claims about her illustrious career at Harvard and the UN on LinkedIn and faking a copy of Time magazine with her face on the cover, according to NBC.

Here's Alex Woodward on humiliation for Mina Chang, a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations.

Joe Sommerlad13 November 2019 11:20

White House to offer webcam livefeed of border wall construction

In another ridiculous move for this administration, it is planning to introduce webcams at the southern border so that Trump's supporters can watch a live feed of his border wall being constructed.

The idea is apparently the brainchild of Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner - last heard from nothing having brought peace to the Middle East - and is being realised despite objections being raised by both Customs and Border Protection officials and the US Army Corps of Engineers, according to The Washington Post.

A federal appeals court in California began hearing arguments on Tuesday for halting construction of the biggest white elephant in the president's property portfolio. The administration has begun work on 129 miles of Pentagon-funded projects in California, Arizona and New Mexico since since the Supreme Court ruled in July that construction could proceed during a legal challenge.

The Pentagon has diverted $6.1bn (£4.7bn) to pay for construction since Trump declared a national emergency on the border in February. Trump says he plans to have about 500 miles  built by the end of his first term in 2020. As of 1 November about 78 miles were completed to replace existing barriers.

Dror Ladin, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, urged a three-judge panel of the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to rule as quickly as possible because the administration was moving quickly in places including Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona. He said huge amounts of water are being drawn to build the wall with a great deal of cement. "There's bulldozers and really heart-wrenching pictures from the border that are being sent to me every day," Ladin said.

The last we heard from Trump on the was this less than encouraging exchange with reporters.

Joe Sommerlad13 November 2019 11:35

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