Democrats unveiled legislation on Tuesday calling for public hearings and a public report in the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump after Republican criticism that they have conducted the probe with too much secrecy.
The proposal was announced on the same day that a White House adviser testified in the inquiry that he was so alarmed after hearing Mr. Trump ask Ukraine’s President to investigate a political rival, Democrat Joe Biden, that he reported the matter to a White House lawyer out of concern for U.S. national security.
Army Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman, director of European affairs on the National Security Council and a Ukraine expert, arrived at the U.S. Capitol for his private testimony clad in military dress uniform as he became the first current White House official to testify in the inquiry. The Ukraine-born U.S. citizen and decorated Iraq War combat veteran also became the first person to testify who listened in on the July 25 call at the heart of the Ukraine scandal.
The House resolution laying out procedures for the next steps in the fast-moving inquiry, which threatens Mr. Trump’s presidency even as he seeks re-election in 2020, could come to a vote as soon as this week. Democrats control the House.
The resolution calls for public hearings by the House Intelligence Committee and allows for a lawyer for Mr. Trump to participate in proceedings in the Judiciary Committee, the panel that eventually could vote on formal charges against the Republican president. House passage of such articles of impeachment would trigger a trial in the Republican-led Senate on whether to remove Mr. Trump from office.
The measure calls for the Intelligence Committee to issue a public report detailing its findings, with redactions to protect classified and other sensitive information.
Mr. Trump and his lawyers have been frozen out of the process thus far, and his fellow Republican have complained that the President’s rights are being trampled. Under the Democratic plan, Mr. Trump’s lawyers could cross examine witnesses, present their case, respond to evidence gathered and raise objections to testimony given.
The measure also authorizes public release of transcripts of closed-door depositions like the one given by Lt.-Col. Vindman. The resolution states that the Judiciary Committee “shall report to the House of Representatives such resolutions, articles of impeachment or other recommendations as it deems proper.”
Trump and his allies have assailed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for launching the inquiry last month without passing a resolution authorizing it. The U.S. Constitution gives the House wide authority over how to conduct the impeachment process.
Under the Democratic plan, Republicans would be allowed to subpoena witnesses and materials for the Intelligence Committee’s review. But Democrats would have the final say on whether those subpoenas would be issued.
There seemed little doubt the measure would pass with the support of most House Democrats. All but a handful of them have voiced support for the impeachment inquiry.
Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during the July call to investigate Biden, a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination to face Trump, and his son Hunter Biden, who had served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma. Trump also asked Zelenskiy to investigate a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
“I was concerned by the call,” Vindman said in his opening statement to the three House committees conducting the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.”
“I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security,” Vindman added.
Vindman’s testimony was some of the most damaging to date. Vindman also called into question the truthfulness of earlier testimony by another administration official, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
Trump had withheld $391 million in U.S. security aid to Ukraine approved by Congress to fight Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. Zelenskiy agreed to Trump’s requests. The aid was later provided.
Vindman, appearing after receiving a subpoena from lawmakers despite the Trump administration policy of not co-operating with the impeachment inquiry, recounted listening in on the call in the White House Situation Room with colleagues from the National Security Council and Vice President Mike Pence’s office.
After the call, Vindman added, he reported his concerns to the National Security Council’s lead counsel. Vindman said that earlier in the month he also had reported to the lawyer concerns about previous pressure by the administration on Ukraine to carry out politically motivated investigations.
A PIVOTAL MEETING
At a July 10 meeting in Washington with visiting Ukrainian officials, Vindman said Sondland, a former Trump political donor, told the Ukrainian officials they needed to “deliver specific investigations in order to secure a meeting with the president.” At that point, Vindman said, then-National Security Adviser John Bolton cut the meeting short.
According to Vindman’s opening statement, Sondland told other U.S. officials in a debriefing after the meeting that it was important that the Ukrainian investigations centre on the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma.
“I stated to Amb. Sondland that his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security,” Vindman said.
Trump’s former Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, testified in the impeachment inquiry on Oct. 14 that she too was alarmed by Sondland’s reference to a probe of Biden during that July 10 meeting and was advised to see NSC lawyer John Eisenberg, a person familiar with her testimony told Reuters.
Sondland gave a different account of the July 10 events in his own testimony in the inquiry, saying that “if Ambassador Bolton, Dr. Hill or others harboured any misgivings about the propriety of what we were doing, they never shared those misgivings with me, then or later.”
Democrats have accused Trump of pressuring a vulnerable foreign ally to interfere in an American election for his own political benefit. Federal law prohibits candidates from accepting foreign help in an election.
Even before his arrival, some allies of the Republican president, including Fox News host Laura Ingraham, sought to attack Vindman’s integrity and questioned his loyalty to the United States.
Biden described Vindman as a hero, calling attacks on the Army officer’s character and loyalty “despicable.”
“He’s a hell of a patriot,” the former U.S. vice president told MSNBC.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing in his dealings with Ukraine and has called the impeachment probe politically motivated.
“Why are people that I never even heard of testifying about the call. Just READ THE CALL TRANSCRIPT AND THE IMPEACHMENT HOAX IS OVER! Ukrain (sic) said NO PRESSURE,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
“How many more Never Trumpers will be allowed to testify about a perfectly appropriate phone call when all anyone has to do is READ THE TRANSCRIPT! I knew people were listening in on the call (why would I say something inappropriate?), which was fine with me, but why so many?” Trump added.
The White House released a detailed summary of the call, though not a precise transcript. The “Never Trump” movement refers to Republicans and conservatives who opposed Trump’s 2016 candidacy and his presidency. Trump last week called “Never Trump” Republicans “human scum.”
In his testimony, Vindman said, “I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honour to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics.”
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