• No, George Kent Says, Joe Biden’s Actions in Ukraine Are Not the Same as Trump’s

    Susan Walsh/AP

    During questioning by Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) at Wednesday’s impeachment hearing, George Kent, the top State Department official in charge of Ukraine relations, dismantled a popular right-wing argument: No, President Donald Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens are not in fact the same as the former vice president’s efforts to remove corrupt then–Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin.

    Himes asked Kent whether he thought Trump’s efforts to persuade Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens in a July phone call sounded like “the president participating in or requesting a thoughtful and well-calibrated anti-corruption program.” Kent replied, “I do not.”

    Himes then asked Kent, “Is what the president did in his phone call and what Joe Biden did in terms of Mr. Shokin, are those exactly the same things?”

    “I do not think they are the same things,” Kent replied. “What former Vice President Biden requested of former President of Ukraine Poroshenko was the removal of a corrupt prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who had undermined a program of assistance that we had spent, again, US taxpayer money to try to build an independent investigator unit to go after corrupt prosecutors.”

    Watch the exchange below:

  • The Republican Impeachment Lawyer Is Bombing His Television Debut

    Alex Brandon/AP

    Steve Castor, the staff lawyer Republicans picked to question witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, is emerging as one of the star players in the impeachment saga—and for all the wrong reasons. 

    Republicans are eager to create made-for-TV moments aimed at painting the probe’s witnesses—many of whom offered highly damaging allegations against President Donald Trump—as part of a political plot to take down the president. They’d also like to convince the public that Trump’s efforts to coerce Ukraine into interfering in the 2020 election were perfectly just.

    So far, Castor has not carried out these missions successfully. He appeared to bungle his questioning repeatedly: He falsely suggested that the Justice Department’s probe into the 2016 election included Ukraine, had to learn about routine State Department protocol on the spot, and received deadpanned looks from the witnesses, both of whom are seasoned, well-respected diplomats.

    Take a look at the bipartisan reception to his debut:

    Did Castor also say the quiet part out loud? It sure seems like it!

    George Kent and Bill Taylor, the first two witnesses to appear before the public hearings, appeared consistently confused by Castor’s line of questioning. Which puts me, a very confused viewer, in good company. 

  • Diplomat Who Allegedly Overheard Trump-Sondland Call Will Testify

    Earlier today, Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, dropped a bombshell during the first day of the House’s impeachment hearings. Taylor testified that one of his staffers overheard a phone call between President Donald Trump and US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, in which Trump asked Sondland about the politically motivated investigations Trump wanted Ukraine to pursue. NBC News reports that the staffer in question is David Holmes, who is the counselor for political affairs at the US Embassy in Ukraine. Holmes was just added to the House’s calendar to testify in a closed session on Friday. 

    Per Taylor’s earlier testimony, Holmes accompanied Sondland to a restaurant on July 26 after Sondland met with an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. At the restaurant, Sondland called Trump to tell him about the meeting, and Holmes overheard the president asking Sondland about “the investigations” into Trump’s political enemies. After the call, Holmes asked Sondland what the president thinks of Ukraine, to which Sondland “responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Trump personal attorney Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for,” according to Taylor. 

  • Bombshell Testimony: Trump Asked Sondland About Ukrainian “Investigations”

    President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.Evan Vucci/AP

    During his opening testimony on the first day of the House impeachment hearings, Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, dropped a bombshell: A member of his staff had overheard a phone call between President Trump and US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland in which the president asked Sondland about “the investigations” and Sondland replied “that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.” After the call concluded, according to Taylor, the staffer “asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine.” Taylor testified that Sondland “responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Trump personal attorney Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for.”  

    According to Taylor, this incident took place on July 26—the day after the infamous phone call in which Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pursue investigations related to Trump’s political enemies, including Joe Biden and his son. Taylor noted that he understood “investigations” to be a short-hand term used by Sondland for the politically motivated probes Trump wanted the Ukrainians to pursue.

    Taylor added that he only learned of the July 26 phone call between Trump and Sondland after he gave his initial deposition on October 22 and that he has since reported it to the State Department’s legal adviser and the House Intelligence Committee. 

    Here’s Taylor’s full description of that July 26 restaurant phone call: 

    On September 25 at the UN General Assembly session in New York City, President Trump met President Zelenskyy face-to-face. He also released the transcript of the July 25 call. (The United States gave the Ukrainians virtually no notice of the release, and they were livid.) Although this was the first time I had seen the details of President Trump’s July 25 call with President Zelenskyy, in which he mentioned Vice President Biden, I had come to understand well before then that “investigations” was a term that Ambassadors Volker and Sondland used to mean matters related to the 2016 elections, and to investigations of Burisma and the Bidens.

    Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26. While Ambassador Volker and I visited the front, this member of my staff accompanied Ambassador Sondland. Ambassador Sondland met with Mr. Yermak.

    Following that meeting, in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv. The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about “the investigations.” Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.

    Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for. At the time I gave my deposition on October 22, I was not aware of this information. I am including it here for completeness. As the Committee knows, I reported this information through counsel to the State Department’s Legal Adviser, as well as to counsel for both the Majority and the Minority on the Committee. It is my understanding that the Committee is following up on this matter.

    Here’s the full transcript of Taylor’s opening statement:

  • In Opening Statement, George Kent Says Giuliani Sabotaged US-Ukraine Policy

    Alex Brandon/AP

    George Kent, the top State Department official in charge of Ukraine relations, said in his testimony at Wednesday morning’s impeachment hearing that Rudy Giuliani hijacked US foreign policy toward Ukraine in an effort to generate politically motivated investigations that would benefit his client, President Donald Trump. And he said that Giuliani and his associates spread false information peddled by corrupt Ukrainian officials with an ax to grind.

    “Over the course of 2018-2019, I became increasingly aware of an effort by Rudy Giuliani and others, including his associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, to run a campaign to smear Ambassador Yovanovitch and other officials at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv,” he said. Kent said that former Ukrainian prosecutors Victor Shokin and Yuriy Lutsenko “were now peddling false information in order to exact revenge against those who had exposed their misconduct, including U.S. diplomats, Ukrainian anti-corruption officials, and reform-minded civil society groups in Ukraine.”

    Kent suggested that Giuliani led the effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. “In mid-August, it became clear to me that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting US engagement with Ukraine, leveraging President Zelensky’s desire for a White House meeting,” he said.

    Kent said that he voiced concerns about Hunter Biden’s position on the board of Burisma, the Ukrainian natural gas company whose co-founder had come under investigation for corruption. But he stressed that he “did not witness any efforts by any US official to shield Burisma from scrutiny.”

    Earlier in his statement, Kent described his background as a career foreign service officer representing the third generation in a family of career public servants.

    Watch Kent’s testimony here:

    Here is a transcript of Kent’s testimony:

  • Nunes Kicks Off Impeachment Hearing by Smearing the Witnesses

    Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, delivered a blistering defense of President Donald Trump on Wednesday that was heavy on performance, but light on substantive details.Pete Marovich/Getty

    One of President Trump’s most loyal allies delivered his opening salvo at Wednesday’s blockbuster impeachment hearing—and it wasn’t pretty.

    Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, bashed Democrats for airing a “televised, theatrical performance,” and he smeared the witnesses as having “agreed witting or unwittingly to participate” in the “low-rent, Ukrainian sequel” to the Democrats’ “Russia hoax.” 

    Directly addressing the witnesses, long-serving State Department officials George Kent and William Taylor, Nunes mockingly congratulated them for emerging from the committee’s closed depositions, which had been conducted over the past few weeks, to be “cast” in Wednesday’s public hearing.

    Nunes compared the private hearings, which are common during congressional investigations and were used by Republicans during their probe into the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, to “star chamber auditions,” which took place, he said, solely as a Democratic maneuver to oust Trump from office after a “three-year-long operation by the Democrats, the corrupt media, and partisan bureaucrats” failed to do so.

    Nunes’ aggressive attacks did not add much credibility to Trump’s defense, which has oscillated between denying the central fact of the case—that he pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals—and arguing that this action might be unusual, but does not merit impeachment. Neal Katyal, who served as the Obama administration’s solicitor general, said on Twitter that Nunes “reminds [him] of a bad Supreme Court advocate, hiding all the flaws in a case by pretending they just don’t exist.”

    “It lacks credibility,” Katyal wrote. “Everyone knows what [Trump] did was wrong, the question is simply if it is impeachable.”

    Right-wing Twitter, naturally, had a much different view of Nunes’ performance:

  • The Impeachment Hearing Is About to Start. Trump Is Already Short-Circuiting.

    Douglas Christian/ZUMA

    As the first day of televised impeachment hearings prepare to go live, let’s pause to take the temperature inside the White House, where President Donald Trump appears to be short-circuiting: 

    After kicking off the morning with those nods to Fox News, Trump then opted to keep things short, sticking closely to his catchphrase defenses against the biggest threat to his presidency.

    To translate: the “READ THE TRANSCRIPT” demand, as we previously explained, has served as Trump’s go-to rejoinder to the investigation; “NEVER TRUMPERS” is his attempt to falsely paint the witnesses in the impeachment inquiry as politically biased.

    All that followed a late night of retweeting and quoting in advance of what’s all but certain to be a historic day, as House Democrats attempt to convince the country that Trump abused his power to coerce foreign intervention in the 2020 election. The president appears to have left his morning wide open for the opening remarks, so prepare yourself for some more meltdowns.

  • Trump Says Whistleblower Should Be Investigated. Here’s Why That’s Terrifying.

    President Donald Trump and Attorney General Bill BarrOliver Contreras/Sipa via AP

    This morning, Donald Trump took to Twitter to demand that the whistleblower in the Ukraine scandal—along with the whistleblower’s attorney and House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)—be “investigared [sic] for fraud!” There is, of course, no known evidence that any of those individuals has committed fraud. Rather, the misspelled tweet is a horrifying escalation of the president’s campaign to intimidate and retaliate against the whistleblower.

    It’s tempting to dismiss Trump’s Twitter bluster as yet another empty threat with few consequences. It’s also wrong. Time and again, the president has shown a willingness to push the Justice Department and the FBI—and even foreign governments—to investigate and prosecute those he sees as political enemies.

    This is, after all, what the Ukraine scandal is all about. Trump and his cronies repeatedly demanded, in public and in private, that Ukraine investigate Democrats. And it nearly worked. According to the New York Times, the Ukrainian president was just days away from announcing the probes Trump wanted when the White House conspiracy began to unravel. In October, the president publicly asked China to investigate the Bidens; later, a top US trade official refused to answer questions from CNN about whether the administration raised the issue during subsequent negotiations with that country.

    There’s ample evidence that Trump sees the DOJ as his personal law firm and the attorney general as his private attorney. Don McGahn, Trump’s first White House counsel, testified that in 2017, Trump said words to the effect of, “You’re telling me that Bobby and Jack didn’t talk about investigations? Or Obama didn’t tell Eric Holder who to investigate?” (Bobby Kennedy was JFK’s attorney general; Holder was Obama’s.) Indeed, one of the most chilling parts of the rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is Trump’s request that Zelensky discuss the Biden allegations not just with Rudy Giuliani, but also with Attorney General Bill Barr—an indication, perhaps, that Trump hoped to use the US justice system to prosecute the Democratic frontrunner.

    In addition, Trump has spent much of the past several years publicly calling for the prosecution of Hillary Clinton. According to the Mueller Report, Trump in 2017 conveyed those desires directly to his then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions, mentioning Clinton’s emails as one of the topics he thought the DOJ should be investigating:

    On October 16, 2017, the President met privately with Sessions and said that the Department of Justice was not investigating individuals and events that the President thought the Department should be investigating. According to contemporaneous notes taken by [White House aid Rob] Porter, who was at the meeting, the President mentioned Clinton’s emails and said, “Don’t have to tell us, just take [a] look.” Sessions did not offer any assurances or promises to the President that the Department of Justice would comply with that request. Two days later, on October 18, 2017, the President tweeted, “Wow, FBI confirms report that James Comey drafted letter exonerating Crooked Hillary Clinton long before investigation was complete. Many people not interviewed, including Clinton herself. Comey stated under oath that he didn’t do this-obviously a fix? Where is Justice Dept?” On October 29, 2017, the President tweeted that there was “ANGER & UNITY” over a “lack of investigation” of Clinton and “the Comey fix,” and concluded: “DO SOMETHING!”

    Mueller notes that Sessions didn’t promise Trump that the DOJ “would comply with that request.” But a month after this meeting, Sessions directed John Huber, the US attorney in Utah, to review the department’s handling of various allegations about Clinton and determine whether an investigation should be opened, and whether a special counsel should be appointed. Huber’s probe reportedly includes the same Clinton email controversy that Trump had wanted investigated. Several weeks later, Trump again spoke with Sessions and, according to notes taken by an aid, said in an apparent reference to Clinton, “[Lawyer Alan] Dershowitz says POTUS can get involved. Can order AG to investigate. I don’t want to get involved. I’m not going to get involved. I’m not going to do anything or direct you to do anything. I just want to be treated fairly.” All of which sounds a bit like Trump’s insistence to Gordon Sondland that there was “no quid pro quo” regarding Ukraine.

    Naturally, it does not stop there. Trump has also demanded that law enforcement officials involved in the Russia probe be investigated, even threatening former FBI Director James Comey with jail time. That probe, too, is moving forward; it recently grew into a criminal investigation, though it’s unclear who federal prosecutors targeting. According to the Times, it is being “closely overseen” by Barr.