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Impeachment Briefing: Anatomy of a Scene

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Reporters explain a key moment from a White House official's testimony.
The New York Times

November 9, 2019

Welcome back to the Impeachment Briefing. A single scene, revealed in a newly released deposition transcript, can tell us a lot about impeachment.

What happened today

  • Transcripts were released for two major witnesses in the inquiry: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, and Fiona Hill, President Trump’s former adviser on Russia and Europe. Here are the key excerpts from their testimony.
  • A lawyer for John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, said that Mr. Bolton knows about “many relevant meetings and conversations” that House impeachment investigators have not yet been informed of. But he said Mr. Bolton would not testify without a court ruling on whether he should.
  • Republicans are readying a defense of Mr. Trump ahead of next week’s public hearings. Representative Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, is shuffling the makeup of a key committee to allow Representative Jim Jordan, one of Mr. Trump’s most outspoken allies, to take part in the hearings.

Anatomy of a White House scene

Tucked into Ms. Hill’s testimony is a cinematic scene at the White House. She describes how she and Mr. Bolton tried to foil attempts by Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, to pressure Ukraine into an investigation, racing through the West Wing to stop him from promising a presidential meeting.

Below are quotations from Ms. Hill’s transcript, with annotations from reporters and editors in our Washington bureau. (The scene can be found on pages 66 to 71 of the transcript.)

The setting: The White House, July 10; a meeting in Mr. Bolton’s office, near the Oval Office, between U.S. and Ukrainian officials to discuss national security, energy policy and the possibility of a White House visit for Ukraine’s new president.

The cast of characters: Ms. Hill; Mr. Bolton; Mr. Sondland; Rick Perry, energy secretary; Kurt Volker, U.S. special envoy to Ukraine; Oleksandr Danylyuk, security adviser to Ukraine’s president; Andrey Yermak, adviser to Ukraine’s president; various aides.

Annie Karni, White House reporter: In general, White House visits come with a group meeting of Cabinet-level officials behind the scenes, as well as the front-facing Oval Office meeting we usually get to see on television. But for the public part, you’re sitting shoulder to shoulder with the leader of the free world and being entertained as an equal. For someone like Mr. Zelensky, who wanted assurances that U.S. policy toward his country hadn’t changed and needed to reset the relationship, it would have been an elevating moment.

Kenneth Vogel, investigative reporter: The U.S. has long pushed Ukraine to reform its energy sector, which is rife with corruption, and Mr. Perry had picked up that cause. Mr. Sondland appears to be referring to something different — an investigation into one particular energy company that happened to have a relationship with Hunter Biden.

Michael Crowley, White House reporter: Mr. Sondland is in effect speaking for the Trump “shadow policy” toward Ukraine that allegedly sought a quid pro quo from Kiev for Mr. Trump’s political benefit. And Mr. Bolton, a lawyer and longtime government veteran, is recognizing the degree to which the normal workings of U.S. foreign policy have been warped by Mr. Trump, Mr. Sondland and their collaborators. That’s what caused an apparently disgusted Mr. Bolton to cut off the conversation.

Peter Baker, White House reporter: This is White House drama at its most intense. It’s generally not like a TV show. It’s not like “The West Wing.” But there are moments where real drama with real consequences plays out. The national security adviser senses danger, and he sends his deputy down to chase after them saying, “Don’t let them do something wrong.” He fears someone playing outside the foreign policy structure. That’s anathema to him.

Julie Davis, congressional editor: In other testimony, you heard about this tug of war between the official foreign policy and the “shadow” one in vague ways, but here, they’re literally having the tug of war in real time in front of the Ukrainians! It’s so striking. This is the crux of why you can’t have this go on: You’re sending two completely different signals to your foreign partner. If they had nefarious motives, they could look to exploit that wedge.

Peter Baker: There’s some great irony here: They’re next to the Situation Room and one floor below the Oval Office. The Situation Room is where you’re supposed to be doing foreign policy. And here, they’re distorting the normal process just outside the room where real foreign policy should take place.

Michael Shear, White House reporter: This scene reflects the deep sense of anger and outrage that these professionals on the National Security Council had at the subversion of a normal foreign policy decision-making process that they respected, in favor of an ad hoc, politically driven, friend-of-the-president system of decision-making that cut out the usual process. That conventional process under every administration is orchestrated by professional, career people who know what the development of foreign policy objectives looks like.

Julian Barnes, C.I.A. reporter: She is trying to shut down Mr. Sondland, to stop his freelancing. The way to do that is to then go to the National Security Council’s top lawyer, to John Eisenberg. This is the first time that someone is reporting wrongdoing, reporting concerns about this shadow foreign policy to a lawyer. Ms. Hill takes this seriously. She meets with the lawyer twice, that day and the following day. But it ultimately doesn’t work. Mr. Eisenberg goes to his boss, the White House counsel, who says: Talk to Mr. Trump. Eisenberg never talks to Mr. Trump. And he never talks to Mr. Sondland. He concludes that while it’s concerning, it’s not criminal.

What else we’re reading

  • Read more about Mr. Eisenberg, who has emerged as a central figure in the impeachment inquiry. He came to the same conclusion again and again when confronted with revelations that Mr. Trump had ordered up a shadow Ukraine policy to advance his personal interests: However disturbing the facts, no one involved violated the law.
  • It’s hot. It smells. It’s crowded. The Associated Press wrote about the room where closed-door impeachment interviews have taken place.
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