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Recapping The Week Of Developments And Testimony In The Impeachment Inquiry


It's probably fair to say it's been a little chaotic here in Washington this week. The House impeachment inquiry pushed ahead with hours of closed testimony. And then, right in the middle of it, there was a rare press conference from a White House official, in which acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney made a stunning statement about the Ukraine controversy at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. Now, here to help us make sense of the week's developments is NPR's congressional correspondent, Susan Davis.

Hey there, Sue.


CORNISH: And our Justice correspondent, Ryan Lucas.

Welcome back, Ryan.


CORNISH: All right. This week, four current or former government officials testified behind closed doors as part of the impeachment inquiry. Democrats have issued subpoenas for testimony from all four in order to get around White House efforts to block them from appearing altogether. What did these folks have to say? What did you learn?

LUCAS: From a 30,000-foot level, what came out of the testimony is really a pretty consistent picture, that people on the National Security Council and at the State Department were concerned about the role that President Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was playing in U.S. policy on Ukraine, particularly Giuliani's efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and to look into conspiracy theories tied to Democrats in the 2016 election.

Now, the national security professionals saw Giuliani's work as basically a sort of off-the-books foreign policy operation that they didn't have control over. And in part, that's because the president had put three people, who have been dubbed the Three Amigos, as his point people on Ukraine. And those are the U.S. special representative to Ukraine, Kurt Volker...

CORNISH: Who's now resigned.

LUCAS: ...Who has since resigned, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who has also said he's stepping down. Now, Sondland said in testimony this week that the president directed those three to work with Giuliani on Ukraine. That is the big-picture view that's come out of the closed-door testimony. But it's worth saying that this is the picture that we've gotten from selective leaks, so it's not a full picture of what's going on by any stretch of the imagination.

CORNISH: I want to come to another issue. Susan Davis, this is quid pro quo, right? We've been hearing the president say there was no quid pro quo. There was no effort to exert pressure to investigate his political opponents. And then White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney comes out and says what?

DAVIS: So Mick Mulvaney walks into the White House press briefing room. And for 40 minutes on live television, he seemed to do his best effort to undermine the president's own best defenses until this point. The White House has consistently denied that military aid to Ukraine was withheld in order to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate corruption and the president's rivals, the Biden family, and the DNC. Here is Mulvaney appearing to concede that money was, in fact, held up.


MICK MULVANEY: I was involved with the process by which the money was held up temporarily, OK? Three issues for that - the corruption in the country, whether or not other countries were participating in the support of the Ukraine and whether or not they were cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice. That's completely legitimate.

DAVIS: And then he goes on to also undermine the president's stated defense that there was no quid pro quo.


JON KARL: But to be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo. It is funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happens as well.

MULVANEY: We do that all the time with foreign policy.

DAVIS: So Republicans have been arguing, especially his allies on Capitol Hill, that the president didn't do the thing you're accusing him of. He didn't try to extract political pressure in withholding aid. Mulvaney walks out and appears to say he did do those things. They're not wrong. They happen all the time. This is how foreign policy works. And in his own words, get over it.

CORNISH: He did not stick with the kind of get-over-it approach, right? The White House tried to walk this back. So Ryan Lucas, how bad of a political mistake was this?

LUCAS: Based on the reactions that the comments generated, it's somewhere between a boo-boo and an atomic bomb. I asked the Justice Department about Mulvaney saying that aid was tied to Ukraine cooperating with a Justice Department investigation. And the terse response that I got from the Justice Department from a senior DOJ official was, quote, "if the White House was withholding aid in regards to the cooperation of any investigation at the Justice Department, that's news to us."

And the president's outside legal team also felt the need to weigh in on this. Jay Sekulow, who is an attorney for the president, said that outside legal counsel was not involved in Mulvaney's press briefing at all. And I think the fact that we saw Mulvaney come out a couple of hours after he made those statements multiple times and had chances in the press conference to walk them back then hours later come back and say, actually, what I said has been misconstrued. There was no quid pro quo.

DAVIS: It...

CORNISH: So that's what the lawyers say (laughter).

DAVIS: Yeah.

LUCAS: Right.

CORNISH: What did the politicians say?

DAVIS: Well, it certainly didn't help the president's case against impeachment on Capitol Hill, where House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff saw Mulvaney's comments and told this to reporters.


ADAM SCHIFF: Things have just gone from very, very bad to much, much worse. The idea that vital military assistance would be withheld for such a patently political reason, for the reason of serving the president's re-election campaign, is a phenomenal breach of the president's duty to defend our national security.

DAVIS: In other words, an impeachable offense. Schiff was also asked about Mulvaney's walk-back in a statement. He said, in his words, it was not the least bit credible.

CORNISH: We're going to hear from a Republican congressman where these comments have created doubt for him. But have any other Republicans on the Hill said anything similar?

DAVIS: You know, on the whole, the party is still very much unified behind the president. However, Mulvaney really did some damage. You - his comments sort of left Republicans slack-jawed on Capitol Hill. And here is one, Lisa Murkowski. She's a Republican senator from Alaska. When she was told about the news from reporters, this was her response.


LISA MURKOWSKI: Well, that's news to me. I had not heard that. Yes, absolutely, it's a concern. You don't hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative.

DAVIS: Now, a caveat to that comes from Mark Meadows. He's a Republican from North Carolina. He's been in the room. He's been hearing a lot of this closed-door testimony. And he told reporters that there's nothing they've heard in the official investigation that backs up what Mulvaney said. Here's what he said.


MARK MEADOWS: I have zero concern - zero concern - that aid was withheld for any political reasons.

DAVIS: However, if Mulvaney keeps talking and keeps talking down that line, yes, he could continue to have more problems with Republicans.

CORNISH: What is the impact of all these developments this week?

DAVIS: I think the most obvious impact is that the House is moving closer towards taking up articles of impeachment against the president. I mean, that was the sum-total impact of that. One thing that I think that tells you that Congress is preparing for it is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week was prepping Senate Republicans behind closed doors to prepare for a trial, talking them how the process would go, what their responsibilities would be. That certainly tells you that, at least on the other side of the Capitol, they are bracing for articles of impeachment. Mitch McConnell thinks it could happen as late - or as early as December. Democrats say there's no timeline on it.

CORNISH: And Ryan, our look ahead to next week. What are you going to be watching next in this story?

LUCAS: Well, there are five depositions that are scheduled for next week that we know of at this point. One in particular is of interest. That is on Tuesday with William Taylor. He is currently the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. And his name may be familiar to people because of text messages that came out earlier as part of this impeachment inquiry in which he says that he thinks that it would be crazy to withhold military aid for Ukraine in order to get them to help out with a political campaign. That caught a lot of eyes. And Democrats are going to be certain to want to hear more from him about his thinking on that.

CORNISH: That's NPR Justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you.

CORNISH: And our congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Have a good weekend.

DAVIS: You too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANENON'S "LIGHTS AND ROCKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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