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What Transcripts Of Testimony In The Impeachment Inquiry Say About The Questioning


Another day, another deposition and another transcript - we're talking, of course, about the impeachment inquiry, which appears to be on a fast track. So far, all the testimony has been delivered behind closed doors, including today. Jennifer Williams, an aide in the vice president's office, is testifying under subpoena. And next week, public hearings begin on Capitol Hill. But already, we have so much information to digest from the hundreds and hundreds of pages of testimony that House Democrats have released.

And to help us take stock and point toward where we may be going, we have brought in two colleagues who've spent much of the week poring over those pages. White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hi.


KELLY: And Deirdre Walsh, who edits our congressional coverage. Hi, Deirdre.


KELLY: What have these transcripts revealed so far about how these depositions - how this questioning is unfolding, Deirdre?

WALSH: I think what they're showing us is a preview of what we can expect in next week's open hearings. You have Republicans and Democrats both participating in these closed-door depositions. They get equal time. And they're both trying to mimic what they're doing outside these closed-door hearing rooms. They're trying to echo the message and solicit from these witnesses more evidence underscoring their own message.

KELLY: And be specific about that. So when you go to the Democrats, for example, and how they're questioning - and we're now able to see exactly how they're questioning from these transcripts - what do you see?

WALSH: I think we see Chairman Schiff, his counsel and other Democrats on the committee building a case of having more than one witness talk about evidence that there was indeed a quid pro quo for military assistance in return for political investigations. Witness by witness, they go through various conversations they had before the infamous July 25 call and then what they did after that call.


KEITH: Yeah. You know, the president has said he wants everyone just to focus on the transcript of that July 25 call.

KELLY: The White House record, we should point out.


KELLY: Because we're not sure if it's a verbatim transcript. But go on, yeah.

KEITH: Right, the rough call log from his July 25 call. And what Democrats are doing is they're building the context around that call, trying to get witnesses to explain what the Ukrainians may have known by the time that call happened. And they're also trying to build up a case about a parallel foreign policy process that was led by the president's personal attorney trying to show, through testimony, that that was at odds with U.S. foreign policy and national security interests.

KELLY: Meanwhile, Republicans are coming at this from a very different direction. What are we learning from the transcripts in terms of how they're trying to frame all this, Deirdre?

WALSH: Inside the room, they're very focused on the call. They continue to ask witnesses, was there a direct ask? Do you have any evidence that there was a direct ask between the president and the president of Ukraine? And a lot of these career State Department witnesses were not on the call or listening to the call but are recounting conversations with other diplomats or principals in the conversations. So I think they're just trying to put it on the record and make the argument that this is thirdhand, this is hearsay.


KEITH: And the other thing that Republicans are trying to do is to get these witnesses to weigh in on the Bidens. I was just reading a part of the transcript where Republicans were questioning Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, about whether he thought it was OK for Hunter Biden to be making as much money as he was. And Sondland kept saying, I don't want to weigh in on this; this isn't something I have an opinion on.

KELLY: All right. So we're about to bid farewell to the below-ground, closed-door portion of this. Just before we move on, Deirdre, this has all been unfolding in the SCIF, the secure basement room, which - just explain for people who have never been in there, which is most of us.

WALSH: Well, these are long days, and this Sensitive Compartmentalized (ph) Information Facility known as the SCIF is three levels down in the basement below the Capitol. And people are in there for a long day, and we got some evidence of that in the transcript from Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, where hours into the testimony Chairman Schiff notes, we probably need to turn on the air conditioning because my staff tells me it's starting to smell like a locker room in here.

KELLY: Oh, God.


KELLY: All right. With that pleasant image on our mind, I'll bring us up into the light and what we're - can expect next week when we move to the open portion of all this. Tamara Keith, hop in here just in terms of how the White House approach, White House messaging may change as all this goes public.

KEITH: Well, they're bringing in more people. They are bringing on two people, at least temporarily, to work on proactive messaging on impeachment in the White House. Now, for weeks, they have been resistant to the idea of building a war room. Press secretary Stephanie Gresham insisted to me that this is not a war room; these are just extra hands coming on board to help the team message on impeachment.

KELLY: Because the president's message has been, this is a totally illegitimate inquiry, so why should I need to staff up to deal with it?

KEITH: Right, he's been very resistant to the idea of needing a team to help him with this. And just one other thing to note - I've learned in conversations with people close to the White House - they believe the White House counsel's office is going to lead up the president's defense on impeachment rather than outside attorneys.

And that's a difference from the way President Clinton handled his impeachment. One of the reasons for this is simply that this impeachment is related to official duties of President Trump. It's related to his work as president, whereas President Clinton's impeachment was related to private behavior and perjury in a grand jury related to a private matter.

KELLY: All right. A little preview there of the thinking both at the White House and Capitol Hill as we head into a big week next week in the impeachment inquiry. Deirdre Walsh, Tamara Keith - thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
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