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What We Learned From Reading Thousands Of Pages Of Impeachment Inquiry Transcripts

President Trump is on the defensive after congressional investigators released thousands of pages of transcripts of closed-door depositions as part of the Ukraine affair and impeachment inquiry.
Susan Walsh
President Trump is on the defensive after congressional investigators released thousands of pages of transcripts of closed-door depositions as part of the Ukraine affair and impeachment inquiry.

There was lots more detail in the transcripts released by congressional investigators this week that help color in the picture of what went down in the pressure campaign from the Trump administration to Ukraine.

Some had been known already, based on reporting and previously released opening statements. But far more depth was given after seeing the questions and answers from what were hours-long depositions.

And a lot of it will be aired publicly, beginning Wednesday with the first public hearings in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

What follows are eight things we've learned from reading every page from the deposition transcripts so you didn't have to:

1. All roads lead back to Rudy Giuliani

In thousands of pages of testimony, the role of President Trump's personal attorney has become very clear. Democratic investigators wanted to know more about Giuliani's role, and every witness has pointed back at Giuliani as orchestrating the pressure campaign. Giuliani has said he won't cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, citing attorney-client privilege.

Democrats would love to talk to him, but they don't want to be dragged into court. Instead, his lack of cooperation, and that of others, will likely be added to an obstruction of Congress article of impeachment.

Remember, though, the Southern District of New York, an office Giuliani used to run as U.S. attorney, has already ensnared two Giuliani associates who were trying to leave the country. Does another shoe drop with Giuliani?

Fiona Hill, a Russia specialist who was working on the National Security Council, said she questioned the legality of what Giuliani was doing. "I was extremely concerned that whatever it was that Mr. Giuliani was doing might not be legal," she said.

She also noted she faced "death threats, calls at my home."

Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor detailed how Giuliani was working in Trump's interest — not necessarily the country's — and said that Giuliani was trying to cast former Vice President Joe Biden "in a bad light" to benefit Trump's reelection campaign.

"He was representing whose interests?" Taylor was asked, before replying with just two words: "President Trump."

2. The whistleblower complaint has (mostly) been corroborated

Even though Republicans want to hear from the whistleblower, much of what the whistleblower detailed has now been corroborated under oath by multiple witnesses. That includes Giuliani's role in the pressure campaign, the details for the recall of then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, the withholding of military aid and the moving of the now-infamous July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine's president to a secure computer.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, testifiedthat this use of a secure computer was a break from normal process.

The only piece of it we haven't heard anything about is the allegation in the whistleblower report that "Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well."

The president mentioned Barr in his July 25 call, but that seems to be the extent of it, so far. Barr certainly has been involved in traveling abroad as part of the investigation into the origins of the Russian interference investigation, but that hasn't bled over to Ukraine — so far.

3. The three people testifying publicly next week were picked for good reason

There was probably no more damning testimony than the accounts delivered by Taylor, Yovanovitch and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent. We also got one of the most consequential released testimonies of the week from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a major Trump donor.

Kent described Sondland and U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker as two of the "three amigos" brought in to be more reliable players in pursuing the pressure campaign that Trump and Giuliani were pursuing. The other amigo was Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who has declined to be interviewed by congressional investigators.

Taylor and Kent are scheduled to testify on Wednesday. Yovanovitch is scheduled to appear Friday.

4. There was acknowledgement of a quid pro quo

Facing the potential threat of perjury after multiple witnesses contradicted his testimony, Sondland amended his testimony. He admitted that he told an aide to Ukraine's president that nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid likely wasn't coming unless Ukraine put out a statement from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy committing to investigating Biden and his son Hunter, as well as a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 election.

"I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks," Sondland said in the amendment.

5. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's role has become clearer

When it came to the withholding of "all security assistance to the Ukraine," Kent pointed the finger at Mick Mulvaney, who he said was acting at President Trump's direction.

In her testimony, Hill noted that at a July 10 meeting, Ukrainians wanted assurances of a White House meeting between Trump and Zelenskiy. Then-national security adviser John Bolton — who told Hill that Giuliani "is a hand grenade that is going to blow everybody up" and that he didn't want any part of this "drug deal" — tried to remain noncommittal.

At that point, according to Hill, "Sondland blurted out: 'Well, we have an agreement with the Chief of Staff [Mulvaney] for a meeting if these investigations in the energy sector start.' "

6. Witnesses detailed a concerted effort to dig up dirt on the Bidens

Volker noted that Giuliani, who was seen as speaking for the president, insisted on the public statement from Zelenskiy. Giuliani and company were even vetting the language the Ukrainian president would use.

The Ukrainians, not wanting to get involved in U.S. domestic politics, did not want to mention Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company Hunter Biden formerly served on the board of. When Giuliani saw a version of the statement that didn't include Burisma, he dismissed it.

"Well, if it doesn't say Burisma, and if it doesn't say 2016, what does it mean?" Giuliani said, according to Volker. "You know, it's not credible."

Sondland, who was once allied with Giuliani in the pressure campaign, turned on him while testifying. He noted that Giuliani's efforts "kept getting more insidious as timeline went on."

Yovanovitch testified of the attempts to hurt Biden. There was an effort aimed at "finding things that could be possibly damaging to a Presidential run," she said. Asked if she meant a presidential run by Joe Biden, she answered: "Uh-huh."

7. A sitting U.S. ambassador was told to watch her back — and was given the heads-up by Ukrainians

Yovanovitch testified that she was alerted by Ukrainian officials to a concerted effort to oust her. The official told her she needed to "watch my back," because it was known that the two Giuliani associates who were arrested in October wanted her out.

She said she believes they wanted her gone because of possible corrupt business dealings. "[I]f legitimate business comes to us," Yovanovitch said, "you know, that's what we do — we promote U.S. business."

Michael McKinley, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a career foreign service officer, said Yovanovitch's treatment raised alarm bells. He noted that it "had a very significant effect on morale" at the State Department and described "bullying tactics."

Kent said Giuliani was running a "campaign of slander" against Yovanovitch.

8. People voiced their disapproval, but were ignored

It's still stunning that multiple U.S. government Ukraine experts said they believed a former Ukrainian prosecutor was making up allegations for his own benefit in order to ingratiate himself with the Trump administration — and that Trump and Giuliani, instead of believing their own government's experts, believed the prosecutor. That prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, was widely believed to be corrupt, as Yovanovitch explained.

Those experts spoke up. Taylor, who was ambassador to Ukraine appointed by Republican George W. Bush, told Sondland it was "crazy" to withhold funding to benefit a political campaign. Vindman said he raised concerns about Trump's request to Ukraine's president to investigate the Bidens and told White House counsel John Eisenberg about it.

Kent detailed his own disagreement with the pressure campaign and likened it to what other corrupt countries do.

"Politically related prosecutions are not the way of promoting the rule of law," Kent said. "They undermine the rule of law."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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