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Overheard Trump Call Is Vital To Impeachment Probe, Rep. Himes Says


We're learning more about one of the phone calls at the center of the impeachment inquiry. A U.S. foreign service officer in Ukraine named David Holmes described it in closed-door testimony. House Democrats released a transcript last night. Holmes was sitting at a restaurant in Kyiv in July with U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland. Sondland was on the phone with President Trump. Holmes could hear both sides of the call because Trump was speaking loudly. The president directly asked whether Ukraine would launch an investigation into Joe Biden's son. After the call, Holmes says Ambassador Sondland said Trump does not give a - insert expletive - about Ukraine and only cares about, quote, "big stuff" like the Biden investigation.

These revelations come as public hearings in the impeachment inquiry resume today. And Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut is in our studios this morning. He's the No. 2 Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee that is conducting the hearings. Congressman, thanks for coming in.

JIM HIMES: Good morning. Good to be with you.

GREENE: What did you learn from the testimony about this phone call?

HIMES: Well, the phone call is important because the defense of the president's behavior, which is pretty ugly on the face of it just reading the transcript, of course, becomes that much more ugly when you listen to the testimony of people like Ambassador Yovanovitch and our other two witnesses from last week. The Republicans have made the point - with some credibility - that nothing here has actually directly implicated the president. They said you've had second and thirdhand sources. Here for the first time - and, by the way, we'll have other witnesses this week who were in the room who did speak to the president. And this phone call for the first time shows the president of the United States being overheard actually asking about the investigations.

GREENE: Asking about the investigations, but I guess I just - is it possible that there was something more playful here in this phone call than we realize? I mean, you know, you had Sondland - and I don't want to use more language - saying that - telling the president that President Zelenskiy of Ukraine loves him. I mean, is it possible there was some playfulness that...

HIMES: I don't think playfulness is the issue. And, again, we have a sense for the way the president communicates. He's very direct. He says exactly what he thinks. He pretty quickly moves to what's important to him. And in this very brief phone call, what is important to him is an investigation of Burisma, of the Bidens, and Gordon Sondland says, yes, it's coming. They love you. They will - I forget the exact wording. They'll do anything you want. So, again, this is a direct - this is this president speaking, and that's important because at the end of the day this impeachment process is about the behavior of the president.

GREENE: You say that there's going to be more testimony this week, including Holmes, this foreign service officer. I want to ask a larger question. I mean, even if some U.S. officials paint this narrative of a quid pro quo involving U.S. military assistance, Ukraine's president, also the foreign minister, have denied that they felt a connection made by the United States government and the president. They - the - President Zelenskiy himself said, you know, no pressure. Does Ukraine's denial undermine the Democrats' argument here?

HIMES: Well, the denial - when you're talking about something that is an abuse of power, that, at its core, that may be more understandable as gangster-like behavior - and I can't think of a better descriptor other than gangster-like behavior - it's - we can have a long conversation about whether it's bribery or extortion. But it is gangster-like behavior, holding up something absolutely essential - military aid - in exchange for political dirt on the Biden family. In that context, the people who have been victims who, by the way, still remain profoundly reliant on United States' good graces saying what they need to say to try to remain in those good graces is in and of itself not exculpatory, particularly when you consider the context, right? As we heard last week, there was great consternation in and around the Ukrainian president attempts to get clarity on exactly what they needed to do, exactly what the president wanted. So just - these denials sort of are almost convenient.

GREENE: We understand House investigators are now looking at whether President Trump lied to special counsel Robert Mueller in his written answers as part of the Russia probe. Are you worried that you need to build a broader case for possible impeachment beyond Ukraine?

HIMES: Well, that particular line of inquiry is being pursued by the House counsel, and that takes us back to the Mueller report. So our committee in these impeachment proceedings is actually not focused on that question.

GREENE: But Democrats as a whole, could that become part of articles of impeachment?

HIMES: Well, I think if there is - if there emerges clear evidence that the president lied to investigators, yes, of course, that's very, very serious. Now, that opens the door to a conversation around exactly what is included in articles of impeachment. But, yes, of course, that's very serious, if true.

GREENE: Connecticut congressman, Democrat Jim Himes - he's the No. 2 Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee joining us as the impeachment hearings resume this morning. Thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

HIMES: Thank you.

GREENE: I want to bring in NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe who has been listening along. What stands out to you in a conversation like this, Ayesha?

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Well, when you talk about Holmes' testimony and the impact that it's having, there's a poll out from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist - that's a poll that's out today, but it shows that the public is really locked in. I mean, you have - two-thirds of people say that they don't think they'll hear anything in these hearings that will change their position. And the country remains split on impeachment in general - 45% are in favor of Trump being impeached and removed from office but 44% oppose that idea. So you have a country that really seems to be locked in. Now, people are paying attention. I think about 70% of registered voters say that they're following the news of impeachment very or fairly closely. But it's not clear that it's really changing a lot of minds right now.

GREENE: And given that, given that Republicans know that the country is split, what sort of argument are we going to be hearing from the Republicans as this goes on this week?

RASCOE: Well, it seems like a lot of what you're going to be hearing is this idea that what was in the president's mind when he was saying these things and do - were these people directly talking to the president? Now, Gordon Sondland was directly talking to the president, so it will be interesting - who was the - who is the ambassador to the European Union. But they will be trying to make the argument that the president wasn't directly linking aid to these investigations and that he was just concerned about corruption.

GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe. Thanks, Ayesha.

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

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