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What happened in the impeachment inquiry this week?

This week's impeachment headlines
  • It's official: The House passed a resolution on Thursday to formalize the impeachment inquiry and define the rules for its next phase: the public hearings. The rules not only allow Republicans on the impeachment committees to request witnesses and issue subpoenas, they also allow President Trump and his legal counsel to attend hearings, review evidence, ask witnesses questions and make objections. But much of the Republicans' and president's involvement in the public hearings is conditioned upon two things: the approval of Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff or a full committee vote, and whether the White House starts complying with requests for witnesses and documents. The resolution was approved by a vote of 232-196, with the support of all but two Democrats, zero Republicans and the chamber's only independent. 

  • "Irreversibly illegitimate": The resolution hasn't quieted complaints from the White House or Republicans. Both had claimed the inquiry was "invalid" because of the lack of a formal resolution. When it was introduced, Republicans echoed the White House's response and accused Democrats of trying to "retroactively legitimize their illegitimate impeachment inquiry." They also took issue with the rules. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said "'due process now, maybe some later, but only if we feel like it is not a standard that should ever be applied to any American, and it should not be applied here to the president of the United States."

  •  The first White House witness: The impeachment committees heard from their first witness who was actually on the July 25 call in which Mr. Trump urged the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the director of European affairs at the National Security Council, is also the first current White House official to testify. In his opening statement, he said he "did not think it was proper" and worried it "would all undermine U.S. national security." Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Vindman's testimony "filled in more of the puzzle pieces" but contradicted the testimony of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. On the morning of his testimony, Mr. Trump said he had "never even heard of" Vindman. 

  • Silenced by White House lawyer: CBS News confirmed Friday that Vindman, the president's top Ukraine aide, was told to keep silent by a White House lawyer about the July 25 call between President Trump and the Ukrainian president. Vindman told lawmakers earlier this week that when he went to top White House National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg to share his concerns about the call, he was told not to share the details of the call with anyone outside the White House. The Washington Post first reported this detail about Vindman's deposition before Congress.

  • Connecting the dots: Catherine Croft, a State Department official, testified on Wednesday that she learned about "an informal hold on security assistance to Ukraine" during a meeting prior to Mr. Trump's July 25 call. "The only reason given," she said, "was that the order came at the direction of the president." Croft worked on Ukraine issues at the National Security Council and then for special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. On Thursday, Tim Morrison, who was on the July 25 call, said during his testimony that he had concerns about the call but "was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed."  The senior director of European and Russian affairs also said he was unaware that the military aid for Ukraine may have been tied to the demand for an investigation into Burisma until he spoke with Sondland on September 1.

  • "Lock him up": Fans at Sunday's World Series game flipped the script on the president, who encouraged "lock her up" chants at his rallies to suggest that his 2016 opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should be in jail over her email controversy. When he appeared on the Jumbotron, many fans booed and chanted "lock him up." 

  • Another no-show: Charles Kupperman became the latest Trump official to ignore a subpoena to testify in the impeachment inquiry. Schiff said the absence of Kupperman, Mr. Trump's former deputy assistant of national security affairs who was also on the president's call with Ukraine, amounts to "additional evidence of obstruction." Kupperman has asked the court to clarify whether he has to testify or should abide by the White House's assertion that the president's senior advisers are immune from congressional scrutiny. 

Up next week:

CBS sources say that three more Trump officials are expected to testify on Monday: John Eisenberg, a top White House lawyer; his deputy, Michael Ellis; Robert Blair, assistant to the president and senior adviser to the acting chief of staff; and Brian McCormack, associate director for natural resources, energy and science at the Office of Management and Budget.

— Stefan Becket, Grace Segers, Kathryn Watson, Emily Tillett, Olivia Gazis, Margaret Brennan, Rebecca Kaplan and Arden Farhi contributed


Perspective

In an impeachment process driven by secret depositions, the crucial event of the week was a public vote.

House passage of the impeachment inquiry resolution marks a constitutional and political Rubicon crossed by Democrats. There's no going back — which may have been evident before the vote. It is plainly true now.

The House has spoken and only a tiny fraction of Democrats remain equivocal about what lies ahead — articles of impeachment passed by the House to remove Donald Trump from office under the constitutional provision that alleged "high crimes and misdemeanors" are sufficient grounds to overturn a presidential election. This will occur as never before – on the cusp of Mr. Trump's re-election campaign year. The nation is likely to be observing an impeachment debate sprinkled amid Thanksgiving meals and holiday parties.

This week the House did what was it was not inclined to do three weeks ago.

Democrats weren't prepared to authorize an impeachment then because their ranks were too divided. At the time, freshmen Democrats from Trump districts were too cautious. This week all but two Democrats voted yes, unity propelled by congressional depositions that consistently pointed to the linkage of Ukrainian military aid to investigations into the president's political rivals.

Three weeks ago, a perfectly unified House GOP caucus against the inquiry was not guaranteed. The prospect was even shakier after acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney blundered through a press briefing and conceded at least an implied quid pro quo with Ukraine. Despite repeated testimony that seemed to verify this, Republicans this week locked arms in opposition to the inquiry.

The votes had two practical political consequences. For Democrats, the process and timetable are beginning to come into focus – November and December will be consumed by this task (with a side distraction of trying to avert a government shutdown on Nov. 22).  Previously secret depositions will be released. Public hearings will be held. Witnesses will testify. Reports will be written. Democrats who have set this process in motion will have to prove the evidence gathered rises to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors."

That's the bar now and for posterity. Having covered the Congress for more than 15 years and every aspect of the Clinton impeachment, I can say no act Congress undertakes is more indelible or more scrutinized by the long lens of history. Democrats who voted for the inquiry will be hard-pressed to vote against articles of impeachment.  And the Trump White House is certain the same Republicans who opposed the inquiry will oppose impeachment. The lines are drawn in a more bitterly partisan manner than in any previous impeachment process. 

The impeachment inquiry for Richard Nixon passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support. Thirty-one Democrats voted to open the Bill Clinton impeachment inquiry. As Republicans, gleefully declared Thursday, the only bipartisanship that could be found in this vote (though narrowly) was against the inquiry (two Democrats joined the Republicans).

In addition to the vote, there was also the Morrison Rorschach test and Ivanka Trump's Jeffersonian "spies" tweet.

Tim Morrison, formerly senior director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, testified Thursday and in his opening statement made three important declarations:  he was on the July 25 telephone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky; that he "was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed"; but he did verify a linkage between security assistance to Ukraine and some formal announcement of an investigation into Burisma, the energy company on which former Vice President Joe Biden's son, Hunter, served as a board member.

Mr. Trump declared Morrison's opening statement "fantastic." 

House Republicans said it undercut the Democratic "narrative." Democrats said Morrison's actions spoke louder than his sense no laws had been broken. Morrison told lawmakers that after the supposedly benign Trump-Zelensky call, he "promptly asked the NSC Legal Advisor and his Deputy to review it." Democrats also observed Morrision's account still corroborated previous testimony.

The Rorschach moment was there for all to see. What Trump saw as fantastic vindication Democrats saw as further proof of dirty and quite probably (for them) impeachable deeds. It was the clearest divergence of interpretation and characterization seen in the inquiry so far. Soon, transcripts may free the public from the partisan fog.

Lastly, Ivanka Trump tweeted that "spies" surround her father just as Thomas Jefferson complained that they surrounded him.  Ivanka added sympathetically "some things never change, dad!"

For the record, Jefferson's letter to his daughter Martha was penned on Feb. 5, 1801. Not only was that before Jefferson was inaugurated, it was before it was clear he would be president. Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied with 73 electoral votes each in the 1800 election (John Adams registered 65) and though Burr was always running as Jefferson's vice presidential candidate, he refused to concede. That forced the House of Representatives to decide the outcome. It took 36 ballots between Feb. 11-17 to place Jefferson in the presidency. Jefferson, therefore, was not complaining about spies in his White House (as Ivanka appeared to be implying) or that facts were being invented or perverted to inhibit his presidency.

Jefferson was complaining about ugly politics of the day. And it was. During the campaign it was alleged a Jeffersonian presidency would lead to the teaching and practicing in America of "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest." Also worth noting is that the very next line of Jefferson's letter, the one that caught Ivanka's eye, reads as follows: "I pant for that society where all is peace and harmony, where we love and are beloved by every object we see."

Not then. And certainly not in the impeachment week that was.

— Major Garrett


What's next

As Major points out, we could be seeing some of the deposition transcripts from the lengthy closed-door testimony in the coming weeks, although still more depositions are scheduled for next week. 

There are now, over the course of the inquiry, 13 witnesses who have been deposed by lawmakers, and some basic facts about the inquiry have now been corroborated by some of the witnesses. Here are some examples, and the witnesses who testified about these facts:

—The president withheld military aid and a White House meeting in an attempt to pressure Ukrainians to investigate Joe Biden (William Taylor, Tim Morrison, Gordon Sondland)

—Multiple White House aides were disturbed by both the quid pro quo and the president's call, and informed NSC lawyers (Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill, Morrison)

—A "shadow diplomacy" team that included the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, operated outside the normal policy channels, with the president's blessing, to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into Joe Biden and the 2016 election. (Taylor, Hill, Vindman, Volker)

—The president removed U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch because his allies believed she was standing in the way of Ukrainian investigations, demoralizing State Department staff (John Sullivan, Marie Yovanovitch, Michael McKinley)

—The top NSC lawyer moved the call summary of the July 25 call to a highly classified server because of the problematic content (Vindman)

— Nancy Cordes

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