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What happened in the impeachment inquiry this week?

This week's impeachment highlights

This week, Democrats had what they felt was a galvanizing moment in the impeachment inquiry when the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine told lawmakers that U.S. aid to Ukraine was explicitly tied to its willingness to probe President Trump's political rivals. For their part, urged by the president to "get tougher," House Republicans stormed a secure room in the Capitol, delaying the deposition of a witness, and they also called on Democrats to bring in the anonymous whistleblower at the heart of the impeachment inquiry to testify.

Read on for the highlights in the impeachment inquiry this week — and for chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett's and chief congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes' views on what it all means.

  • "Damning" testimony: William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, appeared for 9 1/2 hours in a closed-door deposition that Democrats said "was very devastating to Donald Trump." His 15-page opening statement elicited gasps and has now been published. It corroborated the timeline established by other witnesses and offered new details that filled in some gaps. Taylor said that U.S. aid to Ukraine was explicitly tied to the foreign country's willingness to investigate Mr. Trump's political rivals, which would amount to a quid pro quo, an allegation the president regularly denies.  
  • Republican protest: The president urged Republicans on Monday "to get tougher and fight" the impeachment inquiry against him. They listened. On Wednesday, two dozen Republicans violated House rules by staging a "sit-in" in the closed-door hearing room where Laura Cooper, a Defense Department official who deals with Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, was scheduled to testify. Their protest delayed her testimony for more than five hours.

  • Witness refusals: Russ Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which was involved in delaying military aid to Ukraine, said that he and Mike Duffey, another top OMB official, won't comply with congressional requests for depositions. In his Twitter announcement, he called the inquiry a "#shamprocess."

  • New legislation: Republicans also took several actions to fight the impeachment inquiry. On Monday, House Republicans tried to censure Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff over his handling of the impeachment inquiry. The Democratic-controlled House, however, voted to kill the censure resolution. On Thursday, Senator Lindsey Graham introduced a resolution to condemn the House for the impeachment inquiry's lack of transparency, to allow Mr. Trump to call witnesses in his defense and to give Republicans in the House the ability to issue subpoenas. Schiff says the hearings must be closed-door for now to keep witnesses from influencing one another and that the transcripts will eventually be released. 

  • McConnell contradicts Trump: Earlier this month, Mr. Trump claimed that McConnell had told him his call with the Ukrainian president was "innocent." This week, asked by Cordes about the conversation, McConnell denied that he had had a conversation with the president on the call.

  • What about the whistleblower?: Top House Republicans on the committees conducting the inquiry filed a formal request for the whistleblower to provide public testimony. It will almost certainly be denied. Democrats point out that they have now heard from sources who have more information than the whistleblower had. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has asked intelligence leaders how they plan to protect the whistleblower if his or her identity is exposed.

  • "Lynching" controversy: Throughout the week, Mr. Trump and his team continued to attack the inquiry, calling it "a coordinated smear campaign" and "a witch hunt." He came under fire from Democrats -- and struggled to get support from some Republicans -- for comparing the inquiry to a "lynching."

  • Back in court: As the impeachment inquiry played out on Capitol Hill, two business associates of Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump's personal lawyer pleaded not guilty to federal charges that they illegally funneled foreign donations to political committees supporting Mr. Trump and other Republicans.

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

Perspective

It was a week where noise competed with assertions. The noise was distracting, and the assertions were damaging.

First, the noise. It started Monday, when President Trump called the House impeachment inquiry a "lynching." That racially charged term prompted a predictable backlash and momentary distraction from the steady march of the inquiry. 

Ironically, House Republicans later in the week tried to evoke memories of the civil rights era by staging what the White House called a "sit-in" at the secured facility where impeachment depositions are being taken. But the Republicans actually stormed the SCIF to protest what they called "Soviet Union" style interrogation tactics.

Storming secured government facilities hardened against electronic eavesdropping is rare inside the Capitol. It is particularly unusual for Republicans, who frequently describe themselves as defenders of "law and order." 

The maneuver protested "closed door" interviews conducted in "secrecy" and riddled with damaging "leaks" of witness testimony. Several pillars of that argument were damaged when legal analyst Andrew Napolitano said on Fox News the impeachment inquiry process was following rules drafted by House Republicans in 2015.

Amid arguments over process, supporters of the president made conflicting arguments in his defense. The former acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, asserted "abuse of power" is not a crime and therefore not an impeachable offense. But impeachment actions against Presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon both included specific articles alleging abuse of power. 

In federal court, on a different matter, the president's attorney asserted that no investigation or prosecution of a sitting president could occur – even if the president were witnessed committing a felony. This revived memories of Trump's campaign boast: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any votes." 

And efforts to rally around Trump encountered some difficulty. A Senate GOP attempt to preemptively declare Trump's innocence foundered, replaced instead by a watered-down resolution complaining about House impeachment methods. As the week wore on, it became clearer Senate Republicans found it necessary to strike a neutral pose.

And now, to the assertions. This week, a witness accused Mr. Trump of a direct link between the withholding of military aid to Ukraine and the president's desire for the new Ukrainian government to investigate political opponents. The witness was William Taylor, the ambassador to Ukraine. Democrats described the Taylor's testimony as dense, detailed and damning. Many Republicans said they had not read Taylor's opening statement, which laid out the key accusations. Those GOP lawmakers who listened to Taylor testify said it wasn't as bad as Democrats asserted.

Even so, the effort to "storm" the SCIF occurred the next day as another key witness from the Defense Department, Laura Cooper, tried to answer questions.  

By mid-week, national support for the impeachment inquiry itself reached a new high of 55 percent.

—Major Garrett


What to keep in mind

This week, we saw that Democrats are working to obtain as much evidence as quickly as they can, while weathering the risk that the GOP accusations that their process is too secretive will stick. They want to wrap this phase of closed-door depositions and talk to as many witnesses as they can fit into the time they have before they move onto their next phase, the open hearings. 

Then, they'll have to decide who should testify, and whether they bring in people who have already had a big impact on what they know, like former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch or Taylor. Or do they try to bring in bigger names, like former national security adviser John Bolton, who was reportedly troubled by the apparent shadow diplomacy being carried out by White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer. 

Evidence is mounting that the president intended to withhold both military aid from Ukraine and a White House meeting, unless Ukraine promised to investigate the Bidens and the 2016 campaign. And this was understood to be the case by both the diplomats and the Ukrainians.

Republicans who will go to the mat for this president learn things every day that surprise them, which makes it more risky for them to promise their unconditional support for him. After Taylor's testimony, Senator John Thune told reporters that the picture emerging "is not a good one." And I also asked McConnell this week about the president's claim early this month that McConnell had told him that his call with Zelensky had been "perfect." McConnell, it turns out, has no recollection of this conversation.  

—Nancy Cordes

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