Trump prioritized Biden investigation over Ukraine aid, witness tells impeachment probe

Trump prioritized Biden investigation over Ukraine aid, witness tells impeachment probe
By Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers presented dueling narratives on Wednesday as a U.S. congressional impeachment inquiry that threatens Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency entered a crucial new phase with the first televised public hearing.

The drama unfolded in a hearing of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee in which two career U.S. diplomats – William Taylor and George Kent – voiced alarm over the Republican president and those around him pressuring Ukraine to conduct investigations that would benefit Trump politically.

One revelation in particular drew attention, showing Trump’s keen interest in Ukraine investigating political rival Joe Biden. Taylor said a member of his staff overheard a July 26 phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, a former political donor appointed as a senior diplomat, in which the Republican president asked about those investigations and Sondland told him that the Ukrainians were ready to proceed.

Following the call – which occurred a day after Trump had asked Ukraine’s president during a phone call to conduct these investigations – the staff member asked Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, what Trump thought about Ukraine, said Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.

“Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor testified, referring to Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Asked by Adam Schiff, the committee’s Democratic chairman, if that meant Trump cared more about the investigations than about Ukraine, Taylor said, “Yes, sir.”

The public hearings are scheduled for Wednesday and Friday.

With a potential television audience of tens of millions looking on, Schiff opened the historic session – the first impeachment drama in two decades – in an ornate hearing room packed with journalists, lawmakers and members of the public.

Schiff’s accusations that Trump abused his power was met by a staunch denial by the panel’s senior Republican, Devin Nunes, of the Republican president’s complicity in a saga that revolves around whether Trump and his aides improperly pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political rival for his political benefit.

Biden is a former U.S. vice president and a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 election. Taylor and Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, expressed concern that U.S. security aid was withheld from Ukraine as leverage to get Kiev to carry out the investigations.

“The questions presented by this impeachment inquiry are whether President Trump sought to exploit that ally’s vulnerability and invite Ukraine’s interference in our elections,” Schiff said in his opening statement.

“Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander-in-chief,” Schiff said.

Schiff added, “If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?”

This week’s hearings, where Americans are hearing directly for the first time from people involved in events that sparked the congressional inquiry, may pave the way for the Democratic-led House to approve articles of impeachment – formal charges – against Trump.

That would lead to a trial in the Senate on whether to convict Trump of those charges and remove him from office. Republicans control the Senate and have shown little support for Trump’s removal.

Asked about the impeachment proceedings, Trump, at a Oval Office meeting with visiting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters he was “too busy to watch” and again called it a “a witch hunt, a hoax.”

Nunes accused the Democrats of conducting a “carefully orchestrated smear campaign” using “a horrifically one-sided process” and accused “Democrats, the corrupt media and partisan bureaucrats” of trying to overturn the results of the 2016 election won by Trump.

He hewed to the Republican strategy of arguing that Trump did nothing wrong or impeachable when he asked Ukraine’s new president to investigate Biden.

“It’s nothing more than an impeachment process in search of a crime,” Nunes said.

Schiff said the inquiry looks at whether Trump sought to condition official acts such as a White House meeting or U.S. military assistance on Ukraine’s willingness to carry out two political investigations that would help his re-election campaign.

“And if President Trump did either, whether such an abuse of his power is compatible with the office of the presidency?” Schiff asked.

The focus of the inquiry is on the July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open a corruption investigation into Biden and his son Hunter Biden and into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. election. Hunter Biden had been a board member for a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.

Democrats are looking into whether Trump abused his power by withholding $391 million in security aid to Ukraine – a vulnerable U.S. ally facing Russian aggression – as leverage to pressure Kiev into conducting investigations politically beneficial to Trump. The money – approved by the U.S. Congress to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country – was later provided to Ukraine.

‘RULE OF LAW’

The witnesses were up next. Taylor, a career diplomat and former U.S. Army officer, previously served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and is now the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. embassy in Kiev. Kent oversees Ukraine policy at the State Department.

“I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law regardless of the country,” Kent said.

Taylor said he found two channels of U.S. policy toward Ukraine – one regular and one “highly irregular” – and recounted how a Trump meeting with the Ukrainian president was improperly conditioned on Kiev agreeing to investigate Burisma and the debunked notion of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.

Taylor said he became aware that a hold on the security aid was contingent Ukraine opening the investigations and that was most alarming to him because it entailed “security assistance to a country at war.”

In the last U.S. impeachment drama, Republicans, who then controlled the House, brought impeachment charges against Democratic President Bill Clinton in a scandal involving his sexual relationship with a White House intern. The Senate ultimately voted to keep Clinton in office.

Only two U.S. presidents ever have been impeached. No president has been removed through the impeachment process.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing and has derided some of the current and former U.S. officials who have appeared before committees as “Never Trumpers” – a term referring to Republican opponents of the president who he has called “human scum.”

Kent said he had been alarmed by efforts by Giuliani and others to pressure Ukraine. Kent said Giuliani – who Democrats have accused of conducting a shadow foreign policy effort in Ukraine to benefit the president – had conducted a “campaign full of lies” against Marie Yovanovitch, who was abruptly pulled from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in May. She will give public testimony on Friday.

Democrats are hoping to convince independent voters and other doubters that Trump was wrong not only in asking Ukraine to dig up dirt on his rival but in making it a “quid pro quo” – a Latin meaning a favor in exchange for a favor.

Nunes accused the Democrats of pursuing impeachment after failing to gain more politically from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that detailed Russian interference in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s candidacy. Mueller documented extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia but found insufficient evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Karen Freifeld; Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, Lisa Lambert, Jonathan Landay, Susan Cornwell, Jan Wolfe and David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)

Trump impeachment effort passes first test in split U.S. Congress

Trump impeachment effort passes first test in split U.S. Congress
By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A deeply divided U.S. House of Representatives took a major step in the effort to impeach President Donald Trump on Thursday when lawmakers approved rules for the next stage, including public hearings, in the Democratic-led inquiry into Trump’s attempt to have Ukraine investigate a domestic political rival.

In the first formal test of support for the impeachment investigation, the Democratic-controlled House voted almost entirely along party lines – 232 to 196 – to move the probe forward in Congress.

The vote demonstrated unity among Democrats who accuse Trump of abusing his office and jeopardizing national security for personal political gain. But they did not pick up a single Republican vote.

“It’s a sad day. No one comes to Congress to impeach a president,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said before the vote.

Televised public hearings featuring U.S. officials testifying in Congress about alleged wrongdoing by Trump could crowd out other issues like the economy and immigration as voters turn their minds to the November 2020 presidential election.

That might damage Trump but some of his supporters say the impeachment drive could actually boost his re-election chances by showing him at loggerheads with Washington-based political foes.

Republicans accused Democrats of using impeachment to overturn the results of his 2016 victory.

“The Greatest Witch Hunt In American History!” Trump wrote on Twitter after the vote.

The probe focuses on a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymr Zelenskiy, to investigate Trump’s Democratic political rival Joe Biden, a former U.S. vice president, and his son Hunter, who had served as a director for Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

Biden is a leading candidate in the Democratic presidential nomination race to face Trump in the November 2020 election. He and his son have denied any wrongdoing.

Trump has also denied wrongdoing. Republicans have largely stuck by him, blasting the effort as a partisan exercise that has given them little input.

REPUBLICAN PUSHBACK

“The country next year will be deciding who our president is going to be. It should not be Nancy Pelosi and a small group of people that she selects that get to determine who is going to be our president,” said Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican.

Just two Democrats – Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey – voted against the measure. Both represent districts where Trump won in the 2016 election. Other Democrats from Trump-leaning districts, such as Jared Golden of Maine, voted yes.

If the House eventually votes to impeach Trump, that would set up a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate. Trump would not be removed from office unless votes to convict him by a two-thirds margin, something that looks unlikely as congressional Republicans have been reluctant to move against the president.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler declined say when public hearings would start but they are expected to begin in the next few weeks.

The U.S. Constitution gives the House broad authority to set ground rules for an impeachment inquiry and Democrats say they are following House rules on investigations. They have promised to hold public hearings on the case against Trump.

Lawmakers leading the inquiry heard closed-door testimony from Tim Morrison, the top Russia specialist on Trump’s National Security Council. Morrison resigned from his position on Wednesday, a senior administration official said.

Members of the three committees conducting the investigation expect Morrison to fill in more of the details about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. Morrison listened in on the July 25 phone call and said the call “could have been better,” according to acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor.

Committee members have asked a far more prominent player, former national security adviser John Bolton, to appear next week. Others have testified that Bolton was alarmed by a White House effort to pressure Zelenskiy. Bolton’s lawyer has said he was not willing to testify unless a subpoena is issued.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Alistair Bell)

Republicans see impeachment backfiring. Democrats fear they may be right

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives aboard Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Gabriella Borter, Brendan O’Brien, Andrew Hay and Zachary Fagenson

(Reuters) – Having his morning coffee and cigarette outside a Starbucks in one of the most politically contested counties in the United States, Richard Sibilla recoils at the memory of President Donald Trump’s election.

But impeach him now? Sibilla can see little upside.

“After this he has a much better chance of winning another election, as scary as that sounds,” said Sibilla, 39, a resident of Pinellas County, Florida, who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. “It’s not even worth following because it’s all going to help him.”

Alarmed by a whistleblower’s revelations that Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the 2020 Democratic presidential front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives this week launched a formal impeachment inquiry into the Republican president.

Among the public, interviews with more than 60 voters across four of the most important counties in the 2020 election showed Republicans largely confident the impeachment process will backfire and Trump will win re-election. Democrats, on the other hand, are worried they may be right.

Marc Devlin, a 48-year-old consultant from Northampton County, Pennsylvania, said he expects the inquiry to “incense” supporters of the president. “This is my fear, that it will actually add some flame to his fire with his base,” he said. “I just fear ‘party over country.'”

Throughout the 2020 election cycle, Reuters is monitoring voters in four areas that could determine the outcome of the Nov. 3 presidential contest: Pinellas County, Florida; Maricopa County, Arizona; Northampton County, Pennsylvania; and Racine County, Wisconsin.

Given the sharply divided electorate and the rules in America’s state-by-state races that determine the winner in the Electoral College, those four states will be among the most targeted by presidential candidates next year.

Public opinion has time to shift before voters cast their ballots next November. But for now, the prospect of impeachment has done little to sway opinions, largely formed along party lines, according to the interviews and polling.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken on Monday and Tuesday showed 37% of respondents favored impeaching the president versus 45% who were opposed. That 37% figure was down from 41% three weeks earlier and down from 44% in May, after the release of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

“I don’t think he did anything wrong,” said Joe D’Ambrosio, 78, who runs a barbershop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and cheers Trump’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.

Lee Snover, chair of the Northampton County Republican Committee, said she felt the impeachment inquiry was the latest instance of the Democrats using unfair tactics to try to take Trump down. It showed she said, how disconnected Washington’s politicians are from the country.

“I have not had one Republican crack or say they’re turning or going the other way. They’re laughing it off. I think it’s going to help him,” said Snover, 50.

That sentiment was shared at a meeting of College Republicans United at Arizona State University on Wednesday.

“They have this idea that everyone is siding with them, that Trump is an impeachable president, when really it’s only a minority,” Rose Mulet, 19, said of the Democratic leadership in Congress. “It’s not a reflection of the general public.”

Moreover, odds of impeachment succeeding are long. None of America’s 45 presidents have even been removed that way. Though the Democrats control the House of Representatives, where they need a simple majority of votes, the Senate, controlled by Republicans, would have to vote with a two-thirds majority to remove the president from office.

That reality has only frustrated Democrats angered by what they see as a string of offenses by Trump, from bragging about grabbing women by the genitals to Mueller’s conclusion that Trump interfered with his probe.

“I am enraged,” said Barbara Lebak, a 66-year-old librarian who was working her way through a crossword puzzle from a bench in Racine County, Wisconsin.

Like Lebak, fellow Racine County resident David Ferrell, 56, said he saw multiple reasons to impeach Trump, including what he called the president’s hardline policies on immigration and inflammation of race relations.

“What has taken so long? It should have been done long ago,” said Ferrell. “I’m voting for a Democrat, no matter who it is.”

While polls and interviews suggest most voters are solidly entrenched, some, like Chris Harman, have been swayed.

Harman, 52, who works in sales and marketing in Maricopa County, said he voted for Trump in 2016 but will not in 2020. He said the president had already committed impeachable offenses even before the Ukraine scandal erupted.

“It should have been done a long time ago,” Harman said as he left a baseball game in Phoenix. “I’m not voting for Trump. I tried it, it was a grand experiment, but I’m not going to try it again.”

(Reporting by Zachary Fagensen in Florida, Gabriella Borter in Pennsylvania, Andrew Hay in Arizona, and Brendan O’Brien in Wisconin; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)

Zimbabwe’s parliament starts impeachment process against Mugabe

Zimbabwe's parliament starts impeachment process against Mugabe

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe’s parliament began an impeachment process against President Robert Mugabe on Tuesday that looks set to bring his domination of a country he has ruled since independence nearly four decades ago to an ignominious end.

In the last week, Mugabe has clung on in the face of a collapse of his authority and a Monday deadline to quit. (Graphic on players http://tmsnrt.rs/2A87YBx)

The army seized power a week ago and there have been mass protests against him and calls to resign from many sides including on Tuesday from the ruling party’s favorite to succeed him Emmerson Mnangagwa. (Graphic on economy http://tmsnrt.rs/2zFGGlq)

Parliament Speaker Jacob Mudenda said he received a motion to impeach and the parliament would adjourn to a hotel to start the proceedings on Tuesday afternoon. Zimbabwean law says a joint sitting can take place anywhere. Thousands or people demonstrated outside parliament urging Mugabe to quit. (Graphic on currency http://tmsnrt.rs/2mwbtLU)

Mugabe led Zimbabwe’s liberation war and is hailed as one of Africa’s founding fathers and a staunch supporter of the drive to free neighbouring South Africa from apartheid in 1994.

But many people in Africa and beyond also say he has damaged Zimbabwe’s economy, democracy and judiciary by staying in power for too long and has used violence to crush perceived political opponents.

(Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)