The White House served notice this week that it would not cooperate with House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry in any way. And we’re starting to learn perhaps why.
Disclosures on Thursday suggest a White House that took very little care to separate official business from political and personal advantage and often circumvented established channels to benefit President Trump.
This isn’t exactly a revelation, but the speed of the new disclosures and the brazenness of the actions suggest there are plenty of people who bore witness to this and who could speak to it, if willing and/or allowed.
First, there was the news that political appointees overrode the career officials in the White House budget office to put a freeze on military aid to Ukraine. The career officials were reportedly concerned, and the political appointees didn’t provide a reason for the hold, which evidence suggests might have been withheld for political leverage on Ukraine to pursue Trump’s favored investigations.
Second, the House is set to depose former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch behind closed doors Friday, and reports indicate she will say she was removed by Trump after insisting that Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, relay his requests for investigations through official channels.
Former White House official Fiona Hill will also reportedly testify to similar effect. NBC News’s Josh Lederman reported that next week Hill will say that Giuliani and European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland, a former Trump donor, conducted a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine that circumvented the White House’s National Security Council.
And third — and perhaps most remarkable — there is the matter of Trump’s request of then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The Washington Post reported Thursday that Trump asked Tillerson to work with Giuliani to help end the U.S. prosecution of a Turkish Iranian gold trader whom Giuliani had been representing.
It appears Trump was trying to meddle in a U.S. judicial proceeding to help his personal lawyer’s client and secure a deal with Turkey — in a kind of inverse of the Ukraine situation.
Here’s more from Josh Dawsey, Carol D. Leonnig and Matt Zapotosky, who built on the original scoop from Bloomberg News:
Trump urged Tillerson in an Oval Office meeting to try to craft a diplomatic “deal” to stop the U.S. case against Reza Zarrab on corruption charges in exchange for concessions from Turkey. The request shocked the then-secretary of state, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations involving the president.
At the time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was personally lobbying Trump to get the charges dropped.
Trump, in turn, repeatedly raised the topic with Tillerson — including directly in the Oval Office meeting, according to people with knowledge of the episode.
The president was joined in the Oval Office by two of Zarrab’s attorneys, Giuliani and Michael Mukasey, a former attorney general under President George W. Bush who proposed swapping the trader for an American pastor in Turkish custody, according to two people familiar with the meeting.
“The president says, ‘Guys, give Rex your pitch,’ ” according to one of the people.
Tillerson was so unsettled by the extraordinary request to intervene in an ongoing criminal investigation that he complained to then-Chief of Staff John F. Kelly that he believed it was inappropriate, according to a former administration official. Kelly told him to disregard it, the official said.
The idea that Trump lets his personal and political business seep into official policymaking and meddles in law enforcement’s business isn’t exactly news. His request that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky pursue two investigations that are clearly aimed at political gain for Trump is merely the latest high-profile example. This is also a guy who repeatedly decried his first attorney general for not being more loyal, not protecting him and for not pursuing his preferred investigations — and also requested loyalty from then-FBI Director James B. Comey, who said Trump hinted at Comey taking it easy on Michael Flynn.
But there seems to be a quickly gathering critical mass here, and there figure to be many people who saw or heard about things being handled in a suspicious manner. The growing leaks about these things — including another Post report Thursday that at least four national security officials raised concerns about the Ukraine situation before and immediately after Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky — indicate there’s plenty to be uncovered.
The Kurt Volker situation and the text messages he shared show how officials can get wrapped up in these politicized and problematic matters and arguably participate in them, even if not proactively. Volker, former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, seemed to want to get out in front of that story, resigning and quickly disclosing what he knew to House Democrats. Hill may be doing something similar.
And many others could perhaps shed plenty of light on these matters if they ever speak with House investigators.