The remaining transcripts from closed-door interviews in House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump helped shed light on questions about the suspension of security assistance to Ukraine and gave further background on events investigated in the inquiry.
Testimony from the closed-door interview with Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official Mark Sandy laid out a timeline for the withholding of military aid to Ukraine as well as a revelation that an official in the OMB legal office resigned in part because of concerns about the suspension of aid.
The committee’s closed-door interview with Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia provided more background in his closed-door deposition about three areas that became highlights of public hearings the House Intelligence Committee held during the past two weeks dealing with Marie Yovanovitch, Fiona Hill and Rudy Giuliani.
The committee still held meetings for witnesses who failed to appear, and the dialogue in the transcripts of those meetings revealed debates behind the scenes.
Here are key takeaways from the interviews with Reeker, Sandy, and the committee’s other meetings:
Two OMB staffers resigned after raising concerns
According to Sandy, he was aware of an official in the legal office of OMB who resigned in part because of concerns over the hold on security assistance.
“This person expressed to me concerns about actions vis-à-vis the Impoundment Control Act,” Sandy said, noting that he did not want to ascribe the “sole purpose” of the person’s motivations but was “aware of their frustrations in that area.”
Sandy also testified another OMB staffer, who did not work with the legal division, “expressed frustrations about not understanding the reason for the hold” and left the agency.
Sandy says he raised concerns about the legality of aid suspension
Sandy, who testified on Nov. 16, told members of Congress and staff that he raised concerns that the suspension of aid to Ukraine might have violated a law governing the disbursement of congressionally appropriated funds.
When he came back from leave on July 18, he learned of the suspension of aid and “advised that we would want to consult with our office of General Counsel” during a conversation with fellow OMB staffer Mike Duffey because the end date for the suspension was not defined.
“My concern was that there was – I asked about the duration of the hold and was told that there was not clear guidance on that. So that’s what prompted my concern,” he said.
“Consistent with a layman’s understanding of the Impoundment Control Act, we need to ensure that agencies are able to obligate funds before they expire,” Sandy explained.
Process for implementing aid suspension began the day of Trump-Zelensky call
According to Sandy, the Office of Management and Budget started the process of withholding security assistance to Ukraine on July 25, the day of Trump’s infamous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The first written letter resulting in an aid suspension was issued on July 25, Sandy explained.
“So the first written apportionment with the footnote restricting the funds goes out on July 25th,” Sandy is asked.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
According to Sandy’s testimony, he inquired about the hold on aid in July and August, but didn’t get a response from the White House about it until early September, when an email attributed the hold to Trump’s “concern about other countries not contributing more to Ukraine.”
Debates over the legality of ignoring subpoenas
After Charles Kupperman, who served as deputy to former National Security Adviser John Bolton, failed to show up for his appearance before lawmakers, the panels got into a heated debate about the constitutionality of witnesses not appearing under subpoena and the potential damage it could cause to Congress.
Chairman Schiff questioned how Republicans could support the president and his administration blocking witnesses while Republicans on the panels attacked the impeachment process and called it unfair. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Schiff got into a heated back-and-forth after Jordan claimed that Schiff knew the identity of the whistleblower, which Schiff denied repeatedly.
“I think that you do great damage to this institution, I think you do great damage to your credibility, to take the position that a President can withhold from Congress documents and key witnesses in an impeachment inquiry when you have already heard substantial evidence of Presidential misconduct,” Schiff said. “You will weaken this institution indefinitely by taking that position.”
Jordan tried to cut off Schiff and repeatedly said pointed to the whistleblower and alleging Schiff knew the identity of the anonymous official who lodged the complaint that led to the launched the impeachment inquiry. Schiff called it a “false statement.”
“Mr. Jordan, you repeating the same false statement doesn’t make it any truer than the first time you made it,” Schiff told Jordan.
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, pointed to Eric Holder, the former attorney general under President Obama who did not comply with Congress. He asked whether it was the Democrats’ position that Holder should defy Congress then? Schiff pointed out that the Obama administration provided thousands of documents to Congress, something Trump has not.
Reeker praises ousted ambassador Yovanovitch
Reeker praised Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, as an “outstanding” and “very professional” diplomat who was the victim of “outrageous smears” before Trump removed her in April.
Yovanovitch and others who supported her testified publicly that Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was sharply critical of her. Her removal as a career Foreign Service Officer cleared the way for political appointee Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, to oversee Ukraine policy.
“I’ve seen the outrageous smears and attacks against Ambassador Yovanovitch, in particular, George (Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia), our embassy, the Foreign Service in general,” Reeker said. “We have been called Obama holdovers and Deep State whatever, which, of course, is personally offensive having done this for 27 years through one administration to another, regardless of party, and being nonpolitical, and focused on, you know, the foreign policy of the United States, and trying to engage, and support our interests, regardless of who the president is.”
Reeker recalls Fiona Hill’s concerns about Gordon Sondland
Reeker also recalled the frustration that Hill, a former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia, voiced with Sondland’s “irregular” role.
Hill testified publicly about how she and former National Security Adviser John Bolton questioned Sondland’s authority as he negotiated an exchange of Ukraine investigations of the Bidens for a White House meeting between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. But Sondland insisted he wasn’t irregular because he consulted regularly with Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“She was frustrated by Gordon’s role again, this irregular role,” Reeker said, describing a “real clash” between Hill and Sondland.
Reeker confirms Giuliani’s pressure for investigations
Reeker also confirmed Giuliani’s pressure for Ukraine investigations. Other witnesses at the public hearings described Giuliani urging investigations of the Bidens and Burisma, the energy company where Hunter Biden worked. Even Sondland said he was disappointed that Giuliani guided Ukraine policy as a private lawyer, rather than professional diplomats at the State Department.
“I know there was an understanding, certainly, from Kurt (Volker, the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine) and others that were there that Rudy Giuliani is feeding the president a lot of very negative views about Ukraine,” Reeker said.
Witnesses who defied subpoenas offered a variety of explanations
Along with releasing the final two lengthy deposition transcripts, lawmakers also released the transcripts from 10 hearings where the witnesses refused to appear — even under subpoena.
Those included acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Charles Kupperman, an aide to Bolton who filed a lawsuit after being requested to appear while also being blocked by the administration.
Many of the witnesses offered the three committees investigating Trump’s Ukraine dealings a variety of explanations from being blocked specifically by the White House, the State Department or OMB to a Justice Department opinion that concluded it was “legally invalid” for Democrats to not allow witnesses to bring a government attorney to the hearings. Witnesses who did testify were accompanied by personal counsel instead of attorneys working for the administration.
John Eisenberg, the National Security Council lawyer who received complaints about Gordon Sondland’s dealings with Ukraine, submitted a Justice Department letter informing the panel that he was “absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony in his capacity as a senior advisor to the president.” Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney also claimed absolute immunity from being compelled to testify.
The strategy remains disputed. Don McGahn, a former White House counsel, took a similar position in defying a subpoena from the Judiciary Committee. But a U.S. District Court judge ruled Monday that McGahn had to testify, although he could invoke executive privilege for specific questions. The Justice Department is appealing that ruling.
Another potential witness, Charles Kupperman, a former deputy national security adviser, filed a lawsuit asking a court to decide which carried more weight: a congressional subpoena or a presidential directive against testifying. The committee withdrew his subpoena, but the judge has continued to set deadlines for written arguments.
Kupperman and former National Security Adviser John Bolton have said their questions about being compelled to testify are different from McGahn’s because they discussed national security and foreign affairs with the president.
The chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., called Kupperman’s lawsuit “improper and legally deficient” in discussing Eisenberg’s subpoena.
Another potential witness, Robert Blair, assistant to the president and senior advisor to the chief of staff, told the inquiry he wouldn’t appear voluntarily or comply with a subpoena. The Justice Department told him that committees “may not validly require an executive branch witness to appear at a deposition without the assistance of agency counsel,” Blair’s lawyer told the inquiry.
But Schiff noted that the deposition rules were the same as used when Mulvaney served on the House Oversight Committee and when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo served on the Benghazi Select Committee.
“This new and shifting rationale from the White House, like the others it has used to attempt to block witnesses from appearing to provide testimony about the president’s misconduct, has no basis in law or the Constitution and is a serious affront to decades of precedent in which Republicans and Democrats have used exactly the same procedures to depose executive branch officials without agency counsel present, including some of the most senior aides to multiple previous presidents,” Schiff said.