Politico

4 reporters break down the DOJ criminal probe and more impeachment bombshells

It was the week when a top U.S. envoy tied President Donald Trump directly to a Ukraine quid pro quo in explosive congressional testimony. When the president called the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry a “lynching.” When dozens of House Republicans stormed a secure SCIF inside the Capitol. And the possibility arose that John Bolton could join the “Resistance.”

Come again?

It was also a week that might be seen as a turning point in Trump’s presidency and ongoing fight against impeachment.

We asked four reporters who are covering the Trump presidency and the investigations for their insider insights into what happened and what’s ahead.

What a week. What will you remember five years from now?

Nahal Toosi, foreign affairs correspondent: With the amount of news falling on us, I can barely remember what I did this morning. But five years from now, what will probably stick with me from this week is William Taylor’s astonishing, detailed testimony in the impeachment inquiry. He did more than any other witness so far to piece together the puzzle of what happened. Taylor, the top diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, has 50 years of government service under his belt, working for presidents of both parties. The Trump White House cast him and others testifying as “radical unelected bureaucrats.”

Natasha Bertrand, national security correspondent: Definitely Taylor’s testimony. He provided the most detailed timeline to date about the shadow foreign policy campaign Rudy Giuliani, Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker were running, giving impeachment investigators a mountain of new evidence to work with. He also provided a vivid description of the Ukrainian lives that were potentially put on the line by Trump’s decision to withhold military assistance aid. But the Republicans’ crashing a SCIF earlier this week is pretty memorable, too.

Melanie Zanona, congressional reporter: The GOP raid on the secure facility where interviews with impeachment witnesses have been taking place. It was quite the scene — I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years covering Congress. The sergeant at arms even had to be called in at one point to defuse the situation and perform a security sweep because Republicans were violating the strict no cell phone use rules.

Josh Gerstein, legal affairs contributor: Probably what I got to witness first-hand, which was a defense lawyer for one of Rudy Giuliani’s associates, Lev Parnas, tell a federal judge that some of the evidence the government has collected in the straw-donor and foreign-donations case may not be usable because Parnas and Giuliani were working for the president of the United States. Giuliani hasn’t been charged, of course, but when he was the swashbuckling top federal prosecutor in New York in the 1980s could anyone have predicted that his activities would be intimately connected to a case being prosecuted by that same office?

Which criminal probe are you watching closest?

Nahal : I’ve been fascinated by Rudy Giuliani for many years, so I’m eyeing with interest the various criminal probes into his actions. I’m not an expert on the Bard, but there has to be a Shakespeare play that captures the arc of Giuliani’s life and career. He will probably say it’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Natasha: The Giuliani investigation just got a lot more interesting, in light of new reporting from our colleague Darren Samuelsohn about the Justice Department’s Criminal Division jumping into the fray. The other one to watch, of course, is the continuing probe out of the Southern District of New York into Giuliani’s two associates, Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were indicted on campaign finance charges earlier this month. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

Melanie: We now know the Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation — into itself. DOJ has transitioned from an administrative review into the origins of its Russia probe — which Trump has repeatedly decried as a “hoax” despite mounds of evidence to the contrary — to a criminal inquiry with subpoena and grand jury power. The news raised eyebrows in D.C., with some Democrats worried that the the department is acting like Trump’s political attack dog instead of an independent law enforcement agency.

Josh: Like other Justice Department reporters, I’m fascinated by this new criminal investigation and what the grounds — or the predicate as they call it here — for launching it. No one seems to have nailed that down yet. Some possibilities: the inspector general investigation stumbled across evidence that someone was illegally leaking to the press about the Trump-Russia probe; the IG thinks someone lied to them, to Congress or to the courts; or someone may have been conducting some surveillance or other investigate tactic that may have been illegal. I guess it’s remotely possible that the alleged crime has to do with the decision to launch the Trump-Russia inquiry in the first place or anti-Trump bias on the part of officials involved, but it’s hard to see how that itself can be torqued into a criminal case.

How do you think the 2nd Circuit will respond to Trump’s argument that he could shoot someone on 5th Ave?

Nahal: I believe it will say that at the very least such an action would open the president to being investigated. I’m not sure about prosecuted, at least not while he’s in office.

Melanie: That was a shocking argument to many observers — and likely to the judges as well. Essentially, Trump’s lawyers are saying the president is above the law (although they did acknowledge that Trump could be criminally prosecuted once he leaves office).

Josh: It’s a headline-grabber to be sure, but I’m not sure it’s a question that the court has to answer directly in order to address the issue before them about turning over Trump’s tax returns to the Manhattan D.A. A real weak point in the Trump legal team’s argument is that they seem to be contending Trump has the right to keep any evidence about him away from investigators even if they want to use it to charge others. Even if a president does have some immunity, does that extend to all of his family members and business associates? I can’t see any court adopting that stance.

What do you think of the Republican hearing crashing strategy we saw this week?

Nahal: As a strategy it actually seemed pretty smart to me. At this stage, they have very little they can say on the substance of the impeachment inquiry’s findings. So they want to muddy the picture the public has of the process but claiming, often misleadingly, that it is unfair. They managed to do that, as well as changing the headlines for a few hours. They also showed the GOP base that they remain loyal to Trump.

Natasha: A stunt more than a strategy, and transparently so given how many Republicans currently have access to the closed-door depositions by virtue of their membership on the relevant committees — including ones who participated in the crash of the SCIF on Wednesday.

Melanie: Desperate. Republicans are running out of ways to defend the president, as their talking points keep getting blown up one by one. So the GOP had to resort to this stunt — they even wheeled in pizzas at one point! Republicans knew they would be turned away, but were itching for a big public showdown with Democrats and eager to show Trump they are fighting for him. That being said… attacking Democrats over process is the one thing that the GOP agrees on right now, so it did provide a unifying moment for the conference.

Josh: It certainly generated some coverage and predictably led to warnings that D.C. is devolving into lawless chaos. Those takes are a bit overdone. Democrats pulled a similar stunt in 2016, sitting-in on the House floor to protest inaction by the GOP on legislation to stem gun violence. This had a national security element to it, given that you’re not supposed to bring phones into a secure area like that. I’m sitting at DOJ right now and there are a bunch of rooms with phone lockers outside. I agree with Natasha, though, that it’s more a tactic than a strategy. I also wonder if this may be like the dog who chases and finally catches the car: when the GOP gets public hearings with some of these witnesses, is that going to be a huge boon for Trump or Republicans? Color me doubtful.

Now take a breath. Watch the World Series in DC. What you are watching for to happen next week?

Nahal: I’m keeping an eye out for the results of an investigation into whether career employees faced political retaliation from Trump appointees at the State Department. The probe, carried out by the department’s inspector general, largely revolves around events during the first year of Trump’s administration. But it is even more relevant now because of the Ukraine-related impeachment drama. The Ukraine issue also involves allegations that career diplomats were railroaded for political reasons. The inspector general report could show that this type of targeting began early on under Trump.

Natasha: Depositions are scheduled for every day but Friday next week, so that will likely take up a lot of oxygen in the news—particularly anything that comes out of Tim Morrison’s testimony, given his status as one of the only current officials who actually listened in on Trump’s July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president. Morrison, a National Security Council official, also witnessed meetings between the former US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland and Ukrainian officials in which it was made explicit that a White House summit and aid were dependent upon Ukraine opening the investigations Trump demanded, according to Taylor’s testimony.

Melanie: Democratic investigators just scored one of their biggest victories to date: a federal judge granted them access to the secret grand jury information from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. The DOJ must turn over the material by Oct. 30. (Importantly, the judge also determined that the House does not need to formally vote to open an impeachment inquiry.) But once Democrats get their hands on Mueller’s secrets, what will they find? And will they be tempted to expand their narrowly focused impeachment probe?

Josh: I’m looking to see whether the two current National Security Council officials on the schedule for House interviews next week, Tim Morrison and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, actually show up. State Department and Defense Department officials have defied the White House by testifying, but the NSC is part of the White House, so by turning up to testify they’ll be snubbing Trump and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. Cipollone heads up the office Morrison and Vindman would ordinarily turn to for legal advice. This is a far more direct affront to Trump’s no-cooperation edict: if this testimony goes forward, we’ll have crossed another Rubicon: current White House officials testifying as part of the impeachment process for a sitting president who has told them in no uncertain terms to keep their mouths shut.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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