Article II: Inside Impeachment
The First Transcripts
Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Monday, November 4th, and here's what's happening. (MUSIC)
Andrea Mitchell: There is breaking news this hour from Capitol Hill.
Archival Recording: Explosive new developments in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
Archival Recording: We're getting our very first look at the first batch of transcripts from witnesses in the impeachment investigation into Donald Trump.
Kornacki: House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff made a surprise announcement this morning.
Representative Adam Schiff: This morning released the depositions of Ambassador McKinley and Ambassador Yovanovitch. And I will leave you all to review those transcripts.
Kornacki: For weeks, we've been watching witnesses head to Capitol Hill only to disappear behind closed doors for their testimony, but the House vote last week triggered a new, more public phase in the inquiry, which went into effect pretty quickly.
Geoff Bennett: The House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said that it was his expectation that he was going to make these transcripts public this week.
Kornacki: My colleague NBC News White House Correspondent Geoff Bennett has been covering the inquiry from Capitol Hill since it started.
Bennett: The thing we did not anticipate was that we were gonna get two transcripts today, one from Michael McKinley and the other Marie Yovanovitch, both of whom are key figures in the case that Democrats are building against President Trump in this impeachment inquiry.
Kornacki: So what did we learn from these two transcripts? And what does this new public phase mean for the future of the inquiry? I caught up with Geoff between his back-to-back hits on TV today to get some answers.
Bennett: One way to think about these people who are testifying is that you often hear President Trump and his allies say that the phone call in question on July 25th was perfect. President Trump said that just the other day on the South Lawn. But what House Democrats say is that the call did not exist in isolation.
And so this testimony from Yovanovitch and McKinley gave House investigators a better sense of what was happening in real time leading up to the call. So with McKinley, he was a top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, basically acted as his chief of staff. His testimony by and large focuses on the fact that he didn't understand why Marie Yovanovitch, who he says was excellent, serious, and committed, why she was being targeted by this smear campaign that was being run by Rudy Giuliani and his now two indicted associates.
Schiff: What is so striking about his testimony is the degree to which he sought to get the State Department to issue its support for its own ambassador and how those repeated efforts were rebuffed.
Bennett: But he says in his testimony he resigned for a number of reasons. One, he says, was the failure of the State Department to offer support to Foreign Service employees caught up in the impeachment inquiry.
Schiff: You also see in reading his transcript his growing alarm at the degree to which the apparatus of the State Department itself was being used to seek political information for a political purpose by the President of the United States and others.
Bennett: And, second, he says, what appears to be the utilization of ambassadors overseas to advance domestic political objectives.
Kornacki: And so you mentioned Yovanovitch as well. And, again, Yovanovitch, she was the American ambassador to Ukraine. She was recalled in May. So she was not on the July 25th call, but she was mentioned in the July 25th call. And apparently that came up. The transcript out today has this exchange.
During testimony somebody asked her, "President Trump says, 'Well, she's going to go through some things.' What did you understand that to mean?" And she said, "I didn't know what it meant. I was very concerned. I still am." And then the follow-up question. "Did you feel threatened?" "Yes." So she reads about this comment from Donald Trump in the transcript of the July 25th call. She's no longer the ambassador. There's been this whole campaign to get her out of there. And then she reads this. Fill in some of the context there for us.
Bennett: At the time, before this call happened, Marie Yovanovitch was the ambassador to Ukraine, raised legitimate questions about what Rudy Giuliani was up to because she didn't fully understand it and thought that if anyone is going to be elevating U.S. interests abroad, especially in Ukraine, it should be her given that that was her established job.
Schiff: This is someone who served the country with distinction for decades. It is someone who also is one of the first witnesses to this irregular backchannel that the President established with Rudy Giuliani and the damage that it was doing to America's national security and foreign policy interests.
Bennett: That's the case that Democrats are building. At the time, she was raising red flags, didn't understand what was going on. And at the same time, she was being smeared by this public smear campaign that according to the testimony was being run by Rudy Giuliani.
Schiff: Ambassador Yovanovitch had a well-earned reputation as a fighter of corruption and she was working with Ukraine to get to get Ukraine to fight corruption. And so what does this irregular backchannel sanctioned by the President do? It seeks to remove someone fighting corruption in Ukraine by employing a vicious smear campaign in which the State Department at the highest levels acknowledged had no merit whatsoever.
Bennett: So you have to imagine what she thought when she's reading the summary of this White House call and sees her own name mentioned and the President of the United States saying that she's gonna go through some things for doing nothing other than just doing her job.
And so if you put all this testimony together, what you have is just not Marie Yovanovitch but people who were also, you know, career officials at the State Department, her immediate boss didn't understand why she was being smeared, raised concerns about it, and could not get buy-in, could not get support from the upper echelons of the State Department, to include Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to back her up.
Kornacki: And, again, the reason we're able to talk about this right now, have this conversation is the committee chose to release these two transcripts today, Michael McKinley and Marie Yovanovitch. You said it wasn't known that these two would be released. Do we know why these two were released? Is this Adam Schiff's call? Did he choose these two? Is there a reason he chose these two?
Bennett: Largely because they were among the first to testify. And so there have been situations where some of these witnesses have come back to the Hill to verify the veracity of their transcripts. So, for instance, Fiona Hill, the former top Russia advisor on the National Security Council, she was here today reviewing her transcript.
Beyond that, I think was there a reason why these two were released together? I would have to say yes just based on my own reporting. You have Yovanovitch's testimony, but you also have McKinley's testimony backing her up. And he says, you know, in his testimony that he didn't agree with the way that she was treated. And so, you know, he resigned.
But then you also have Yovanovitch's testimony explaining the ways in which she was treated during her tenure at the State Department and yet could not find support even though her immediate superior said that she did nothing wrong. She had just lost the support of President Trump. And if you put all the testimony together, the reason she lost the support of President Trump is because Rudy Giuliani was in his ear.
Kornacki: And, again, the release today comes just a few days after the House had that vote. I know part of that was to lay out a roadmap that would call for the public release of these transcripts. Was the vote necessary for the release of these transcripts today? Or could Schiff have just done that anyway?
Bennett: Schiff coulda done it anyway. I mean, that's sorta the big question that surrounds the vote that House Democrats took last week. They did not have to do it. They could have formalized the rules to take this, you know, private fact-finding mission of the impeachment inquiry, to make that public. They could have done that in the Intelligence Committee.
But the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, thought it was important to really invalidate what had been that Republican talking point, that, you know, this impeachment inquiry isn't fully legitimate because, you know, House Democrats haven't brought it to a floor vote to formalize it. She knew that that wasn't necessarily necessary. There was no precedent for it, she says. It wasn't spelled out in the Constitution as being necessary. But she brought it to a vote anyway.
Kornacki: And you mention the Republican line of attack on just not having a formal authorizing vote. Another line of attack from Republicans has been the closed door nature of these hearings, the closed door nature of the testimony. So now, two transcripts are out there. First question is: Do you expect all of the transcripts from the closed door testimony to be made available? And if so, when?
Bennett: House Democrats say they are going to release all of the transcripts. So tomorrow, on Tuesday...
Schiff: We are scheduled to release the transcripts of Ambassador Volker and Ambassador Sondland.
Bennett: Obviously two key figures in this impeachment inquiry in the case that Democrats are building.
Schiff: And we will continue to release the transcripts in an orderly way. And we will soon, although I can't give you the timetable, be moving to open hearings as well.
Bennett: I mean, one of the things that we've been hearing from House Democrats since August really, I can remember conversations with top Democrats dating back to the summer where they'd said that they want to wrap up their portion of this impeachment inquiry by the end of the year, if not by Thanksgiving, so that the Senate could then do their work and hold their trial sometime in December.
One of the things that Democrats don't want to do, even if they're not saying this publicly, they don't want this inquiry to move into 2020 in large part because they feel like if it does, then it gives Republicans an opening to make the point that the impeachment inquiry is really just about the election and not about the Constitution, it's all about all politics and not about principle.
The other part of that is that you have so many Senate Democrats who are running for president who would much rather be in Iowa or perhaps in New Hampshire campaigning and not back here in Washington, D.C. for a Senate trial that could run for weeks. So for a number of reasons, House Democrats are hoping to limit their part of the process anyway to November, perhaps early December.
Kornacki: You've just given me a reason to give a shout out to one of our listeners. We're always asking folks to send their questions in, and we had one along the lines of what you just started to address there. Paul from Salt Lake City, Utah was asking about the hypothetical timeline, the possibility of it intruding on the election calendar.
It's interesting to me on that question, using the last impeachment as a model just in terms of the calendar. With Bill Clinton, the impeachment vote in the House took place December 18th, 1998. You know, they had a holiday break, then had a Senate trial which wrapped up second week of February, 1999. And if you followed that same calendar, if it went on the same timeline, you'd be past Iowa and New Hampshire.
Bennett: Yeah. And, you know, when House Democrats say they don't know how long this process is gonna take, they're really not being coy. I mean, part of the issue is you have staffers on these relevant committees, many of whom are former prosecutors. And so to them, it's important to call as many, you know, key witnesses as possible, to get as much evidence, to get as much testimony as they possibly can to build the case.
But then you have the members on the committee, who are really the political minds, who are saying, "Look, we have enough here to move forward. If we don't get John Bolton, if we don't get Rick Perry, that's fine. We can make the public case against President Trump." And so there's this push and pull that's happening behind the scenes.
But, you know, generally speaking, Adam Schiff, who will be in charge of the lion's share of the impeachment inquiry as the Intel chairman, you do get the sense that he's ready to move to the public portion. So that all really speaks to this fact that Democrats realize that time is not on their side and they've gotta keep things moving.
Kornacki: Geoff Bennett, a very busy day, as you said. Unexpectedly, in terms of what we got today for transcripts, a busy day. Thank you for taking a minute out of it to join us though.
Bennett: Yeah, sure thing. Great talking to you.
Kornacki: As Geoff said, Democrats want to keep things moving. We can expect more transcripts to be made public this week. Depositions on Capitol Hill came to a grinding halt today when four witnesses ignored Congressional subpoenas and did not show up for their testimony.
Schiff: As has been the case with other witnesses who have done the same thing, this will be further evidence of an effort by the administration to obstruct the lawful and constitutional duties of Congress.
Kornacki: House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff said the investigation would not be delayed because of their failure to appear. But with four additional depositions on the calendar this week, he encouraged other witnesses to come forward.
Schiff: They should follow the example of the courageous people that have come forward, not follow the corrupt example out of the White House, which is seeking to obstruct this investigation.
Kornacki: Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Clair Tighe, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Wednesday.