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Transcript: We've Got Mail

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, We've Got Mail
Image: Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is sworn-in for testimony in an impeachment inquiry hearing on Nov. 20, 2019.
Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is sworn-in for testimony in an impeachment inquiry hearing on Nov. 20, 2019.Doug Mills / Pool via AP file


Article II: Inside Impeachment

We’ve Got Mail

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Wednesday, November 27th. And here's what's happening.


Caller: Hi, my name is Ana in San Diego, California.

Caller: Hey, Steve from Denver, Colorado.

Caller: Pattie from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Caller: Hi Steve.

Caller: G'day, Steve.

Caller: My name is Laura.

Caller: I'm calling you all the way from Australia.

Caller: And I'm calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Caller: We're all panicky over here in Australia.

Caller: I'm calling from Stockholm, Sweden.

Caller: I'm from Springfield, Missouri.

Caller: Yeah, I had a question.

Caller: My question has to do with...

Caller: My question is...

Caller: I'm wondering if I could pose this question.

Kornacki: Today is a special day here at Article II. You have been writing to us. You've been tweeting us. You've been calling us. You've been leaving voicemails. You've been sharing your questions about the impeachment inquiry. And today, we are opening up the mailbag, and we're gonna answer some of your questions. And we've got Julia Ainsley here to help us answer those questions about impeachment. Julia is NBC News correspondent for the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Julia, thank you for taking the time to help us answer some of these.

Julia Ainsley: Thanks for having me.

Kornacki: I've been looking forward to this show, I've gotta say. We've been puttin' this email, this voicemail hotline out there for a long time now, asking for questions. So let's just get to the mailbag here and see what people are asking. And we're gonna put you on the hot seat here a little bit. So I hope you don't mind.

Ainsley: Sounds great. No, I'm looking forward to it.

Kornacki: All right. So the first batter up, this is Elizabeth in Chestertown, Maryland. That's a beautiful town there on the eastern shore of Maryland. Elizabeth in Chestertown, Maryland, she asks this: "What was the impact of the Trump administration withholding aid in Ukraine?" The backstory here, obviously the backdrop of this whole drama, has been this, "Will they or won't they release the aid?" question that was out there behind the scenes apparently all summer into the fall. What was the impact of all of that on the ground in Ukraine?

Ainsley: So, Steve, I'm so glad we're starting with this question 'cause it's so important. I think a lot of people have said, "Why should the American people care about the President's policy toward Ukraine when a lot of Americans couldn't even find Ukraine on a map? Why does Ukraine matter to us? And what was the impact for them of withholding this aid for a short period of time?" And I think for me one of the most illuminating moments came in one of the first hearings where we were able to understand that Ukraine is really strategic for the United States and for our allies post-Cold War.

William Taylor: The largest country in Europe by landmass, Ukraine is a young democracy struggling to join Europe and ally itself with the United States. If we believe in the principle of the sovereignty of nations, on which our security and the security of our friends and allies depends, if we believe that nations get to decide on their own economic, political, and security alliances, we must support Ukraine in its fight against its bullying neighbor. Russian aggression cannot stand.

Ainsley: If you think of any ally that we have that can hold off the influence of Russia and we can supply them aid that would help them defend themselves against Russia, that is key and really builds into the entire U.S. foreign policy philosophy that we have had since the end of the Cold War.

And the reason why Ukraine is so important to that is because in early 2014 Russia began to annex Crimea, a portion of Ukraine that they saw as their territory. And the Ukrainians have had to fight off Russian military in what they consider their own territory.

Taylor: Ambassador Volker and I could see the armed and hostile Russian-led forces on the other side of the damaged bridge across the line of contact. Russian-led forces continue to kill Ukrainians in the war, one or two a week. More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance.

Ainsley: And so this aid is to help them defend themselves from further annexation and to try to fight off this Russian what they would see as, you know, infringement into their territory. Also, just in a symbolic nature. Even if this aid was not withheld for very long (it eventually went through), it is symbolic of our stance in the world and how we support our allies. And so you wouldn't want another ally to question whether or not the United States will come through for them.

Kornacki: All right. Let's get to another question here. This one, I'm very excited. This is the debut, the first-ever voicemail question here on the Article II podcast. Let's take a listen.

Caller: Hi Steve. This is Adrian, and I'm from Ohio. And I have a question about Rudy Giuliani. I understand that he works as Trump's personal attorney. But if he's going to a foreign government and requesting that they basically run a background check on a U.S. citizen, is he making that request on behalf of Trump or America? Can a personal attorney legally do so?

Kornacki: Julia, so the role of Rudy Giuliani in all this. Of course, he is not a formal appointee. He's not confirmed. He is the President's personal attorney. And his role behind the scenes keeps coming up in this. What do we know about what's allowed there, what's permissible?

Ainsley: So technically, Steve, the Constitution does not forbid it. And, you know, in the past there have been a number of people who are not on the government's payroll who do some building of relationships behind the scenes doing some diplomacy with other countries. Sometimes this could be a former president that can be used.

Obviously it's important if they are acting on behalf of a foreign government rather than ours that they register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. We've seen a lot of that come up under the Mueller investigation. But I think what matters here is two things.

One is access to highly classified information. Anyone who is not on the government's payroll is not accountable to the government and they haven't gone through the same very procedural, very strict, stringent set of digging into their background. They haven't had to go through the rigor that anyone in the administration would in order to get access to that classified information.

And they frankly don't have the same dependability. They don't have as much skin in the game. And also, Rudy Giuliani is not someone's who been confirmed by the Senate. There is no way that the voters can have any kind of decision making process in who is doing their bidding on foreign policy.

But, no, as far as a constitutional legal issue, it is technically not forbidden. But he could get into legal issues, and we know that there is an investigation, a federal investigation into Rudy Giuliani and that he could get into legal issues over whether or not he had access to classified information that he was not privy to and whether or not he seemed to be using his position to wear both hats, to present the President's interest, U.S. interest, while also pocketing money for himself, which seems to be the case as we dig more into his role in Ukraine.

Kornacki: Given that Trump is Giuliani's client, is there an attorney-client privilege there that insulates those conversations from either a federal investigation or the impeachment inquiry?

Ainsley: So I think they may try to make that argument. And that is a big pro for any president to use a personal attorney, that he does not have to give up as much information as he would about the attorney's role because of attorney-client privilege.

But I think most lawyers that I've spoken to would say that that could be easily overruled in court because of Giuliani's position here, that he wasn't just acting as a lawyer. He was acting as a lobbyist. He was acting as an ambassador. He wasn't wearing his attorney hat. He was over there not doing legal work but doing work on behalf of the President's personal interest. And so that should waive that argument about attorney-client privilege as I understand it. (MUSIC)

Kornacki: We'll be right back. All right. Let's get to another voicemail. We've got another one here. This one, Matthew from Garden Grove. You know, trivia question. Garden Grove was the home to what long-serving controversial congressman? The answer: Bob Dornan. When I hear Garden Grove, that's what I think of. So Matthew in Garden Grove, California with a voicemail question. Let's take a listen to that one.

Caller: Will the President during these hearings actually have a chance to answer for himself? I'd be interested to see if the President himself actually gets a chance to say anything or not.

Ainsley: So he doesn't have to. Just like in a trial in a court, he does not have to testify against himself. But as we've seen, Congress and these committees so far do have the ability to subpoena information. They're able to subpoena documents, to subpoena people in the administration to testify.

Of course we've seen that they're not taking the subpoena fights as far as they could because it seems to be building up as an obstruction case. What might be more likely is more statements from Trump. We know he's been weighing in on this heavily on Twitter. This is something he likes to talk about on the White House North Lawn. He's more comfortable. He kind of can hold his own court without being pressed on the details. He can walk out with a piece of paper that just would say, "No quid pro quo." And he can repeat that and repeat.

Donald Trump: I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelenskiy, President Zelenskiy, to do the right thing. So here's my answer. I want nothing. I want nothing.

Ainsley: You could also just look at whether or not it would be smart politically for the President to do this. He could be looking back to the '90s at Bill Clinton, who did not go out as publicly, what he famously said about Monica Lewinsky and not having relationships with that woman, which turned out to be a lie.

So the little amount that President Clinton actually did weigh in publicly kind of came back to hurt him. But by and large, the president, President Clinton, stayed out of weighing in and tried to get down to business, which could be argued gave him a leg up publicly to show that he wasn't going to be rattles by the impeachment proceedings. He was going to keep going on with business and that people who were too caught up in the frenzy were actually more of a distraction to the office of the presidency.

Kornacki: Yeah, I've heard people who were around back then say that it was behind the scenes, behind closed doors, not on Twitter, not in the media, not at public rallies that Bill Clinton let off his steam when it came to the Republicans in Congress, Ken Starr, and all of that. There was though, think back to the Mueller investigation. Trump gave a series of written answers, written responses. Would there be anything like that in this impeachment inquiry?

Ainsley: So not necessarily. He could if he wanted to. The pressure on him to comply in the Mueller probe was greater because there was an entire section of the Mueller probe just based on the President's obstruction. And obstruction has to rely on intent.

And so Mueller and his investigators really needed the President to describe why he took certain actions in order to get into his state of mind. Now, we understand obstruction may be one piece of articles of impeachment against the President. But really, what members of Congress have here, what Democrats in the House have here, is so much more on its face transparent.

I mean, you can see exactly what the President did in these phone calls. They don't seem to be pressing for those written answers or any kind of testimony as much as the Mueller team was. I mean, it was months, if not over a year, that the Mueller team negotiated with the White House about how that might look.

Another thing I'll say, Steve, just kind of going back to Bill Clinton, it might not have been politically advantageous for him to weigh in, but Trump actually really likes talking about impeachment proceedings in a lot of the same way he liked talking about the Mueller team at rallies, at political rallies, because he thinks it fires up his base when he looks like he is under pressure from people who, you know, under the Mueller probe he considered them the deep state. And here he can clearly point to as Democrats. Because as we know, he does not have a Republican yet who has signed on to actually, you know, bringing forward articles of impeachment and voting him out of office.

Kornacki: Yeah. And it seems maybe the more Trump speaks out the way he is, it may make it politically at least more difficult for Republican officeholders to speak out against him, just given where their base is, something we've been talking about here. That question, again, from Matthew. I think there was one other piece of his voicemail. We could just take a quick listen to that.

Caller: And thank you so much. Again, this is Matthew from Garden Grove, California. Look forward to your answer. You know what? If my name is mentioned, then my wife owes me dinner.

Kornacki: So, Matthew, we did mention your name. I guess that means your gettin' a free dinner soon. So congratulations on that. My apologies to your wife if that's gonna cost her some money there. But enjoy the dinner. And, Julia, thank you. The first-ever question answerer on our first-ever audience Q&A episode. I enjoyed this, and I appreciate it. Thank you for taking some time.

Ainsley: Thanks, Steve. I really enjoyed it too. Thanks for having me. (MUSIC)

Kornacki: All right. And we've got one more question today. This one I'll try to handle myself. One of my favorite subjects. Sort of historical comparisons. This one comes from Cassie in Wisconsin. Cassie asks this. She said, "Did politicians who support Nixon suffer any consequences? Our current politicians don't seem to be affected by history having an eye on them. Yep, that's a Hamilton reference."

I think I know where the question is going here. And it takes us back to Watergate. Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974. By the end, final polling on that showed that nearly 70% of all Americans thought Nixon should be impeached, thought he should go. Even among Republicans by the end it was split right down the middle.

There were a group of Republicans who even until that point, even in some cases through that point, stayed behind Nixon. A couple of congressmen, one somewhat famously named Joe Maraziti. He was a Republican from New Jersey, first-term congressman. He was on the Judiciary Committee voting against all those articles of impeachment. He ran for reelection in 1974. He was defeated. So he paid a political price for that.

There were some other sort of ardent Nixon defenders who also lost their seats in 1974. Of course, 1974 itself was a brutal midterm election for Republicans. It took place just months after Nixon left office. It also took place just months after Gerald Ford, Nixon's successor, issued a pardon of Richard Nixon, a full and complete pardon.

That pardon was poisonously unpopular. So I think it contributed to that Democratic tide in 1974. There was this term back then, stuck with us in American politics for a generation, "the Watergate babies." All these Democrats who were elected for the first time in 1974. So they took out a number of ardent Nixon supporters, but a number of other Republicans were nearly collateral damage in that as well.

But in terms of long-term damage to the Republican Party, long-term damage to some of the most notable Republicans who were with Nixon till the end or till very close to the end, that included George H.W. Bush. That included Bob Dole. They were obviously able to survive politically the damage of Watergate and they were able to even thrive in the future.

And obviously the question then is: Does that have any relevance to today? In the telling of that, maybe you can see there's a pretty significant difference between where things stand with Trump right now and where they stood with Richard Nixon at the end. The overwhelming majority of Americans by the end wanted Nixon gone, wanted him impeached, thought the Senate should convict him if it came to a Senate trial.

That is not where polling is on Trump, right? There are plenty of Americans who do want him impeached and do want him removed from office. But really, the results of polling on Trump and impeachment right now look a lot like the results of the 2016 presidential election. That same basic divide is there.

And, again, within the Republican Party, Trump still retains the overwhelming, I'm talking about 90% here, overwhelming support of Republican voters. They are overwhelmingly opposed to impeachment. Again, by the end with Richard Nixon, even Republicans, even a large number of Republican voters turned on him. That is one of the things that made the 1974 midterms so disastrous for Republicans. (MUSIC)

It's hard to believe the impeachment inquiry was only launched two months ago. A lot is happening, and we want you to keep asking questions. So, remember, our email, it is "Article Two," write out the word "Two," T-W-O. Keep those questions coming in. Hopefully we can have another episode like this in the near future.

Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, 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 are taking the next two days off for the Thanksgiving holiday. We hope you take us with you on your travels. We'll be back on Monday.