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Analysis after Marie Yovanovitch's impeachment testimony

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch gave public testimony Friday regarding the circumstances of her abrupt ouster from her post.
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Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

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Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch gave public testimony Friday regarding the circumstances of her abrupt ouster from her post as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Catch up quickly:

5 things we learned from Yovanovitch's public testimony

Trump defends attacking Yovanovitch after Dems accuse him of 'witness intimidation'

Analysis: The devastating day Trump's presidency came into sharp focus

  • Also: A fate worse than firing — humiliation. "All we have is our reputations," Yovanovitch said.

Yovanovitch says Trump admin kneecapped her diplomatic efforts

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Live Blog

Why Nunes attempted to let Stefanik cut in

At the start of this portion of the hearing, Nunes attempted to yield his time to allow Rep. Elise Stefanik to question Yovanovitch directly. Stefanik is the only female GOP member on the committee.

The effort echos the time when the all-male group of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee yielded to an outside female counsel to question Dr. Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing.

But the House-approved rules governing the impeachment proceedings make clear that only Schiff, Nunes, or the Republican and Democratic counsels can ask questions during the initial 45-minute period. Schiff reiterated that point and Castor began his inquiry.

 

Yovanovitch returns to witness table

Former US Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch looks on after returning from a break during the second public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill on Nov. 15, 2019.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

White House pushes back on 'witness intimidation' concerns

White House officials are pushing back on the argument from Adam Schiff and others that Trump's Twitter attacks on Yovanovitch constitute witness intimidation argument. Per a senior administration official: “It’s well within the president’s right to have an opinion on her job performance. That’s not intimidation.” The official argued Yovanovitch is “not immune from having people criticize her record.”

The official also insists Schiff was asking leading questions to try to get the ambassador to say she felt intimidated earlier in the hearing, when Schiff read portions of the July call transcript back to her, including the part where the president told Zelensky that “she's going to go through some things.”

The official argues that since the call was never intended to be made public, Yovanovitch would never have known about the president’s remarks anyway — so, in the White House’s view, the comments couldn’t have amounted to intimidation if the expectation was that Yovanovitch would never see them.

Castor presses Yovanovitch on any role in the central events

Castor, the GOP’s counsel, pressed Yovanovitch on the merits of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, asking her about whether she was involved in the July 25 call and the efforts to freeze aid. 

It’s an interesting line of questioning because she was recalled before those events happened and he seems to be setting up an argument, as Nunes did, that she is not a material fact witness in this inquiry even though Democrats have argued that her removal is part of the larger effort by Trump to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. 

She also testified that her removal was championed by the Ukrainian establishment because of her anti-corruption work and that effort was also pushed by Giuliani and his associates.

Trump camp decries 'hearsay.' But many firsthand witnesses have defied subpoenas.

"Another day, another Democrat star witness with no firsthand knowledge and all hearsay,” wrote Trump campaign press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Twitter. It's a familiar talking point for Republicans — they used it on Wednesday, too.

But Trump's White House has told witnesses — many of them with first-hand knowledge of events and conversations — not to testify in the inquiry. In a letter to top Democrats from White House counsel Pat Cipollone, the White House claimed that the president and his administration “cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry.” The White House has also pressured witnesses who agreed to speak with investigators to limit their testimony.

“Past Democrat and Republican administrations would not be inclined to permit senior advisers to the president to participate in such a ridiculous, partisan, illegitimate proceeding — and neither is this one," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said this month.

Here are the witnesses in Trump's administration who have defied subpoenas in the inquiry, according to an NBC News count.

  • Mick Mulvaney, acting chief of staff
  • Robert Blair, assistant to the president and senior adviser to the acting chief of staff
  • John Eisenberg, legal adviser at National Security Council (NSC)
  • Michael Ellis, deputy NSC legal adviser
  • Brian McCormack, associate director at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
  • Michael Duffey, associate director at OMB
  • Wells Griffith, special assistant to the president and senior director at NSC
  • T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, counselor at the Department of State
  • Russell Vought, acting director at OMB
  • Charles Kupperman, former deputy assistant to the president for national security affair

Kupperman has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to decide whether he should testify or not; his subpoena was withdrawn while the lawsuit progresses. 

Nunes questions reason for Yovanovitch's public testimony

Nunes, kicking off questioning for GOP members on the committee, points out that  Yovanovitch was not a “firsthand” witness to dealings related to the freeze on military aid to Ukraine that is at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

He also complains that he’s “not sure what the ambassador is doing here today” because she wasn’t on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy.

He goes on to say that the House Intelligence Committee “has turned into the House impeachment committee.”

Hearing reconvenes after break for votes

The hearing is being gaveled back in now at 12:20 p.m.

Trump administration thinking on impeachment politics

A Trump administration official working on impeachment says officials are closely watching the polling on impeachment and comparing it with contemporaneous polling on Brett Kavanaugh ahead of his confirmation vote to the Supreme Court. Right now they see the same trend as with Kavanaugh: that the polls show the public remains deeply divided and, as long as that continues, they’re OK. If it starts to move, they worry that vulnerable GOP senators like Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona may turn.

The other element the administration is watching, according to the official, are the filing deadlines to get on the ballot for various House districts compared to when the House vote is held on impeachment. Here’s the thinking: Right now you have Democrats in battleground districts who, if the filing deadline for their district has passed and they’re going to sail through their primary, may be inclined to vote with Republicans against impeaching the president.

But if their filing deadlines haven’t passed, those Democrats could be vulnerable to a late-entry primary challenge from the left if they vote against impeachment, making them more likely to stick with Pelosi on the vote. The administration is hoping to peel off at least a few Democratic House members so that they can argue there was bipartisan opposition to impeaching and only partisan support for impeaching.

The official says the witness that most worries administration officials is the Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the E.U., because of the possibility he may perjure himself and the unpredictability of what he’ll say, given that he’s already contradicted his initial testimony in his follow-up declaration. The concern is that if he’s seen as having lied, it reflects negatively on the administration because he’s a political appointee, furthering the narrative about Trump and his political appointees versus the honorable, by-the-book career bureaucrats.

Swalwell says Dems will consider Trump's attacks for possible articles of impeachment

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters that the president is engaging in witness intimidation and said investigators will consider it for potential articles of impeachment. 

“Innocent people don’t intimidate and he’s just acting more guilty,” Swalwell told reporters. 

When asked if it could be added to an article of impeachment as obstruction of justice, he said, “It will be considered. It will be considered, yes. With other obstructive acts like going after the whistleblower.”

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which would consider articles of impeachment, tweeted, “The President is engaging in witness tampering during a Congressional impeachment hearing. That is a crime. Every Republican should have to say whether they’re okay with him doing that.”

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., tweeted that the president’s attacks on Yovanovitch were “highly concerning” and Congress won’t “tolerate such behavior.” 

Their comments come after Trump attacked Yovanovitch’s reputation in a tweet during the hearing. When asked to react to the president’s remarks, the former ambassador said “it’s very intimidating.”

Pelosi tweets support for Yovanovitch